Tribal – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 09 Jul 2019 01:51:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Tribal – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Forming and Transforming Fri, 28 Apr 2017 18:35:32 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Native American art from the Pacific Northwest Coast is millennia-old but still vital and ever-changing.

Bill Reid, Eagle Frog Bracelet

Bill Reid, Eagle Frog Bracelet, 1967, 22k gold.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Crest headdress, Tsimshian, circa 1840 Historic Kwakiutl totem pole Richard Hunt (Kwakwaka’wakw) and John Livingston (adopted Kwakwaka’wakw), Door Heiltsuk artist from central coast of British Columbia, Mask Charles Edenshaw (Haida), model totem pole Bill Reid, Eagle Frog Bracelet Junior Henderson, Raven Transforming Into the Hunter of the Woods

It starts with the formlines—the distinctive pattern of shapes, curves, and lines shared by so many pieces of native Northwest Coast art. From the formlines all emerges in a logical but lyrical way: animals, faces, forces of nature, as well as Raven, Eagle, and other characters from the stories of Native Northwest Coast culture. Formlines didn’t gain a specific name until 1965, but they appear on native Northwest Coast artifacts dating back two or three millennia. Most native Northwest Coast tribal communities saw the value of formlines and invited them into their own cultures, carving them into boxes, totem poles, masks, and more.

Formlines became the visual signature that marks native Northwest Coast art and declares its heritage. They animate an exquisite wooden bent corner box, carved circa 1750 on the northern Northwest coast, whose pigments have long since worn away; they enliven silver bracelets fashioned by Charles Edenshaw, a masterful Haida carver active from the late 19th century to the early 20th centuries, as well as the mid- 20th century golden bracelets crafted by his late great-great nephew, Bill Reid; and they grace an impressive screen shown in the background of a 2006 film by contemporary native artist Nicholas Galanin, who helped his uncle make it.

Europeans first reached Northwest coastal shores in the 16th century, bringing diseases as well as spiritual and cultural assaults by outsiders who were convinced that they were doing good. The formlines survived these grave insults and might even have gotten stronger. Today, native Northwest Coast artists embrace their ancient arts and explore media that lie outside their cultural traditions—glass, prints, bronze, and more. No matter what they try, they bring the formlines with them. “In order to make art well, you have to understand the design system, the formline, a very rule-bound, tradition-bound design system,” says Becky Blanchard, co-director at Stonington Gallery in Seattle. “I liken it to jazz or poetry. You’d never dream of experimenting as a jazz musician unless you understood the jazz scale. I like to tell young artists that the same thing is true of Northwest Coast art. Before you begin to carve, you need to master the formlines and understand how they utilize the elements. Then you can express yourself spontaneously and appropriately.”

Formlines are complex and beguiling and present their own set of visual rules. While rules can prove frustrating to an artist, they can be oddly liberating, too. Native Northwestern artists are more likely to move between media rather than stick with one medium for their whole career, and the formlines might be key to helping them do that. “It’s a natural progression to use different materials,” says Douglas Reynolds, who founded his eponymous gallery in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, in 1995. “I think many artists look at the art and think about the best way to produce it. The material almost comes second.”

Galanin, whose background includes Tlingit, Aleut, and non-native ancestry, is a contemporary native Northwest Coast artist who navigates many media with wisdom and wit. His mesmerizing 2006 black-and-white film Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care) dwells on a former Michael Jackson backup dancer exuberantly moving to Tlingit singing and drumming before shifting to a traditionally attired Tlingit dancer connecting with a bass-heavy, throbbing piece of electronica. Galanin wrote the electronic song, and as noted above, he helped carve the formline-decorated screen that appears behind the Tlingit dancer. The film enjoys a prominent place in “Raven’s Many Gifts: Native Art of the Northwest Coast,” which is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Mass., through December 31. Another Galanin piece in the show shares a case with a marquee item: a gape-mouthed circa-1845 wooden Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) mask. Galanin’s contribution is Bear Mask Vol. 9, a 2006 work from his “What Have We Become?” series. He employed a literally cutting-edge artistic tool—a laser—to sculpt paper, some of it taken from anthropological and historical books, into a traditional bear face.

“Raven’s Many Gifts” testifies to the effectiveness of formlines as a force in Native Northwest Coast art. The works and artifacts in the exhibit span the 19th century to the 21st, and on paper they seem wildly different. In person, they harmonize, linking a splendid 2000 cape by husband-and-wife team Don and Trace Yeomans (both from the Haida community) with an impressive front door created in 1984 by Richard Hunt (Kwakwaka’wakw) and John Livingston (adopted Kwakwaka’wakw) that has a moon face for a doorknob, which in turn complements a visually striking 1888 platter carved from argillite, accented with ivory, and attributed to Tom Price, a Haida chief.

Art is a vital, time-honored tool for telling and retelling the story of the Raven and other significant figures in native Northwest Coast culture. “For them, these characters are very much alive and shaping current family history as well as the past,” says Karen Kramer, curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture at the PEM. “Understanding that is key to understanding Northwest Coast art and culture.”

Donald Ellis does not impose a rigid time cutoff on the Northwest Coast native American pieces that he carries at his New York gallery—he currently has an early 1980s gold transformation necklace by Bill Reid, who was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his great-great uncle Charles Edenshaw after seeing a pair of bracelets that he had carved—but much of his stock dates from 1880 or before. One standout is a bent corner box from the northern Northwest Coast that dates to around 1750 and probably belonged to a shaman. Its imagery of faces within faces treats two sides of the box as one large surface for the art. “This is the best example that’s ever been on the market in terms of its type, vintage, and quality,” he says. “It’s a master’s hand.”

Just as beguiling is a Tshimshian animal-shaped wooden crest headdress from northern British Columbia dating to around 1840, which has abalone pupils and abalone and copper teeth. The tribal leader would have worn it on his head at the start of an opulent ceremonial feast known as a potlach. Unfortunately, we cannot know if the crest headdress represents a bear or a beaver. Ellis explains that while the red dashes decorating the animal’s body usually appear on bear forms, the headdress has long since lost the hide or cloth tail that would have settled the question.

