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.