Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Funny" silver, which isn't funny at all

Turkey Mountain Traders has exhibited at the High Noon Old West Show in Mesa, Arizona for a very long time, maybe the last twenty years--honestly, we've lost track. Safe to say, long enough to see lots of dealers come and go, and lots of things come through the doors, some great and some not so great. One thing we have been seeing a lot of lately is silver done in the style of old Navajo pieces, but done recently with the intent to deceive. This does not mean the work of Indian smiths like Perry Shorty who work in the old style, nor does it mean pieces by non-Navajo smiths such as Jock Favour and Jesse Robbins, whose work stands on its own. Rather, we're talking about anonymous pieces that are not hallmarked, and are then marketed (either knowingly or unknowingly) as genuine old Navajo pieces. Some of these pieces are simply laughable efforts that would not fool anyone who has read the John Adair book even once. Others are not badly done, but have one or two glaring errors that make them easy to spot. (A commercial bezel or a #8 turquoise on a bracelet from 1910? Really?) But then there are some that are good examples of craftsmanship, and are only distinguishable from the real (old) thing after careful examination. We call these pieces "funny silver", because while there may not be anything immediately obvious that identifies them as fakes, they give us a funny feeling when we first see them. The Mesa show was, unfortunately, full of these to an even greater degree than in years past, so we had ample opportunity to look at some carefully. The main thing we learned? "Funny silver" has a consistent sheen to it, while real old silver tarnishes in some places more than others. Also, "funny silver" can have a pitted look to it, which may be from being treated with an artificial aging agent like propane (seriously!). There may also be signs that certain things have been cast, such as the blossoms on a necklace. That does not mean they are sandcast, which has been done by Navajo smiths for nearly 150 years, but rather spin cast, a method of producing multiple copies from a single original mechanically and at low cost. If every blossom on a necklace has the same sheen and an identical shape, right down to certain surface flaws, then it is likely that the necklace is "funny", or at least the blossoms are. There is a great deal to know about old Navajo silver, and nobody knows everything, but those who take the time to read the books, visit the museums and examine examples that are known to be good carefully can develop their eye to the point where things that are "funny" will become quickly evident. And if a purchase is made, always be certain that the dealer will tell you exactly what you are buying and offer a money-back policy if something turns out to be wrong. Everyone makes mistakes, and the honorable dealers will take the time and money to make it right.