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Sioux Chief Black Bird’s War Shirt Sells for $2.7 million

by WorthPoint Staff (05/18/11).

This Oglala Sioux beaded and fringed hide war shirt that had once belonged to the famous and celebrated Sioux Chief, Black Bird, sold to an anonymous buyer for $2,658,500 at Sotheby’s on May 18.

NEW YORK – A new auction record for a piece of American Indian Art was set on May 18 when an Oglala Sioux beaded and fringed hide war shirt that had once belonged to the famous and celebrated Sioux Chief, Black Bird, sold to an anonymous buyer for $2,658,500 at Sotheby’s.

The war shirt—which held a pre-sale estimate of $250,000-$350,000—led the sale which totaled $4,809,503. This comfortably surpassed the high estimate for the auction and was the highest ever total for a various-owner sale in this category (overall est. $2.8/4 million).

Two determined telephone bidders battled for several minutes before auctioneer Hugh Hildesley brought the hammer down on the war shirt. In addition to the provenance, the shirt is made all the more remarkable by the existence of photographs showing it being worn by its original owner. Photographic documentation of an artifact as important as the Oglala Sioux Shirt is very rare. In this case though, several images exist of Chief Black Bird wearing the shirt, providing an important insight to its history and to the life of the Chief who was one of the most documented Native Americans of his generation.

Part of the provenance of the war shirt includes this promotional postcard for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show from 1902, showing Chief Black Bird wearing the shirt.

Compared to other equivalent historical figures, much is known about this Sioux chief. He is recorded in the Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger, meaning he fought in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, and is likely to have been present at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

One of the photographs shows him with his wife and a son in Omaha in 1899, and in another photo titled “Little Wound and Sioux Chief’s,” taken at the Indian Congress, Pan American Exposition in 1901, and in a promotional postcard for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, in which he participated in England in 1902. The shirt is made all the more remarkable by its distinguished provenance, having been in the collections of Amy Vanderbilt and later Ed Vebell.

Other highlights in the sale includs a Northwest Coast polychromed wood figure, probably Nootka, that sold for $212,500 (est. $175.000-$225,000) and a Northwest Coast horn bowl, which fetched $146,500 (est. $30,000-$50,000). A Comanche painted hide shield and cover sold for $98,500, setting a new record for an American Indian shield at auction (est. $80,000-$100,000). Leading the blankets in the sale was a Tlingit Chilkat blanket, which fetched $74,500—a new record for a Chilkat blanket at auction (est. $60,000-$90,000).

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