Collecting Native American Art Is a Pleasure for Both the Buyer and the Artisan
By Tim Price
Manager, Native Goods
For generations people have been buying and collecting Native American art, and during the late 19th century this activity flourished. The railroad and new roads allowed tourism into areas that had once been too remote to visit. Trading posts sprouted up on the reservations and people from all over the globe came to visit and to take home souvenirs made by the local people. Some of the country’s wealthiest people started collecting Native American art in earnest, filling rooms or entire houses. Some even started great museums with their collections. Other folks would often take home a piece of art, or fill a shelf or curio cabinet. These collectors became a boon to the native people as it allowed them to earn some income doing something that was culturally significant to them.
This buying and selling of Native American art continues to this day, and for the last 25 years or so I have been fortunate enough to have been a part of it. For me one of the great joys in my job has always been sharing my interest with others. Almost every day I spend a great deal of time talking to people about the cultures and arts of the Southwest. Often I am with people who have been around Native art for years and we can share information and learn from each other. Sometimes the person I’m talking to has just become interested, or have never been exposed to it before, and I find myself in the role of an educator. Once in a while I meet one of these people who have never really looked at Native American art before, but find themselves suddenly very intrigued. Sometimes I get to watch these people develop into collectors.
A Tale of One 'New' Collector
I remember one such person very well. He had been almost dragged into the store by his wife who was shopping for a gift. They had just moved to town, and he had never given Native American art a thought. Since his wife was the shopper, and he was just along for the ride, he hung around the front counter so he could talk to the staff.
As he was standing there talking to us he noticed a Navajo basket that caught his eye. It was a large colorful tray woven by a very well-known weaver, and he was shocked at how much it was worth. He started asking questions, and then he asked more questions, and when those were answered he asked some more. We stood there and talked about that basket and about basketry in general for almost an hour. He had been dragged into the store, and his wife finally dragged him back out. He had come in with no knowledge or interest in Native American art, but left with a passion for it. A few days later he came back in and purchased that basket, along with another one he liked.
Over the next few years he kept coming back to talk and to buy, and started traveling around the Southwest looking for the next great piece. There would always be an excitement in his eye when we talked, and often I would be invited to his house to see what he had found and to share his collection with me. It was impressive; in just a few years he had built and amazing collection and had the time of his life doing it, and it had all started with one basket that for some reason spoke to him.
Most collections seem to start like that, with one item that sparks an interest. Not everyone will be as ambitious and devote as much time and money as this gentleman did, but hopefully everyone who collects Native art will feel some of his joy in doing it.
You May Already Have a Collection!
There is an old saying that once you have more than two of something you have a collection. I’m not sure I buy into that, but I do believe that a collection can be any size or shape. Being a collector can mean very different things to people, and there is no right or wrong way of going about it. Over the years I have met all kinds of collectors, and seen many different types of collections.
Some people only collect large pots, others only tiny ones. There are basket collectors, textile collectors, pottery collectors, and then there are people who collect a bit of everything. I have met people who only collect art from one culture, and I have met people who were trying to get something from every culture they could. I knew a couple who only collected red Navajo rugs, then there was a woman who collected Native American made salt and pepper shakers, and there was a man who would always bring a 6 inch ruler and everything he purchased had to be smaller than the ruler in all dimensions. The one thing all these people had in common was that they were having fun looking for the next piece of art.
Native American arts and crafts are beautiful and important expressions of living cultures with ancient roots. Collecting them should be fun and interesting. Take time to learn about each piece, and the cultures and artists that make them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, learn what is authentic and what is not. Get to know the artists and traders if you can. Finding people you can trust to honestly answer your questions is a huge help. Finally keep an open mind because what doesn’t appeal to you now just might as you learn more.