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Friday, September 20, 2013

Identifying Alaskan/Northwest Native Artwork

For centuries Northwest Coast Native people (those inhabiting the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Northern California and British Columbia, Canada) measured their world organically and led an existence as fishermen, hunters and subsistence dwellers. By taking their subject matter directly from the natural world within which they lived, these folks created hauntingly beautiful and distinctive carvings, woven works and paintings. Using only the natural grasses, spruce roots, and cedar bark around them, the women wove intricately designed and crafted baskets of every imaginable size and for every imaginable purpose. Some were brightly colored and used for trade while others were constructed more plainly for day to day use. From the hunt or scavenged on the beaches, the men used walrus ivory and whale baleen which they carved into jewelry and sculptures, often hand-decorated with inlays of various types. Scrimshaw was an advanced art form in this culture.

While technically a form of folk art, fine workmanship and the artisans’ commanding ability to capture the natural movement and pose of their subjects, in truth, places these craftsmen and women among the most accomplished artists and sculptors in the world. Late 19th and early 20th Century Tlingit spruceroot basketry is an example of an art form unrivaled anywhere in the world for its unique design elements and construction. Unique to the decorative aspects of these baskets was the Tlingit weaver’s use of false embroidery, a method by which the colored design was raised on the exterior wall of the basket but could not be seen on the inside wall. It is breathtaking to see such a basket created by a master weaver.
Purse Made with Loon Feathers

Understandably, vintage walrus ivory jewelry, carvings and basketry created by Northwest Coastal people is prized and highly sought by collectors and the values continue to go up dramatically over time. 

An unfortunate fact of life in today’s environment are those who try, and sometimes succeed, in deceptively reproducing Native Alaskan and Northwest Coast artwork; many pieces have come into the market represented to be authentic which are not. The purpose of this article is to offer insight into the characteristics one should look for in order to help ascertain authenticity. Whether adding to your own private collection or acquiring these types of crafted articles for resale, it’s important to be aware that fakes do exist and that some basic specific knowledge should be sought before making any major purchases.

A few years back, so-called Alaskan native ivory carvings were found for sale in gift shops and souvenir stores along the cruise ship routes in Alaska. They were represented as authentic Alaskan Native artwork but upon investigation were shown to have actually been manufactured in Bali, legally exported to the U.S. with paper tags stating the items to be of Balinese origin. These tags had been removed and the item put on the shelf for sale as Alaskan art. 

In some cases the craftsmanship in a fake can be excellent (but still not as good as the original) and differences in style can be difficult for the unpracticed eye to discern. To further complicate matters, an artificial resin material made to emulate the striations and color of one of the popular types of walrus ivory has been used, making it even harder to identify these fakes.
Beautiful Turn of the Century
Attu Basket

How does one know that a ‘vintage’ Alaskan or Northwest Coastal item is genuine? While provenance can be the best and most reliable method of identifying many types of genuine art, it is problematic here as written records for 19th Century to mid-20th Century Native work are hard to come by. These are and were verbal cultures whose histories have been handed down mostly in stories, songs and artifacts and the origins of works of art are rarely backed up in writing. Further, up until about mid 20th century, carvers rarely signed their work. Basketry is hardly ever signed even to this day. 

What’s left is to either understand and be able to identify the work stylistically or to buy it from a knowledgeable and reputable seller who will stand behind his or her guarantee of authenticity. There is considerable written resource available, with Native American basketry, in particular, being the subject of a number of highly regarded works. Also, if traveling in an area typically rich in these artforms take the time to visit the workshops of any contemporary native artists that are open to the public. Many will have a wealth of knowledge to share, if you but ask the questions, and some contemporary artists still use the same process and tools as their forebears, as well. Visiting local museums where aged examples might be displayed is also recommended. 

While not comprehensive, there are some basic ‘rules of thumb’ that should be applied when contemplating the purchase of Native work.

First, there is almost no significant artwork available for retail sale that dates earlier than about the 1880’s. Earlier pieces of interest are usually in museums or private collections.
Eskimo Made Kayak Hunter
c. 1960

Second, work from the last quarter of the 19th century until about 1972 was unsigned. The early 1970’s marked the passage of the Marine Mammal Act that prohibited general trade in ivory but specifically exempted Alaskan Native carvers from its provisions. This pretty much assured that all Alaskan Native produced ivory art was signed as a protection to the carver after this law was enacted. 

Pre-1970’s unsigned ivory art is distinctive in style and subject and is generally of very high artistic quality. A hallmark of Northwest Coast Native carvers’ work is their preference for depicting their animals ‘frozen’ in motion and they were true masters at capturing that in their work. A genuine piece will be efficiently wrought with relatively few strokes and yet the subject will have that flowing look to it that one can easily put in motion with the mind’s eye. Facial expression and other subtle details will be minimalist at best as the artist’s interest is not in the details but in the movement. This is the aspect of an animal that struck the subsistence-based artisan as beautiful and what he strove to express in its highest form. 

To some extent, an indicator of age for ivory pieces can be estimated by examination of the material. There are three basic forms of ivory identifiable by coloration. New ivory is recently harvested and is a gleaming white color. Old ivory, which was frequently collected along the beaches, usually displays tan or brown coloring from its exposure to the elements. And finally, fossilized ivory is often very dark as a result of having been buried for years in the permafrost. Much of the old carved jewelry was made with fossilized ivory.

About 1974 the Alaska Native Arts & Crafts Co-op (ANAC) was formed in Anchorage for the express purpose of adding legitimacy to the aboriginal art and to serve as a symbol of authenticity for Alaskan Native arts and crafts. Items sold through the co-op carried a special tag as certification that it was of genuine Native Alaskan origin. Vintage pieces sold today will frequently still have this tag attached.
Tlingit Cedar Root Basket
With False Embroidery c. 1900

As the commercialization of Native arts has grown, the quantity of art carvings has increased while the quality has decreased. Early artists focused on the expression of the piece. Contemporary artisans for the most part reproduce similar stylized examples but which are designed to appeal to a much wider tourist and non-Native audience. This work is fairly easy to identify because it is usually made with new ivory and displays little or no coloration. Further, few contemporary pieces have the quality of artistry attributed to older work. While new pieces are occasionally represented by unethical vendors as being vintage, most pieces are sold in gift shops and online and the vendors are truthful about their age and origin. Online auction venues tend to have more problems with truthful representations than other outlets. 

As with all antiques and collectibles, the best protection against being victimized by a fraudulent deal is to either be personally knowledgeable about the characteristics of genuine work or to buy from a known legitimate and honorable vendor who is knowledgeable and has a track record of trouble-free sales. A reputable dealer will always be willing to stand behind his sales and can be trusted to make honest representations as to the origins of his pieces.

© David Simons, July 2006
Here are links to Native Alaskan items we currently are offering in our Etsy shop.
Eskimo Grass Basket
Child's Caribou Skin Mask,
Miniature Alaskan Eskimo Mask

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