Ellis is also a long-standing champion of Edenshaw, who had been overlooked in part because he created pieces to sell to tourists as well as making items for the use of the community he presided over. “Edenshaw was perhaps the first person who made a living by creating works for sale at the time he led his people,” says Ellis. “He made some of the most extraordinary work ever made on the northwest coast. He brought a sense of modernism to the material.” Edenshaw works are scarce, with fewer than 300 known, and none are signed. Ellis, who describes himself as having “aggressively” sought the Haida carver’s works for 30 years—and may have personally handled up to 10 percent of his output—happens to have multiple Edenshaws on hand right now. An especially splendid example is a large (almost 17 inches) model totem pole carved from argillite, a type of rock, between 1890 and 1910.

Ellis, who opened his eponymous gallery in 1976, says he has seen the audience for native Northwest Coast art broaden over time, extending past the region and the United States and Canada to the world at large. Reynolds and Blandford, whose galleries deal primarily in contemporary native Northwest Coast art, have seen expansions of a different sort—contemporary artists becoming a bit freer in their approach and freer in their choice of media. Blandford, in particular, is overjoyed by the strength and quality of what the newest generation of artists is making. “These young people are spending time with their elders, taking the time to understand the language and the rules that govern the art. They’re contributing artworks that I think 100 years from now will be deeply appreciated,” she says, adding, “Greatness does not happen frequently, but I’m seeing more artists with greater consequence. It’s a marvelous, beautiful time for artists on the Northwest coast.”

She credits the quality and enthusiasm of the new generation of native Northwest Coast artists, at least in part, to an annual event that brings many of the tribal communities together: the canoe journey. Launched with the Paddle to Seattle event in 1989, which marked the anniversary of Washington becoming a state, a canoe journey has been held almost every summer since then. Northwest coast native Americans and native Canadians—mostly teenagers and young adults, guided by elders—paddle traditionally designed cedar canoes to that year’s host site. Depending on where the teams start, they might paddle 40 miles a day for as many as three weeks. Once they arrive, they engage in an exuberant weeklong celebration of their native cultures. “I think the canoe journey plays a role in teaching young people about their history,” says Blanchard. “That has been a big thing.”

The younger artists have brought a fresh outlook to time-honored Northwest Coast forms. The most iconic of them might be the totem pole, an eye-catching carved vertical stack of symbols and characters that can stretch higher than 30 feet into the air. Some totem poles tell stories; others commemorate clans, families, and ancestors; still others are simply artistic, and some combine all these elements and more. While Northwest Coast peoples made smaller poles—these are known as “model” or “tourist” totem poles—antique full-size totem poles are scarce and hard to come by. One did appear at Bonhams San Francisco in June 2016. Dating to the late 19th century and credited to the Kwakiutl community, it measured 11 feet, 1 inch tall and stood outside a shop in Juneau, Alaska, until 1920. It sold for $56,250.

Many leading contemporary Northwest Coast native artist-carvers accept commissions for full-size totem poles. Reynolds’ gallery has handled about a dozen such commissions, and he explains that it’s a long, involved process, requiring 6 to 12 months to find and prepare a suitable cedar log, and another 12 to 24 months to carve it. Don Yeomans, who co-created the cape in the PEM exhibit, delivered one of the more magnificent contemporary custom totem poles to Stanford University in 2002. Dubbed the Stanford Legacy, the 40-foot-long, 4,200-pound red cedar totem pole stands in front of the university’s law school.

Sculptor Junior Henderson, a Kwakwaka’wakw, recently delivered his own unique take on the totem pole. Raven Transforming into the Hunter of the Woods is a transforming totem pole. When closed, the nearly seven-foot-high cedar pole resembles a bird; open it, and it turns into a man. “It took many, many months,” says Blanchard, whose gallery features Henderson’s totem pole on its web site. “The whole thing is so beautifully carved.”

Native contemporary art is often a family affair, and that holds true for Northwest Coast native art as well. Look at a contemporary gallery roster and you’ll spot bunches of Alfreds, Davidsons, Edenshaws, Hunts, Lafortunes, Smiths, and Wilsons. Though the tribal communities of the northwest tend to be matrilineal, men dominate the ranks of the artists. Notable female Northwest Coast native artists include Hollie Bear Bartlett, a member of the Haisla Nation whose approach to jewelry shows her gift for working elegantly on a small scale, as well as Susan Point, a self-taught Musqueam Coast Salish artist who has created public commissions such as Seattle House Post IV/I, which combines the traditional material of cedar with the decidedly non-traditional medium of glass to create a work that sensitively combines native ideas with a contemporary vision.

Northwest Coast native art should enjoy a bright future. “When I started working with it in 1987, people then were saying it was at the height of its popularity, and where it could go,” says Reynolds. “Here it is, 30 years later. It hasn’t gotten there yet, and it never will. It keeps changing and moving forward.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Native American Art: Blanket Statements Fri, 12 Apr 2013 23:28:24 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The essentials of Navajo culture are woven into every textile they made, even though most were intended for the Anglo market.

Second-phase blanket, circa 1860s

Second-phase blanket, circa 1860s, made of raveled red cochineal, indigo blue, natural white and brown hand-spun

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Second-phase blanket, circa 1860s Teec Nos Pos rug Navajo serape

On June 19, 2012, at John Moran Auctioneers in Pasadena, Calif., a remarkable piece of woven wool, off-white with brown, blue and red stripes, sold for $1.8 million. It was a very rare early Navajo “chief’s blanket,” made around 1850 and consigned by a descendant of the Norwegian immigrant storekeeper in the Dakota Territory who got it in a trade in the 1870s. Since then, the blanket had remained in the man’s family, never shown publicly despite its historic importance and never even washed. As a result, its condition was excellent. Moran estimated it at $100,000–200,000, so the final price—the record for a Navajo blanket—came as a life-changing surprise to the consigner, who was by no means wealthy. Even to insiders in the world of Native American art, though, it was a lot of money; the previous record for a Navajo blanket, set at Sotheby’s New York in 1989, was $522,500. It was also the second-highest price ever paid at auction for any American Indian art object.

That a Navajo textile should attain such honors in the marketplace is fitting, considering that the tribe has one of the greatest weaving traditions in the Americas. But in many ways the blanket sold by Moran was atypical. If anything, it’s far less colorful and aesthetically sophisticated than most that are available today; it was expensive on account of being a once-in-a-lifetime rarity. It’s known as a “First Phase Chief’s Blanket,” referring to one of three stylistic periods or phases from around 1800 to 1868, when the Navajos returned to their homeland in the Four Corners region of northern New Mexico and Arizona from a five-year exile that decimated the population. Very few textiles survive from that era, and anything from before 1800 is almost certain to be nothing more fragments of cloth at this point, essentially an archaeological specimen.

