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.