Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - MAY 2019

When advertising labels become antiques

In these days of heated controversy over immigration, it's easy to forget that the lineage of the vast majority of us is not native to the United States; the only true "native" Americans among us are the descendents of indigenous peoples who were here before our own ancestors immigrated – yes! – to these shores. Especially in that context, it seems appropriate to remember the various artisanal gifts that Native Americans have, for centuries, contributed to a diverse American culture.

Pot signed by the second-generation Hopi-Tewa potter Joy Navasie, marked on its base with the web-footed frog that distinguishes her work from that of her mother, whose mark had separately articulated toes. The silver and turquoise bracelet by Zuni artist Effie Calavaza, with her trademark snake motif, is set with Sleeping Beauty turquoise from the mine of that name in Gobe, Arizona, which produces stones of an unusually pure color. Note the inlaid turquoise eyes in the snakes.

Native American art is embodied in many media: rugs and other textiles, pottery, jewelry made of precious materials, basketry, wood-carved kachina figures, and animal fetishes carved from stone. While these items incorporate certain symbols in the cultural and religious traditions of the individual Indian nations that are their source, Native Americans are also careful not to reveal the most sacred aspects of their culture to those outside it.

In fact, at the lower end of the market for Native American items, there may be an explicit appeal to caricature in marketing to the so-called "dominant culture" (e.g., the overused figure of the tired and defeated Indian slumped on horseback). Because of their collectible popularity, Native American pottery and jewelry have also been widely imitated by non-indigenous people, and many of those imitations are factory- rather than hand-made. Because of these authenticity challenges for Native American attribution, it behooves dealers and collectors to buy only from trusted sources, either directly from Native artisans themselves or from those authorized by Native artists to represent them. Buying directly from Native Americans increases what is often their slim profit margin by cutting out third-party middlemen.

Authenticity can be especially difficult to determine on the secondary market, where items may have changed hands multiple times. Unless it is very old, pottery and silver jewelry with turquoise or malachite stones is usually marked with an artisan's hallmark. Some basic internet research will familiarize antique dealers and collectors with the better known names and marks of legitimate Native American artists.

Native American arts need not be terribly old to be valuable. For example, pots made by two generations of the Navasie family women of the Hopi-Tewa tribe are especially valuable, in a range of several hundred dollars to as much as $2,000 (generally depending on size, larger pots being more difficult to fire successfully). These pots are made from a special clay with a characteristically white body and are signed with a frog symbol for "Frog Woman," with the work of mother and daughter artists being distinguished from one another by the style of frog figure in each signature. The pot shown here is from the second generation "Frog Woman," Joy Navasie, who died in 2012 at the age of 93.

Basketry such as the pine needle work made by Northeastern tribes and the "ribboned" reed Abenaki baskets are among the most affordable of Native American arts. Basket collecting does take some research and study, however, because colorful baskets by African artists (collectible in their own right) can be confused with the work produced by indigenous groups in the western United States.

Silver and turquoise jewelry made by Native American silversmiths ranges in value from a few to several hundred dollars, depending on the age, the artist, and the quality of the stones (the latter usually a function of mine location). The bracelet shown here is the work of Zuni silversmith Effie Calavaza, whose work features snakes, a positive symbol of rebirth and renewal in Zuni culture and associated with speed and undetected movement.

Calavaza began working in the mid 1950s, and her work is well known and collectible today. Its price ranges from $300 or $400 to quite affordable at under $100 for some smaller pieces to less than $200 for a bracelet. (Lower prices may be a function of the limited appeal of snake images to a non-indigenous market.)

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at