Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Final Piece of the Month for 2010

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water--the Piece of the Month is back.
This is a bracelet that I've been dying to feature for quite a while, because it has some things that require careful study (and detailed photos).

This is B TD/22, which on the surface is a very fine example of a Navajo row bracelet on twisted wire, circa 1920. It has excellent weight (84 grams, which as those of you who have read the latest Steve's Insider Info already know is a good weight for a piece from this era).
The stones are slightly domed cabs, not as high as you usually see in pieces from the 1920s. In fact, some of the stones look more like the nearly flat ones seen on pieces from circa 1910. And when you look closely, there is something else:

If you look carefully at the circled stones, you can see that they seem to have bezels within bezels. The outer bezels are relatively smooth, while the inner ones are serrated.

In all, 5 of the 9 stones have this double bezel. Technically, there is no reason for the smith to have done this--unless he was using previously set stones from an earlier piece. It is a great example of Navajo recycling, where an earlier item would be re-used in another way. It happens with turquoise beads set into bracelets or rings, and here it looks like stones were taken from an earlier bracelet and re-set on to this one.

Maybe the original bracelet broke beyond repair, or maybe the smith just needed the stones to complete this bracelet and didn't like the look of the earlier piece. Whatever the case, it makes this one of the more interesting bracelets we have ever owned.

The inside size is 5 7/8" with a 1" opening. It wears small, because it is shaped more round than other bracelets, but it can be re-shaped to fit. It would fit into any collection, because it is both a great example of the type and highly unusual. The special New Year's price is $1750.

We love talking about interesting pieces, so please give us a call with any questions.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Holiday look

I usually take this space to highlight new acquisitions and share some of our knowledge and opinions about old Indian art, but this time I thought it might be good to actually introduce ourselves to those of you who haven't actually met us. We've had the opportunity to speak with most of our clients, but there are some people that know us from the website and our email address, so I'd just like to put a face on the names for you.

This is Max. He's 14, and lives with Tom and Deborah.
And here is Lily, who is 16 and lives with Steve and his family. Steve's other two dogs, Jasper and Riley, don't usually come to the gallery, but Max and Lily can be found there on most days hunting down chewy treats and keeping everyone safe from tennis balls.
These are the illustrious co-founders of TMT, Tom and Deborah Begner. We got this photo in one take.

And here's Steve Begner, the one responsible for the website and this blog. This was not the first take for this picture, and photo editing was used heavily.
From all of us at Turkey Mountain Traders, Happy Holidays and a joyful and prosperous New Year. The next blog post will have things rather than people, we promise.

Friday, December 10, 2010

To Chee or Not to Chee

Sorry about the title. Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I'll be okay.

Among serious collectors of American Indian silver, few artists bring out such opposite reactions as Mark Chee. Those who love him point to his incredibly solid silverwork and bold styling, as well as the outstanding turquoise he normally would use. Those who aren't so crazy about him call his pieces overly heavy, and point to some of his pieces that are, shall we say, not quite so successful from an artistic point of view. He was prone to bad days at the bench, certainly, so all of his pieces were definitely not created equal.

Still, when he had his A game working, he was an extremely skillful smith who used some of the best turquoise and thickest silver available. His preference for leaving the turquoise in more natural shapes is quite different from the finely shaped stones used by people like Peshlakai, and the sheer carat weight of his stones was far beyond that of any other prominent smith of his day.

Here is a bracelet that shows all that is good about Chee's work:

Our gram scale tops out at 120 grams, and this piece is heavier than that. I would guess around 140 grams, which for any other smith would be gargantuan. For Chee, it's about average for one of his row bracelets on tri-wires. The stone is beautifully matrixed Royston with a bluish-green tinge, all five pieces being very nicely matched. It was made somewhere between 1950 and 1975--Chee had a long career, so dating his pieces can be tricky.

The bracelet was a gift from the noted Indian Art dealer Lovena Ohl to a family member as a 16th birthday present almost 30 years ago. Ohl was renowned for her discerning eye for quality, and she certainly upheld her standards with this piece. The stampwork is clean, and the shaping of the stones, while variable, is still very much balanced from side to side.

As always, one of the best things about this bracelet is the hallmark--Chee's typical "fat eagle" hallmark is one of the most distinctive in the business.

