Collecting Historic Indian Art

An Art Dealer’s Perspective on Collecting Historic Indian Art

Published online courtesy of Western Art Collector, February 2012

We asked art dealer Mark Sublette, who has more than 20 years of dealing in antique Indian art and is the owner of Mark Sublette Medicine Man Galleries in Tucson, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico, to share some of his perspective on collecting historic Indian art.  Here are the mental blueprints he uses before making a purchase.

"Twenty years of dealing in antique Indian art has provided me with a valuable insight into the pitfalls of collecting artwork.  The beauty of an object is of paramount interest, but it’s not the only factor I take into consideration.  I have developed my own general guidelines for collecting which I apply each time something walks through my gallery door or shows up in my inbox. 

The three areas I specialize in are antique Indian jewelry, Navajo rugs and Pueblo pottery. Each has its own unique problem set. Here are the mental blueprints I use before making a purchase. 

Jewelry:

Value is often directly related to age.  I’m most interested in jewelry objects dating from the 1890-50’s.   One component that helps point to a piece’s age is wear.  A magnifying lens can make a world of difference when determining age; it allows one to see the small details.  Look for wear and check the integrity of the stones. Look for damage, cracks and composition and make sure stones with a complex matrix look like real stones and not plastic.  Wear can be manipulated. Appropriate wear from use is typically seen in areas around the periphery of the piece.  The edges of beads, the inside where the bead comes in contact with the chain, the inside of a bracelet or ring, and the edges of a belt.  If there are file marks present in areas where rubbing should have occurred consider this a red flag.   If you see a name, initials or the word sterling stamped on a piece it probably dates from the 1940’s or later. 

When purchasing jewelry from photographs you have to rely on the individual who is selling to be knowledgeable. This is fine when working with a reputable dealer but if your dealing with an unknown seller at auction it maybe a different story.  You must have excellent photos from various angles to make a good evaluation.  Always get in writing that you can return a piece if not satisfied.  Remember, a great history associated with a piece must also fit what you’re seeing.  If there is no wear or the object is signed but the provenance says it is from the 1920’s, a red flag should go up.

Navajo Weavings:

I always look at five criteria when I purchase a Navajo rug:  size, tightness of weave, condition, age, and artistic merit.  The first four are objective criteria and the last is subjective.  Determining beauty or artistic merit is the hardest criteria to quantify in terms of value unless you do it on a daily basis and have seen hundreds of weavings.

Size and tightness of weave correlate directly to value. The larger the piece or the tighter the weave the more time it took to make the textile which adds to value. Does the weaving have stains, holes, color run, fading, restoration, smells, or anything that impacts the visual or sensual impact of the weaving? I’m fine with restoration as long as it has been done well and isn’t extensive.

To determine age of a Navajo textile one has to be able to recognize whether a piece has natural or aniline dyes, Churro or Merino wool, and they must understand the style and color lots which were used during different time frames.  This requires a knowledgeable dealer who should be wiling to share their expertise.  If a dealer can’t explain or won’t explain their dating rational, walk away and find someone who will.

Artistic merit reflects how I respond to a piece of art. Is it pleasing? Does the color combination work? Did the weaver’s use of design work? Design can be either complex or simple; both have equal merit.  

Pueblo Pottery:

Historic Pueblo Pottery refers to pottery made between 1700 and the 1940’s. Value is often associated with age.  Pottery vessels made before the arrival of the railroad into Santa Fe in 1878 are often some of the most valuable and rare pieces.  To assign value, one needs to be able to date a  Hispiece accurately; this is the most difficult process.

Evaluation of historic pottery is based on a number of factors which include the type of slip or clay used in the construction of the vessel, the design pattern, ethnographic wear and to a lesser extent the history. 

Slip is the most definitive variable, as many of the clay slips used historically cannot be reproduced; the sources are no longer available.  To be able to describe what to look for at a specific date in time for each pueblo is too great for any article. Best to rely on a knowledgeable dealer to identify age for you. 

Ethnographic wear shows how a piece was used. This can be faked so look for wear patterns, just like you would with jewelry,  that make sense. You like to see expected wear at the widest part of the pot or on the rim.   Often fraudulent wear or distress can be applied to a pot and these forgers are simply trying to make a new pot look old.   If you see a chip on the rim that has been worn down naturally it is a good marker of age and means it’s probably historic.   Staining or blemishes that are random are also more likely to be from age.

Finally, remember history or provenance can be constructed.  Try and make sure the story fits what you’re seeing.    If the person was present when it was collected that is a good history, of course this requires you believe their story. Ask if they have any original invoices or letters that might help verify what they are relating.  Photographic evidence (the piece is depicted in an early photograph) is the best.  I never just rely on history. If the physical signs don’t add up, then the history may be fabricated.  If you’re purchasing from a reputable dealer they will be able to provide you a certificate of authenticity and provide whatever history they may have on a piece.   Have fun collecting and never be afraid to ask questions, I do."