Navajo chiefs blankets are the most recognizable and valuable of all Navajo weavings. They have been collected not only by other Native Americans before the United States even existed, but also by such notable collectors as William Randolph Hearst. Scholars and collectors usually classify Navajo weaving into four overlapping periods defined by types of products, styles, and materials, although few scholars agree on the appropriate dates for each period. In any event the dates and periods should be understood only as a rough chronology allowing for many exceptions: Classic Period, 1650-1868, Late Classic Period, 1865-1880, Transitional Period, 1868-1895, Rug Period, 1895-Present.
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Navajo chiefs blankets are the most recognizable and valuable of all Navajo weavings. They have been collected not only by other Native Americans before the United States even existed, but also by such notable collectors as William Randolph Hearst. A chiefs blanket could be purchased for around fifty dollars in the early 1800s, one thousand dollars by the turn of the nineteenth century, and today, a chiefs blanket in excellent condition could sell for half a million dollars or more.
Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery is one of the leading specialists in early Navajo rugs and blankets. Dr. Mark Sublette, an authority on Navajo rugs and blankets, is one of the leading sources to authenticate these rare textiles. Navajo chiefs blankets come in four phases, along with variants. Chiefs blankets are constructed in a wider than long format.
FIRST PHASE BLANKETS
The first phase Navajo chiefs blanket, made from 1800 to 1850, is simple with indigo blue stripes and white and brown natural churro wool. With probably less than 100 first phase Navajo blankets in existence today, these are the most valuable and rarest of the Navajo blankets. Ironically, a first phase chiefs blanket was discovered on the Antiques Road Show in Tucson, Arizona. Because of the simplicity of the piece, the owner didn’t realize this family heirloom had a great deal of value. “A blanket of this quality and age,” according to Dr. Sublette, “should bring $500,000 or more in today’s market.”
SECOND PHASE BLANKETS
The second phase Navajo chiefs blanket has the addition of twelve boxes or rectangles laid down on a first phase chiefs blanket pattern. These blankets, made from 1840 to 1870, are the next transition in Navajo aesthetics which bring somewhere between $125,000 to $250,000. They are also very rare but more common in comparison to first phase blankets.
THIRD PHASE BLANKETS
The third phase Navajo chiefs blanket, for many collectors, may be the most artistic of the chiefs blankets. Composed of nine diamonds or cross formations, these blankets were made from 1860 to 1880.
The earlier or classic third phase chiefs blankets are the most valuable.
Composed of raveled natural dyed cochineal red yarns, natural churro indigo blue and white and/or brown stripes, third phase blankets can command prices upward of $175,000, though a good example usually brings closer to $75,000 – $100,000.
FOURTH PHASE BLANKETS
The fourth phase chiefs blankets, occurring generally after 1870 through the early 1900s, take the diamonds to an extreme with the background becoming much less important and the diamonds becoming the main focal element. Variant Navajo chiefs blankets use the basic chief blanket layout, but have unique patterns and designs which do not fall into any specific phase.
Transitional chiefs blankets can occur in all of the phases and are still being made by the Dine or Navajo today. True Transitional Navajo chiefs blankets occurred from 1880 to 1900. These Navajo weavings have a blanket feel, but the yarn composition is no longer raveled or bayeta, but rather a homespun generally with aniline colorations.
Transitional chiefs blankets can range in value from $5000 to $15,000 depending on the quality of the weaving and the colors used.
Germantown chiefs blankets are made from commercial 4-ply wool yarn made in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Germantown yarn was sold at the trading posts to the Navajo in the late 1890s. Many posts, like the Hubbell trading post, had these made as revivals to replace the now old and rare Navajo chiefs blankets. Germantown chiefs blankets are generally very well made Navajo Blankets and are highly desirable by collectors today. A great example may bring up to $20,000.
The use of chief blankets certainly was not limited to tribal leaders. (The Navajo did not have “chiefs.”) The name probably derives from the fact they were highly prized by wealthy and powerful members of Plains tribes, including the Utes and Comanche, who sought them in trade from their Navajo neighbors.
Navajo chiefs rugs are just that, Navajo rugs that are made in a chiefs blanket pattern but use heavy yarn and are true Navajo rugs not blankets. These are often sold as “blankets” at blanket prices, but are actually old copies of original Navajo blankets made for the tourist trade at early trading posts. These occurred from 1900 to the 1940s. Values are generally $3500 to $7500 for the earlier examples and occasionally, depending on design and quality, an excellent example can bring even more.
The differences in these Navajo weavings to the untrained eye may not be great, so it is always important to have a Navajo textile expert evaluate any Navajo blanket or rug before selling. Price varies according to age and quality of the textiles.