Everything there is to love about Chee's work, with none of his defects (except for the heavy weight, which is only bad if you like your bracelets to be feathery and light). The inside size is 5 5/16" with a 1 1/4" opening, so it fits small to medium women's wrists. It is 1 5/8" wide at its widest, and tapers down to 15/16" at the ends. The price is SOLD, and it would be perfect for any collector who is looking for an exemplary piece of his work.

If you have any questions about this piece or Chee's work in general, please give us a call.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

We wish there were more of these in the world, but there aren't.

Today, let's look at one of the most special things we have ever had the privilege of handling. Not the most expensive, certainly, but possibly the rarest.

These are Navajo tab earrings. Turquoise tab earrings are not at all uncommon, though ones of this age (circa 1890-1920) are rare treasures. They are pump-drilled, as can be seen in both photos--the person doing the drilling started on one side and drilled out a conical hole, then turned the stone over and drilled through from the other side. It is much more time-consuming to do it this way than to use an electric drill, which produced an evenly round hole. Very few pump-drilled beads were made after the widespread introduction of power tools after World War II, for obvious reasons. The copper wire wrap was done early (possibly not original, because it is very possible that these tabs started life on a necklace, but definitely original to their use as earrings). The half-dome buttons with the earring posts are recent additions, but the buttons are at least as old as the tabs.

Beyond the age, beauty and size (the tabs are 13/16" long, and the total hanging length of the earrings is 1 1/2"), these are the only old tab earrings we have ever seen that are made of azurite. Azurite is, according to Wikipedia, "a soft, deep blue copper mineral produced by weathering of copper ore deposits." With the profusion of copper deposits in the Southwest, it is understandable that some would end up in Navajo jewelry, and there are contemporary pieces that incorporate this mineral. But historically it is rare, like the garnets that show up (very infrequently) in old pieces. Since it was not mined commercially like turquoise, maybe that can be explained by a simple lack of supply. Whatever the reason, this pair is the only one we have seen.

The provenance is rather nice, as well--they came from the estate of Larry Frank, the well-known collector and author of INDIAN SILVER JEWELRY OF THE SOUTHWEST 1868-1930. Larry was legendary for his dogged pursuit of the rare and important in old Indian silverwork, as anyone who knew him can attest, and these certainly fit the bill. We were very lucky to acquire them, and we offer them with great pride. SOLD.

Please call or email with any questions.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Another Piece of the Month

Since Steve got bored and the previous Piece of the Month has sold, he decided to shorten the month and do another one. So, here it is.

This Navajo bracelet is like many others in that it is a ridged band with a turquoise setting. Many were made, and they are not difficult to find. However, this is a very unusual piece in many ways. First, the turquoise setting is placed on a plate with cast fleur-de-lis projections--not a common detail at all. Second, the heavy and even stamping on the outside of each outer ridge is an extremely skillful and unusual feature.

But the most interesting thing about this bracelet is the way the ridged band was made. Usually, ridged bands made by the Navajo at this time (circa 1915-20) were made in one of three ways: casting, filing a solid band, or joining multiple tri-wires. This piece was done by joining three hand-drawn tri-wires. Usually, this was done by joining the wires at the ends with a strip of silver. This would create the effect of a solid band, although in reality the tri-wires would only be joined together at two points. Though the wires might be touching all the way around the bracelet, they were not actually soldered together. A line would be visible from both the inside and the outside. But as you can see in the photo below, no such line is visible from the outside of this bracelet.

To fill the gaps between the wires, this smith did something we have not seen elsewhere--he took thin strips of silver and soldered them on the inside of the bracelet, creating a single solid band all the way around. The strips are clearly visible in the photo below.

This took quite a bit of work, and the result is absolutely beautiful--one of the most stylish and interesting Navajo bracelets we have owned.

The inside size of this bracelet is 5 1/2" with a 1 1/4" opening, and it can certainly be adjusted. It weighs in at an impressive 86.6 grams. As our Piece of the Month, the special price is $1875.

For more information, please call at (480) 423-8777 or drop us an email.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Piece of the Month--the bracelet that Perry loved.

This is our first Piece of the Month, where we take a piece and give our own view on it, including a special price.