Also, it was made by Navajos for Navajos—in fact, as apparel to be worn, though not by a chief because the Navajos have no chiefs. Most Navajo textiles, however, were made for outsiders, at first to be traded with other Indian tribes and white settlers, and later for the tourist and collector markets. One of the most interesting things about Navajo blankets and rugs is that, like several other very worthy “indigenous” art traditions around the world—notably Australian Aboriginal art, Canadian Inuit art and certain traditions of Mexican Indian silver—it was strongly influenced by whites and to some extent even instigated by them. Nonetheless, while meeting the demands of non-Indian America and thereby providing the tribe with much-needed income, Navajo weaving kept pace with changing times while staying true to Navajo traditions, aesthetics and ways of working (vertical-loom weaving using hand-spun thread). This quality of adaptability is particularly characteristic of the Navajo people (known in their own language as Diné), who over the centuries have always known how to borrow from their neighbors and change with the times without losing their identity.

The Navajo textiles that are available to collectors today fall into several categories. Around 1880, after the three “phases” of the so-called classic period (which added geometrical complexity to the designs by going from pure stripes to serrated forms and diamond shapes), the so-called “transitional period” began. This term refers to the transition from making blankets designed to be draped over the body as clothing to making rugs. Transitional-period weavers developed the famous “eyedazzler” design, a bold, almost hallucinogenic zigzag patterns that would become more widely used later on. The transitional period also saw the introduction of commercial, machine-spun yarns from the Eastern U.S., particularly those from Germantown, Pa. Previously the Navajo had spun yarn from the wool of the sheep they raised themselves. The industrial dyes in the Germantown yarns gave Navajo textiles a vividness of hue that they had never had before.

In the 1880s, the modern period of Navajo rugs began, and the influence of Anglo society intensified. That took place due to the rise of a new economic system on the reservation—the trading posts. White traders became the Indians’ connection to the outside world, selling them supplies, selling their weavings for them and in return providing them with credit. Since the traders had a canny sense of what their white customers wanted, they suggested to the Navajo various designs and color schemes that they felt would sell well. Some of the top traders were so influential in this way that they co-created so-called regional styles, named after their trading posts, such as Ganado, Crystal, Two Gray Hills, Teec Nos Pos and Wide Ruins.

Michael Smith, a Navajo textile specialist dealer in Santa Fe, N.M., points out that some of the trading post designs were influenced by the popularity of Oriental rugs in the U.S. at the time. “The traders played a big part, influencing and encouraging. The Navajos were very adaptable—if the traders wanted them to weave differently, well, they said, we’ll weave differently. The Pueblo Indians seemed to stop weaving, because they wouldn’t weave rugs. The Navajos went in the other direction and got incredibly good at it. It’s unreal—some of these weavers reached a level where they were masters of anything they wanted to do, especially Two Grey Hills and Teec Nos Pos.” The traders sold to tourists brought out to the Four Corners region by the expanding railroads, fired with a newfound appreciation of Western scenery and culture. But as Henry Monahan of Morning Star Gallery in Santa Fe points out, they also sold to collectors back east through catalogues, which offered the same design in various convenient sizes. The heyday of trading-post rugs lasted until just after World War II, when the local economy changed and the old patronage system of giving credit for the six months to a year it took to weave a rug gave way to the pawn-shop system.

Even though a First Phase ( or any phase, for that matter) blanket is likely to be out of reach, collectors today can acquire excellent examples of textiles from the 1880–1950 period at prices that are not at all stratospheric. Smith says that small rugs can start at a couple of thousand dollars and go up to around $20,000. Saddle blankets—the only type of blanket the Navajo kept making after the end of the wearing-blanket era—are small, too, but command something of a premium due to their special purpose. A larger rug from Teec Nos Pos or Two Gray Hills, 6 by 11 or 6 by 9 feet, would be between $25,000 and $30,000, while a 4 by 6 Teec Nos Pos would cost a little under $10,000.

According to Monahan, “You can find late-classic child’s blankets, and also dress halves, two panels of a garment, front and back. Those are kind of undervalued; you can get one panel for $20,000 or $25,000.” Germantown rugs, he says, are appealing to a “crossover clientele,” those who aren’t hard-core Native American enthusiasts but appreciate Navajo rugs as pure design. “Modern design and Americana collectors love the Germantowns,” he says. “They are really, really pleasing, and they have history. A lot are 19th-century, but you don’t have to spend $400,000 or $500,000. The good ones are like $30,000. At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality of the weaving. I had a 1930s Teec Nos Pos, and I can’t tell you how beautiful it was.”

Ethnographic Art: The Afterlife of Objects Thu, 14 Feb 2013 21:37:45 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Ethnographic specimens, windows on the soul, or harbingers of modern art—tribal artworks have appeared in many ways to Western eyes, as seen in two current museum shows.

Ethnographic Art

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)

As if in revenge for Western depredations against preliterate societies, the artworks made by those societies have always troubled the Western mind, even haunted it. African sculpture, Oceanic masks and pre-Columbian stelae—their aesthetics so radically different from those of Europe, their creation bound up with religious rituals equally remote—have long provoked responses ranging from horror to contempt to rapt admiration. At best, so-called tribal or ethnographic objects have been provocative in the sense of actually causing changes in the Western mind. In the early 20th century, in the realm of anthropology, they helped bring about genuine understanding of the cultures that made them, after centuries of near-total misunderstanding. In the realm of art—ironically, through a process of creative misunderstanding—they acted as a major catalyst for the modernist revolution.

Two unorthodox museum shows, one on the West Coast, one on the East, shed light on two very different Western responses to ethnographic art. The de Young Museum of Art in San Francisco is mounting “Objects of Belief from the Vatican: Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” (February 9–September 8), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will have “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde” on view through April 14. The de Young exhibition—the opening of which is timed to coincide with the annual San Francisco Tribal & Textile Arts Show (see page 28), when collectors and dealers of this material from all around the world converge on the city—is an ambitious loan show that will deliver access to a legendarily inaccessible trove of ethnographic art, leveraging a longstanding relationship between the Holy See’s museum system and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of which the de Young is a part. The Met show, on the other hand, draws mainly on its own deep resources (notably including the Alfred Stieglitz bequest), supplemented by rarely-seen documents and photographs that put the artworks in context.