Sometimes, a piece comes along that kind of gets lost. Maybe it's because it isn't a huge and dramatic thing, or maybe it doesn't have a hallmark, or maybe it doesn't photograph well. (Keep in mind that Steve still does all the photography, and he is not a pro by any means.) And sometimes, we have no idea why it doesn't get the attention it deserves. Here is one of those times.
This is B 2256, a Navajo bracelet from circa 1915. It is one of the best old Navajo bracelets we own, and has some really interesting technical points to it. In fact, at Indian Market, Perry Shorty spent 45 minutes looking at it, and said that if he had the time, it was the bracelet he wished he had made.
The first point is that the band is incredibly deeply filed--the artist took a solid band and filed three deep grooves into it, leaving two triangular ridges and two smaller ridges on the edges. He then filed in hatching on the side ridges, giving it the appearance of ropework. But the really difficult part was yet to come--he went into the center groove, where he had left a bit more silver than in the two outer grooves, and filed in some faux ropework there as well. It would have been much easier for him to file out all of the silver and create three equal grooves, which is the more common approach, but he did not take the easy way out. Had he cast the band, it would have been far easier for him to create something with ridges without having to go through the laborious process of filing.
In the circled area, you can see the faux ropework inside the center groove. All the decoration has been done with a file--if he had used a stamp on the edges, all the hatching would be the same. Note the small variations in the hatching, as well as in the center faux ropework.

Another area where the artist went the extra yard was in setting the stones. It would have been more typical for him to set five stones, leaving open space at the ends. Instead, he set an extra two stones on the terminals, which is extremely uncommon in early Navajo bracelets.

The circled area in this picture shows the extra stone set on the terminal. Note the early, thick bezels. It is also important to note that the faux ropework does not continue under the stone setting--if it did, that could easily mean that the stone had been set well after the bracelet was originally made.

This is a bracelet that could be worn by a woman with a small to average wrist, and can be sized to fit. It is a piece that rewards careful study, and the more you examine it the more you realize what a great piece it really is. The Piece of the Month price is SOLD.

As always, we love talking about the fine details of our pieces. Please feel free to call or email with any questions or comments.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Back from Santa Fe

As we do every year, TMT spent a good part of August in Santa Fe. We exhibited at the Whitehawk Antique Indian Show, as we have for the past 15 years (give or take--it's been a long time). It was a very interesting show, and here are some of our impressions:

1. People don't buy online like they used to. That's not to say that people are not buying antique American Indian art through online auctions any more, because they are. But some time ago, there was a question as to whether online auction sites would take a huge chunk out of the business of traditional dealers. The simple answer is yes--and no.

Five years ago, it was a common business model for someone to start selling items online and make that their full-time profession. It can still be done, but the market for the fine antiques we all love has proven to be more complex than that. In fact, the movement of sellers from shows to online has kind of gone into reverse, as high-level sellers has come to realize that nothing can take the place of a personal relationship between buyer and seller; we have actually seen a number of people who used to sell exclusively online coming to shows with their items.

There is still a healthy online market for items at a lower price point. But nearly every collector who is looking to build a collection of fine items has realized that people who know their material (and will stand behind it with both their reputation and their pocketbook) are the best sources.

2. The sky has fallen, but only a bit. In many ways, this Whitehawk show was the oddest we have ever attended--especially since it was the first one in years with empty booths. The economic conditions of the past 18 months have hit everyone, and our industry is no different. It was sad to count off the people who were not exhibiting this year, and while not all absences were due to economics, money was definitely a driving factor for a lot of people. A number of dealers who had less extensive inventories could not make the numbers add up, and sat this one out. Still, all things considered, it would not have surprised anyone if it had been worse.

3. The good news. One thing that was notable at the show this year was the overall quality. It had been a common complaint in recent years that the items at the Whitehawk show were down in quality. But with the other tribal and Indian show not being held this year, it seemed that most of the dealers brought their "A" game to Whitehawk. And those who set up at the show at El Museo, which was a general art and antiques show not limited to Indian material, also put together attractive and interesting booths. It seems that collectors in most areas of the antique Indian art market have some real choices now, and many are taking advantage.

The overall tenor of the shows was more positive than it has been for some time, which is hardly surprising. The art market in general goes hand in hand with prosperity, of course. It seems that most dealers who handle quality items have come through the bad times more or less intact, and hopefully better times are ahead for all of us.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The age of "good" foreign turquoise

Many collectors have been told that having American turquoise in a piece of Indian jewelry is necessary for authenticity, and that pieces with foreign stones should be avoided. In the contemporary pieces this might be true, though there are some absolutely beautiful stones being mined overseas. Pieces that incorporate turquoise from the classic American mines are generally quite collectible and valuable, while Chinese turquoise is almost a four-letter word. But with antique material, there is one huge exception that should be in every collector’s knowledge base (and collection): Persian turquoise from the 1890-1930 eras.

Most turquoise in early pieces came from the early mines of the Southwest, such as those around Cerrillos. There is evidence of prehistoric turquoise mining, and there are many accounts of Indians mining turquoise in the 1870s and 1880s. The commercial mining operations at the Cerrillos mines went from the mid-1880s until the collapse of the turquoise market in 1909-1912. (At one point, turquoise had been more expensive than gold, which explains why companies such as Tiffany were so eager to purchase turquoise mines in New Mexico.) After that, very little came from those mines, though there were small-scale mining operations in the area for years.

When the New Mexican mining operations came to an end, the traders needed a source of turquoise for the Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths, and the major Nevada mines had, for the most part, not been opened yet. The only large-scale source of turquoise available was overseas, and so the traders brought in quite a bit of Persian turquoise for the Indians to use. Most of it came in already cut into domed cabochons, which are different from the generally flat pieces the Indians had used previously. (There was, however, Persian turquoise in the Southwest far earlier than that—pieces from the 1890s set with domed cabochons are rare, but not unheard-of.)

With the opening of the big Nevada turquoise mines in the early 1930s, the stream of Persian turquoise slowed down greatly. Most Navajo or Pueblo pieces with Persian turquoise, therefore, can be safely dated between the mid-1910s and the late 1920s. In this time, some of the best pieces of Indian silverwork held turquoise from across the sea, and these pieces are both extremely collectible and highly important in the development of the art.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another note on "made for sale"

In 1905, noted trader Juan Lorenzo Hubbell published a "Catalogue and Price List" for "Navajo Blankets & Indian Curios". This was not the first catalog published by a trader--both C. N. Cotton and J. B. Moore had already done so. The Hubbell catalog is not nearly so well known as that of the other traders, but is still worthwhile reading.

The catalog offers a very nice selection of blankets (although no rugs yet; Cotton and Moore were ahead of Hubbell in recognizing the shift towards floor coverings). There is also a selection of Hopi crafts, and even minerals such as "Navajo rubies" (probably garnets). And not least, there is a page devoted to "Navajo Silverware and Jewelry". The prices are very interesting, to say the least.

The items offered include concho belts, bridles, strings of beads, conchos for belt buckles, bracelets "with matrix turquoise", bracelets without settings, and "finger rings". There are no squash blossom necklaces offered for sale, though the catalog photo shows them; the same for ketohs, buttons and spoons. There is no mention or picture of earrings, which were an extremely uncommon product and sale item at that date.

Here are some prices:
Concho belts--$30 to $40
Silver beads--$10 to $35, depending on length of string
Bracelets with turquoise--$2.25 to $10, depending on color and size of stone
Bracelets without turquoise--$1.25 to $1.75 per ounce
Rings with turquoise--$1.25 to $5.00, depending on color and size of stones

Affordable, but not being given away. Considering that a loaf of bread in 1913 cost about 5 cents, spending 100 times that on a ring is equivalent to spending $250 today (considering that a loaf of bread is $2.50 in my supermarket if I'm buying the cheap kind). So, even back then, the traders had a sense that what they were selling was not just cheap tourist junk.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Made for Sale vs. Made for Use

In the ethnographic antiques trade, items made for native use are almost always treasured more highly than items made for trade or sale. African and Oceanic art has to be “non-tourist” to be truly valuable in the eyes of experienced collectors. And this is indeed true in some areas of American Indian antiques, but there are many important and far-reaching exceptions, especially amongst the Navajo and Zuni.

The early establishment of highly developed trading networks between the Indians of the Southwest and the Anglos (and Spanish, in earlier times) meant that Navajo and Pueblo crafts were trade items from a very early date. In fact, items such as Navajo blankets were highly prized trade items among other Indian groups as far back as the 1820s, and a good blanket could bring its owner a fine group of horses from a Sioux chief.With the coming of the Americans and the establishment of the trading post system in the 1860s and 1870s, the main customers became the art collectors of the East and demand for Indian “curios” has remained high to the present day.