True to its title, the de Young show is about religious belief—and it may come as a surprise to many viewers that the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward tribal art was far from dismissive. In 1983, when the Vatican Ethnological Museum loaned 15 pieces to the de Young, inaugurating the partnership between the two institutions, Pope John Paul II said in a public speech, “These works of art will have a contribution to make to the men and women of our day. They will speak of history, of the human condition in its universal challenge, and of the endeavors of the human spirit to attain the beauty to which it is attracted.” A fine sentiment for an ecumenical age—but it turns out that at least some Catholic missionary priests were taking a strikingly broad-minded and sensitive view of tribal art as far back as the late 19th century.

According to Christina Hellmich, the de Young’s Curator in Charge for Africa, Oceania and the Americas and the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art, who organized the present show, “The Catholic Church sent missionaries out with the idea that in places like Europe, society had lost the true message of God, so that if you could connect with indigenous people who were living in a more direct way with the environment, they would hold some kind of essence that had been lost. The goal was still to convert them, but the Church had evolved away from wanting to obliterate their cultures; it tried to support cultural traditions while encouraging conversion.”

One of the most eloquent spokesmen for this point of view was Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954), a priest and anthropologist who curated the ethnological pavilion at the landmark 1925 Vatican Exhibition, in which some 100,000 works of art and artifacts from all over the world were shown to the public at 26 locations in Vatican City. Schmidt posited the existence of what he called Urmonotheismus (primordial monotheism), an ancient revelation from God to all humanity that had been lost due to the coarsening effects of material progress and civilization. According to an essay accompanying the exhibition, Schmidt believed that the “only remaining traces of that primordial divine message could be found within tribal groups which—far from being ‘primitive’—had conserved the pure idea of a Supreme Being.”

In keeping with this philosophy, missionaries fanned out across the globe, and some of them actually ended up preserving the last remnants of cultures that died out due to the overwhelming incursions of Western civilization. One of the 39 objects on view at the de Young is a tree-bark mask from the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of Chile, made before 1920. It was used in an initiation rite that had to do with sex-role-reversal and a periodic reassertion of the original supremacy of women. Fr. Martin Gusinde, a missionary and anthropologist, was among the last to visit the Yaghan before they vanished; he donated this mask to the Pope in 1927.

In other cases, the missionaries bequeathed us access to very early artworks. One piece in the show, from the extremely remote Polynesian island of Mangareva, was collected in the 1830s by François Caret, a priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart and the Adoration. It represents Tu, the main divinity in the Mangareva pantheon, the offspring of two gods who were so lofty that they ignored humanity completely, leaving human affairs to their eldest son. Carved from wood, the sculpture is the only extant example of its type. Fr. Franz Kirschbaum, of the Order of the Verbites, was another indefatigable missionary ethnologist who spent 20 years in New Guinea around the turn of the 20th century, sailing up the Sepik River, preaching to the Papuans and collecting objects and the mythic stories that went with them. The pieces that he donated to the Pope formed the core of the Vatican’s sizable New Guinea collection.

Not all of the Vatican’s tribal holdings came to Rome in such a high-minded way. The earliest material definitely comes from the blood-stained era of Conquistador plunder. A notable example, on view at the de Young, is an astonishing red stone Quetzalcoatl from 15th-century Mexico, a sculpture of truly Ovidian power that takes the impossibility of a feathered serpent, makes it naturalistically real, and animates it with coiling energy. When the Vatican began collecting tribal objects, such pieces were not considered artworks; they were trophies of conquest and conversion. As a formal entity, the papal collection dates back to 1691, and its holdings were substantially enriched at the beginning of the 19th century by a bequest from Cardinal Stefano Borgia, a voracious collector.

The 80,000-strong collection officially became the Vatican Ethnological Museum in the wake of the 1925 exhibition, and for decades it has been mainly for study purposes, more or less invisible to the public. Exhibitions were small, infrequent and in Rome only. The current show marks a new era of openness. In 2009, Fr. Nicola Mapelli became director, with the stated mission “to revitalize the collection, not to create a museum of dead objects.” The Vatican, says Hellmich, “has been endeavoring to reconnect these collections to the regions and indigenous peoples they come from, to make them more relevant in a contemporary sense. They want to keep them moving on the journey they’ve been on for a while.”

The Met show, on the other hand, is about the ways in which collectors and artists in early 20th-century New York did their level best to disconnect tribal art from the communities that made it. Severing objects (almost exclusively African objects, at that particular time and place) from their cultural context, it was believed, was necessary in order to fully expose their aesthetic value and elicit from them their full power to inspire contemporary art. While that approach may seem perverse today, it obviously had a huge vivifying effect on modern painting and sculpture. Picasso, for one, didn’t even care whether the tribal pieces he bought in Paris were real or fake; he was after the look, that was all. Paul Guillaume, a Paris dealer who was the conduit for most of the African art that reached New York in the 1910s and ’20s, wrote in a 1926 book titled Primitive Negro Sculpture that the only important thing was “the plastic qualities of the figures—their effects of line, plane, mass and color—apart from all associated facts…. [The ethnological background only] tends to confuse one’s appreciation of the plastic qualities in themselves.”

In 1914, in the wake of the epoch-making Armory Show of the previous year, African traditional art first appeared on the market in New York, and one of the two galleries that offered it was none other than Alfred Stieglitz’s Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, better known as “291.” Stieglitz hung historically unrelated African pieces in a stark setting modeled on his Picasso-Braque show. He wanted to distance himself as far as possible from what he saw as the cluttered approach of earlier ethnologically oriented presentations in Europe, such as the famous exhibition of the findings of the explorer Pierre de Brazza at the Trocadéro in 1888.

Over the next few years, Marius de Zayas, a Mexican-born dealer, caricaturist and close Stieglitz associate, became the main champion of African art in New York. He commissioned Charles Sheeler to photograph his pieces for a deluxe limited-edition portfolio called African Negro Wood Sculpture. Sheeler’s hard-edged, direct pictures made the sculptures look modern and also constituted a serious step forward for photography itself as a viable merger of art and documentary. De Zayas’ ideas about African art, while dated now, are eye-opening with respect to attitudes prevalent in the modern-art world at the time. In his preface to the portfolio he wrote, “When the First World War was declared and desolation reigned about artists and dealers, Paul Guillaume was only too glad to let me have all the African sculpture I could put in a trunk and bring to New York. That was his first contribution to exhibitions of modern art in New York….” In de Zayas’ mind, African art was totally conflated with modern art; he had ceased to think of it as belonging to a culture with an ancient history, if he had ever done so. De Zayas and his fellow connoisseurs valued African art exclusively for its architectonic boldness, its distorted human forms and faces, its aura of strangeness that threatened the established aesthetic. That was more than enough.

For another group of artistically progressive New Yorkers, however, it wasn’t nearly enough. By the early 1920s the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, and intellectuals such as the philosopher Alain Locke wanted to promote African tribal art as a cultural legacy and source of inspiration for African-Americans. “It is as legitimate a modern use of African art to promote it as a stimulus to the development of Negro art,” wrote Locke in a letter to The Nation in 1927, “as to promote it as a side exhibit to modern painting.” Strong words, but Locke was prepared to back his claim with action. He traveled to Europe to source collections to acquire for a prospective Harlem Museum of African Art, accompanied by his friend Edith Isaacs, editor of Theatre Arts Monthly. Isaacs fronted the money to buy about 1,000 pieces from a Belgian collector named Raoul Blondiau, and Locke was to raise the funds to buy them from Isaacs. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so and the venture folded. The idea had been too far ahead of its time.

Ironically, the old-style, cluttered, colonialist French and Belgian exhibitions of the late 19th century were more in tune with today’s approach to tribal art than either the Urmonotheismus-infused spirituality of the Catholic missionaries or the history-effacing radical modernism of the Stieglitz circle. By arranging artworks in close proximity to utilitarian objects and keeping objects from one culture together, they acknowledged that these things were artifacts of a culture, a religion, a people’s way of life. In a special edition of Tribal Arts magazine that serves as a catalogue for the show, Met curator Alisa LaGamma writes, “Within the equatorial African communities that sponsored them, works featured in African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde were visual points of reference for wondrous experiences. More important than the isolated artifact was participation in ritual events that expanded upon and enriched their appreciation.” Very true, but creative misreading has its place, as well—including, this month, in two great American museums.

Passionate Journey Wed, 01 Apr 2009 23:11:49 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By: Kevin Conru

Serendipity is the word that comes to mind when I think of my pattern of collecting. I grew up in Indiana, in an environment that wasn’t particularly artistic, and I spent my first decade after college playing the double bass. It wasn’t until I studied arts policy in London in the late 1980s that I became aware of the art-collecting world, and only after working at Bonhams for a few years did I begin to occasionally acquire a painting, sculpture or tribal piece. Part of my London life was to visit friends who had stalls at the Portobello Road street market and spend time looking at their various wares. As I worked in the auction house’s ethnographic department, I naturally gravitated to those dealers who specialized in the subject, and I gained valuable insight on all those Saturdays.

With centuries of colonial connections, England had a wealth of tribal material, a lot of which came onto the market through auctions or dealers. Artifacts from South Africa, because of the region’s ties to England, were relatively common, as were those from the Pacific. As the market for African art was driven mostly by demand for masks and figures from West and Central Africa, quite amazing works from the much less-known South could readily be had for relatively little money. I acquired many fine pieces on Portobello Road, as well as from other English sources, and within a few years I had quite a core group.

After leaving Bonhams in 1993 to set out as a private dealer, I was invited to exhibit my South African material at a commercial gallery in New York, and although the show was successful in selling the less-expensive items, I went home with practically all my major pieces. It was then that, after evaluating the results, I decided to put the remainder aside and do something more intelligent than to disperse what was left to the winds. I realized early on that I had come by some remarkable things, and in the next couple of years I added many important pieces.

By luck, one of my next-door neighbors in South Kensington was the collector Seward Kennedy, who had amassed an Aladdin’s cave of tribal treasure. He was just beginning to disperse his holdings, and he knew that I was looking for South African items and paying what was perceived at the time to be top dollar. Practically every day, he walked over with a bag of knobkerries (a type of club from southern and eastern Africa) or snuff containers or wood pillows, and offered me the lot. Some of my very best pieces came from him.

In a similar vein, I also benefited from Jonathan Lowen, a passionate lover of the arts who went through several phases of collecting. As soon as he would sell one collection, he was off to the market to start another. His habits fed not only my collection but also formed the core of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. After the first 50 or so pieces, I began to look for unusual works that would build and complement the group. As figures from South Africa are extremely rare, I searched worldwide for any that could possibly become available and pounced whenever they did. Likewise, certain vessel forms, iconic in museum collections, were almost impossible to find, and in these cases I had to wait years, if not decades, for a choice item to appear.

Around 1997 I made my first trip to the South Pacific, visiting the Melanesian Islands of New Guinea, New Ireland and New Britain. While good, old material was scarce to see, let alone export, the trip kindled a love for the island peoples and their art that led my collecting in another direction. From my auction days, I had always liked Pacific pieces, as the use of wood, especially in Polynesia, is reminiscent of works from South Africa. And while prices for the region were generally much higher than for southern Africa, utilitarian objects could still be had quite reasonably. While I appreciated Polynesian forms and patinas very much, some Fiji clubs I acquired led me over into Melanesian art. Here was a world of surreal masks, crazed figures and wild colors, and the vocabulary of the art spoke to me directly.

I quickly found that, as with South African art, there were pockets of discovery where opportunities to acquire world-class pieces still existed. Although the field of Papua New Guinea was dominated by the American collector John Friede (he always had a way of winkling out the best pieces), regions like New Britain and the Solomon Islands were still open. Old colonial-era pieces from these cultures were just common enough to find with the help of perseverance and good contacts but rare enough not to hit the big-screen auctions that inevitably fuel demand and high prices.

Luckily, in both these areas I acquired some seminal pieces quite early and, in the Solomon Islands in particular, continued collecting until I built up a representative group.