The line between items made for use and items made for sale was never a clear one, because the Indians were often willing to trade or sell personal items. Many years of exposure to Anglos and the market economy had given them a keen sense of the value of items—quite different from the early situation in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and New Guinea. This extended to jewelry and items of personal adornment, which were available for sale in trading posts pretty much as soon as the posts opened their doors. For that reason, it can be said that almost all of the 19th Century jewelry that made it to market was made for personal use, and ended up on the market as a result of happenstance.

In the 20th Century, Indian crafts developed into an occupation for certain people. John Adair’s book is filled with tables illustrating the growth of silversmithing as a full-time occupation among the Navajo and Pueblo Indians, and a similar trend can be traced in other crafts such as pottery and weaving. These artisans would make pieces specifically to be sold, but would also make pieces for personal and family use. The pieces for sale tend to be a bit less elaborate than the personal pieces, but both are generally of good quality. The advent of “Fred Harvey” jewelry, which was light and of poor quality, widened the gulf between the two classes, though fine pieces continued to be made for sale.

In later days, the situation was reversed. The finest work done by the great Zuni inlay masters were almost entirely done for sale, as were most of the masterpieces from Kenneth Begay, Joe Quintana and the other great silversmiths of the mid-20th Century. Up to the present day, the art market has been the final home for the vast majority of great jewelry made in the Southwest. Southwest Indian crafts, especially jewelry making, became a collectible art form very early in its history. Because of that, the “made for sale” distinction is not the kiss of death it is in other ethnographic art areas.

Monday, January 25, 2010

When a hallmark isn't enough...

Beauty in art is subjective. What appeals to one person might be repulsive to another. This is as true in antique American Indian art as in any other type of art, and doubly true in jewelry. Many collectors adore the turquoise and coral nugget pieces of Dan Simplicio, while an equal number think them garish and awkward. Collectors of older Navajo pieces wish that older Zuni pieces had heavier silverwork, while the Zuni devotees search in vain for older Navajo pieces with fine lapidary work. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, which is why many collectors find themselves reaching for something tangible as a sign of quality. Which brings us to the hallmark.

The first artist's hallmark on a piece of American Indian jewelry probably dates to 1925, when Juan DiDeos hallmarked a belt buckle now in the C. G. Wallace collection at the Heard Museum. Before then, all jewelry was made anonymously unless a patron or buyer took note of the artist. The idea of art as an individual exercise was not part of the extremely community-minded Indian culture, and as late as the 1960s many major jewelers had to be told to hallmark their pieces. People like Leekya, Leo Poblano and Charlie Houck never did use a hallmark, though contemporaries such as Dideos, Morris Robinson, Frank Vacit and Ambrose Roanhorse hallmarked many (though not all) of their pieces. In many cases the artists with more exposure to Anglo culture and markets, such as Robinson (who lived in Phoenix), Roanhorse (who exhibited as far away as New York) and Fred Peshlakai (who had his own store in Los Angeles) were more likely to use a hallmark. Still, even for those three it was not universal--Peshlakai was known to hallmark pieces only when requested or when entering a piece into a show, and nearly identical pieces both with and without his hallmark can be found.

It is only natural that a collector would want to know everything possible about a piece before adding it to their collection, and nothing is more important than identifying an artist and a date. The hallmark takes out much of the guesswork, and is a wonderful tool because of that. But there is a danger in collecting by hallmark, which is that a hallmark is a guarantee of origin, not of quality. A piece with Kenneth Begay's KB can be assumed to be his work, and if it has the White Hogan shop mark as well it can be reasonably dated to the 1948-1962 period. Does that hallmark make the piece better than a White Hogan piece with no hallmark, or with the hallmark of one of the other artists who worked there? Certainly not. Begay was such a fine smith that his pieces are likely to be of the highest quality, but there is no reason why an unsigned piece cannot be equally good, or maybe even better (unlikely, but possible).

Hallmarked pieces will always be very popular because much of the guesswork in owning them has been removed; a collector can match technical aspects to the maker through the hallmark, rather than having to work in a vacuum. But a hallmark on an inferior piece means one of two things: either the artist didn't do his best work, or the artist didn't actually make that particular item. Either way, collecting a bad piece with a hallmark is the wrong way to go. For a hallmark to matter, the name must match the quality. And a masterpiece with no hallmark is always better than a hallmark with no masterpiece.