My main criterion for all my ethnographic collections has been that each piece has to be among the very best of its type in terms of its age, usage and aesthetics. Long research into Pacific art has shown me what types of objects the island peoples produced, and for comparison purposes, my reference library has most of the published examples known.

One very different area where I’ve had fun at home is with a Lucite bag collection. Years ago, on a rainy Saturday morning during a fair week in New York, my wife and I were wandering around the West 26th Street flea market when we spied a brilliant red box object forlornly placed on a table. The owner explained that it was a plastic bag from the 1950s and would cost me $65. We bought it and took it to my booth at the tribal fair, where later on during a calm moment in the afternoon we looked at it on a pedestal base under the spotlight. It was beautiful. Minutes later, Anthony Meyer, the prominent Paris dealer, saw it and mentioned to me that there was a specialist dealer of such bags on West 25th. Needless to say, the next morning I made a beeline to the place and, well, started collecting something else all over again.

In a Nutshell: Worth Their Weight Wed, 01 Apr 2009 23:07:10 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By: Joseph Jacobs

It was with good reason that the Portuguese, who in 1471 began trading with the Akan-speaking people of West Africa, gave the name “the Gold Coast” to the region today known as Ghana. Gold was both the spiritual and material foundation of the region, where vast quantities of the precious metals were mined from the rich forest soil between the Volta and Ankobra rivers. To weigh gold, the Ashanti, Fante, Baule and Anyi tribes, of what would become the Akan empire in the 18th century, developed so-called gold weights—small cast metal objects, generally brass, that were used from around 1400–1900.

Commerce in gold dust predates the arrival of the Portuguese. It began in the late 14th century, when Arabs established trade routes across the Sahara desert. This contact resulted in a need for an accurate system of measurement. From about 1400 until the arrival of the Portuguese, the Islamic ounce, based on the Byzantine and Roman ounce, was used, as well as another Islamic measure called the mithqal. With the Portuguese came the Portuguese ounce, and toward 1600 the Dutch introduced the heavier troy ounce. An Akan trader therefore had to have several sets of weights, one for each system.

The earliest weights were abstract. One type was a flat, slab-like bar containing geometric patterns reflecting Arab and Western designs in addition to African aesthetics. The other type is more three-dimensional; such weights took the forms of pyramids, squares, diamonds and stars. By the 17th century, representational gold weights had appeared, portraying figures, flora, fauna and artifacts, although abstract examples still predominated. Many scholars believe that a large number of the representational weights reflect Akan proverbs. A hornbill caught by a snake, for example, is an emblem of patience, since the snake has to await the bird’s landing; while a square knot reflects the adage that a knot tied by a wise man cannot be undone by a fool.

What makes these weights so remarkable is that they were made using the lost-wax casting process, usually reserved for much larger sculpture. While most works were the result of an artist shaping wax, some were made by casting actual objects, such as a chicken claw or a peanut. Since the mold is destroyed after the work is cast, every weight is unique, although the same motifs appear over and over. Some three million were produced until the British, who declared the Gold Coast a colony in 1874, brought an end to their use. Twentieth-century weights were made for the tourist trade and are aesthetically inferior.

While major collectors tend to ignore gold weights, preferring masks and figures, the diminutive artworks should not be overlooked. “It’s easy to appreciate the gold weights as forms because of their amazing diversity, artistry and whimsy,” says Carlo Bella, director of Pace Primitive in New York. “Their tiny stature engages you and begs you to get close in order to inspect the details. They are essentially miniature representations of Akan culture.”

Today, gold weights are somewhat scarce and hard to find at major galleries. Tim Teuten, head of African art at Christie’s Paris, notes that they “aren’t as fashionable as they were 15 years ago.” Occasionally, gold weights can be found at auction, with several grouped in a single lot. Arte Primitivo, for example, recently sold several lots in its online auction, and Sotheby’s New York will have a handful for sale this spring, with the average price per weight expected to be about $1,000.

Amyas Naegele, New York

Arte Primitivo, New York

Pace Primitive, New York

Sacred Spaces Sun, 01 Mar 2009 23:13:35 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By: Dana Micucci

In two widely separated spots on the globe—Central America and Southeast Asia—two ancient civilizations created vast temple complexes that express a strikingly similar sense of man’s place in the universe. The remains of Angkor, the legendary city of the Khmer in Cambodia, and the city-states of the ancient Maya in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, are today among the most awe-inspiring legacies of man’s perennial quest to honor and actualize the sacred.

Nestled deep in northwest Cambodia’s dense tropical jungle, near the Tonle Sap lake and the provincial city of Siem Reap in the heart of Southeast Asia, the sprawling monuments of Angkor dazzle the eye with an exotic grandeur that invites days of exploration. Despite the accounts of early Chinese travelers and a few European missionaries and traders in the 16th century, Angkor was little known in the West until the 1863 publication of the illustrated travel diaries of the French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot. In the following decades, artists, writers and intrepid travelers began to visit Cambodia in

search of this mysterious lost city swallowed up by the jungle. From the late 1960s to the early ’90s, Angkor was inaccessible once again due to the turmoil of the Vietnam War and civil chaos (culminating in the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge), until United Nations peacekeeping forces reopened it to tourists and allowed international preservation groups to continue their restoration work.

One of the great archaeological wonders of the world, Angkor (the Khmer word for city) was Cambodia’s capital and the spiritual center of the Khmer Empire between 802 and 1432. Erected at the same time as the cathedrals of Chartres and Canterbury in Europe, it comprises the ruins of more than 1,000 stone temples and monuments covering an area of 120 square miles. Angkor’s mammoth structures, which rival the Egyptian pyramids in scale, were built of huge blocks of sandstone, without mortar, by thousands of local craftsmen for a succession of extravagant kings, and are recognized by scholars as the repository of some of the world’s greatest art and architecture.

The sophisticated artistry and cosmology of the Khmer civilization is particularly evident in the exquisite relief sculpture adorning Angkor Wat, the largest and best-preserved temple of the vast complex, and the breathtaking Bayon, within the royal city of Angkor Thom. These sculptures primarily depict deities and mythological figures from the Hindu and Buddhist religions, which coexisted peacefully at Angkor. Historical battles and scenes from daily life are also illustrated. Freestanding sculptures of Vishnu, Shiva and other Hindu gods, as well as the Buddha, which were created for temple sanctuaries, are now in major museum collections such as those at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and the National Museum of Asian Art Guimet in Paris.

“For 1,000 years, beginning in the sixth century and particularly during the Angkor period, anonymous Khmer artists and craftsmen produced some of the world’s greatest sculptures,” says Helen Ibbitson Jessup, an independent scholar and curator specializing in the art of ancient Cambodia and Indonesia. “Khmer sculpture was influenced by Indian sculpture from as early as the sixth century, although it is less voluptuous and more streamlined and hieratic. It has an ethereal presence, yet also incorporates the naturalistic detail of the human form. Although sculptural styles fluctuate through the centuries between humanistic and more rigid, abstract portrayals, the exquisite combination of naturalistic and spiritual qualities is what makes Khmer sculpture so distinctive and appealing.”

Khmer kings believed in the concept of the devaraja or “god-king”—a religious belief introduced by Jayavarman II, the first ruler of the Angkor period—whereby they identified themselves with a particular deity who they believed would protect them and with whose spirit they aspired to merge. Some believe they were perceived as the earthly incarnations of gods such as Shiva or Vishnu, or of Buddha, endowed with divine power to protect their kingdom. “Idealized, deified portraits of the Khmer kings and their ancestors were among the freestanding sculptures, in both sandstone and bronze, that were used in Angkor’s temples,” says New York-based dealer Nancy Wiener. “Like other sculpture from the Angkor period, it has both a striking monumentality and subtle grace that can be mesmerizing.”

Each ruler of Angkor consolidated his power by erecting a temple-mountain in honor of his chosen god. A symbol rooted in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the temple-mountain represents the cosmic Mount Meru, home of the gods. “For many ancient cultures, one of the loftiest symbols of spiritual power was the mountain, where the gods resided and watched over the world,” says Jessup. “To enter Angkor’s temples is to move from an earthly to a spiritual realm. According to Hindu and Buddhist mythology, spiritual beings inhabited different levels of the mountain. So devotees ascended the various levels of the temple for spiritual preparation, but only the priests were allowed in the innermost sanctuaries.”

Angkor Wat, with its five lotus-bud shaped towers surrounded by numerous courtyards and chambers, was built as a temple-mountain in the early 12th century. Dedicated to Vishnu, it also served as a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II. Its ascending terraces and steep stairways are flanked by long, covered galleries of elaborate bas reliefs that narrate Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana and theMahabharata, and depict historical Khmer battles. Hindu deities, Buddhas, mythological beings and ornate foliage and scroll motifs also animate the lintels, walls, pillars and pediments of this majestic temple.

Deeper within the Cambodian jungle, beyond thick masses of fig and gum trees whose roots have grown over many of Angkor’s ruins, lies the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, with its impressive temple-mountain, Bayon. More than 200 faces carved on Bayon’s 54 towers bear the serene and compassionate smiles of the bodhisattva Lokesvara. The faces also have been said to represent Jayavarman VII, the last great builder king of Angkor, who continued construction in the 12th and 13th centuries. “The Bayon is like a giant sculpture,” says Wiener. “Beholding it, you feel as if you’ve merged with the bodhisattva. Angkor’s architecture is meant to take you on a sacred journey. Walking through it is an active meditation.” Like Angkor Wat, Bayon is noted for its stunning galleries of bas reliefs. But unlike the ancient myths and battles depicted in the sculpture at Angkor Wat, they illustrate scenes of everyday life among the Khmer who lived at Angkor, including activities such as festivals, cockfights and even getting a haircut.

Unfortunately, Angkor’s transcendent beauty could not save it from the forces of man and nature. In 1431 an invasion by Thailand forced the Khmer to move their capital south to Phnom Penh. As the Khmer empire declined, the temples of Angkor were abandoned to the ever-encroaching jungle, only to be rediscovered centuries later.

Halfway around the world in Central America, the ancient Maya also left traces of a formidable architecture embellished with sculpture that embodies a profound sense of harmony between the human and the divine. Though the Mayan civilization spans more than 2,500 years, its great cities—extending from Copan in Honduras and Tikal in Guatemala to Palenque in western Mexico and Uxmal and Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula—flourished from 200–1200 in a tropical jungle setting much like that of Angkor’s. Like Angkor, these cities were constructed by generations of anonymous artisans in service to ambitious kings who paid homage to a pantheon of gods. They remained more or less shrouded in mystery from the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century until their rediscovery in 1839 by the American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and the English artist Frederick Catherwood. Since then, they, too, have become sites of continuing excavation and restoration.

“Angkor and the Mayan city-states had at their core ceremonial centers dominated by temples, many of which served as burial sites for their royal patrons,” says Michael Coe, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale who is a scholar of both the Mayan and Khmer cultures. “The Mayan temple-pyramids often contained royal tombs, whereas the temple-mountains at Angkor usually held the ashes of the ruler. And like those at Angkor, Mayan temples were also places of worship dedicated to gods favored by the rulers.” In Mayan cosmology, those gods had to be placated continuously with offerings and sometimes sacrifices, notably human blood.

But there is more to this highly evolved pre-Columbian civilization than the violent images of bloodthirsty warriors and human sacrifices that have been popularized in the media. For example, the Maya excelled as astronomers and mathematicians and created the only fully developed writing system in the New World. They discovered the use of the zero long before other cultures and invented a highly complex calendar based on precise observations of equinoxes, solstices and the courses of the sun, moon and planets, which could project dates millions of years into the past and future.

Their brilliance in the sciences was matched by an architectural genius that gave rise to sophisticated urban planning and massive limestone structures built without the use of the wheel or domestic animals. “The Maya, like the peoples of Southeast Asia, lived in rhythm with the cycles of time and planned their lives around the movement of the planets, which were associated with various gods,” says Coe. “The concept of cyclical time also permeates their architecture, which often was constructed to harmonize with the four directions and their attendant gods. So the Maya were constantly aware of their connection to the cosmos.”

One has only to wander among the sun-dappled pyramids, temples, sprawling palaces and vast ball courts of Uxmal and Chichen Itza, adorned with elaborate limestone and stucco relief carvings, mosaics and gaping masks of gods once painted in vivid colors, to experience the superb sacred artistry of the Maya. Monuments such as these served as the canvases upon which Mayan sculptors worked their magic with polished stone tools, developing an intricate naturalistic, anthropomorphic style that bears some resemblance to the sculptural reliefs at Angkor. Although Mayan sculpture tends to be more stylized and abstract than that of the Khmer, which often displays a subtle sensuality, both possess a profound mystical quality rooted in a complex iconography that glorified an established divine and social order.

“Mayan architecture, with its extensive repertory of bas reliefs, sculpture, painting and inscriptions, is an expression of religion and power that functions as a recorded history in stones for a civilization about which very little documentary evidence exists,” says New York dealer Spencer Throckmorton.

The relief sculpture at Uxmal and Chichen Itza depicts sovereigns, priests, warriors and deities. Portraits of Mayan royalty typically display elaborate headdresses and jewelry. Deities include the mountain god Witz, with protruding eyes and a long trunk-shaped nose, who is often portrayed in obsessive repeating patterns on facades, such as that of Uxmal’s grand Pyramid of the Soothsayer.

The plumed serpent god Kukulkan, who is associated with the planet Venus and the ritual of death and resurrection, variously adorns lintels, pillars, stairways and applied stucco decoration at both sites. It is sometimes sculpted with a human head in its mouth, symbolizing the constant interaction between this world and the otherworld of the gods. Kukulkan also famously appears as a snakelike shadow slithering down the great Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza during the spring and fall equinoxes.

Another prevalent sculptural motif is the traditional Mayan thatched-roof hut, whose simple construction served as an architectural model for temples and palaces. Its features, including square-shaped doors and walls made of woven branches, often recur on facades such as those at Uxmal’s elegant Nunnery Quadrangle, so named because its four sides form a cloister-like quadrangle. Believed to have housed Mayan sovereigns, priests and high-ranking dignitaries, this group of buildings is a supreme example of Puuc architecture, which developed in northwest Yucatan at the end of the Classic Period (250–900) and influenced modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. Named after the region’s Puuc hills, this exquisite architectural style is distinguished by complex geometrical designs, limestone mosaics and intricate latticework on friezes adorning the upper walls of buildings.

Like other Mayan palaces, the Nunnery Quadrangle was built on a horizontal plane, which contrasts with the verticality of the pyramids. The palaces were meant to house mere mortals—though these inhabitants formed a small elite, while the populace lived in huts—whereas pyramids, with long stairways stretching toward the heavens, were the abode of the gods. Like those at Angkor, Mayan pyramids are stylized sacred mountains.

The great Mayan cities began to collapse in the early 10th century. Proposed causes for the mysterious decline and fall of the Mayan civilization are overpopulation, drought and famine, epidemics, excessive building and deforestation, and civil wars, according to Justin Kerr, a scholar and photographer who specializes in depicting Mayan ceramics. “It was probably a combination of all these factors,” says Kerr. “But the spirit of the Maya lives on in their stunning art and architecture, with its constant references to the worlds of the human and the divine and to the invisible passageway between them, which remind us of our universal connection to all that is sacred.”

Christie’s New York

Doris Wiener Gallery, New York

Galerie Mermoz, Paris

John Eskenazi, London

Nancy Wiener Gallery, New York

Sotheby’s New York

Stendahl Galleries, Los Angeles

Throckmorton Fine Art, New York

In a Nutshell: Familiar Spirits Sun, 01 Mar 2009 23:12:39 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By: Edward Readicker-Henderson

The bobcat knows secrets. The crow is the keeper of sacred law. The frog brings rain. The Zuni knew these things and made carvings, called fetishes, to help them access this other world. (The word “fetish” comes from the Portuguese feitiço, meaning “made by art.”) For collectors, Zuni fetishes are beautiful, highly sought after and small—most fit easily in the palm of the hand.

The Zuni are centered in New Mexico’s Zuni River Valley, west of Albuquerque, near the Arizona border. The land might never have been noticed by outsiders, except that in 1539, Spanish explorers decided that the Hawikuh pueblo was one of the Seven Cities of Cibola, a city of gold. This did not do the locals any favors. But today Zuni Pueblo is one of the most traditional Native American areas left in the state, with an economy largely supported by the arts.

Zuni fetishes can be made of anything from shell and antler to cornhusks. Most on the market are of stone, frequently decorated with string, feathers or beads. What separates fetishes from other carvings is their use and power. A carving is decoration; a fetish offers a connection to the larger world. Through a fetish carved like a bear, one comes into contact with Bear, the embodiment of strength and introspection. It gets tricky talking about these things in English, because most commentators immediately run to the words “supernatural” and “spirit.” But it’s both more complicated than that and a lot simpler. Fetishes come from the genius of closely observing the world.

For a collector, a good entry point into the world of fetishes is through the directional guardians: North is guarded by the mountain lion; south, by the badger; west, the bear; east, the wolf; the mole protects the inner earth; and above it all, in the sky, is the eagle. Traditionally, fetishes required proper attention: They were kept in special containers and ceremonially fed cornmeal. If things didn’t go right for the person using the fetish, it was never because of the fetish, but rather because either the fetish wasn’t taken proper care of or the person trying to use it did not have the right goals or mindset.

Prices for contemporary fetishes can be as low as $100, up to $3,000–4,000; older pieces, made before, say, the 1930s, when fetishes began to be commercially carved, can run to the tens of thousands of dollars. (There can be religious and cultural-property issues involved with buying older fetishes.) For new fetishes, says Bronwyn Fox-Bern at the Santa Fe, N.M.-based gallery Keshi: The Zuni Connection, “the number one consideration is who made it.” For example, she raves about artist Gibbs Othole: “very whimsical, some of the most alive carvings.” Other factors to consider are the size of the carving, the amount of detail and the stone involved. But what it comes down to with all the best artists, says Fox-Bern, is that they “are letting what’s already in the stone come out. They’re letting the stone speak.”

One thing for the collector to beware of is the number of imitations on the market; just as the Hopi kachina market has been flooded with Navajo imitations, so has the Zuni fetish market. Fetish necklaces are especially suspect, according to Fox-Bern. But, says Alston Neal of Old Territorial Shop in Scottsdale, Ariz., the single most important thing for collectors to remember is that “you find one that is drawn to your heart.” Time and again, he says, he’s seen buyers zoom right in on a particular fetish, then spend hours looking at all the others before going back to buy that first one. The fetishes “pick you out,” he says. “You don’t pick them out.”