Deep Black Rock Carves Its Way Into Collectors’ Hands

Wes Cowan details the craft of argillite and how the material has resulted in some fine collectible objects. —Editor

Located off the coast of British Columbia, the Queen Charlotte Islands are home to the Haida people and their beloved argillite. Argillite is a black metamorphic rock that the Haida masters have been carving for more than two centuries in response to the burgeoning tourist market. Plates, totem poles, pipes, and figures are among the most common forms of carvings and can be highly collectible.

The use of argillite began in the early 19th century when carvers translated the cultural iconography that was traditionally executed in wood, horn, and bone into this medium, mainly for selling to tourists.

Only a handful of early argillite carvers are known by name. Among the most famous was Charles Edenshaw (1839-1924), a Haida chief and highly accomplished carver, painter and jeweler. His talent ranks among the best due not only to his technical abilities, but also to his skill in rendering native forms in a manner consistent with his Haida cultural upbringing. He created masterpieces for the tourist market.

Collectors have always treasured argillite, in part because of the whimsical depictions of mythical stories it often portrays. With figures such as ravens, bears, and frogs intermixing with humans, it is impossible to not be intrigued by the intricate compositions.

Argillite has slate-like properties and is quite fragile, so large carvings are rare. Typical carvings are approximately 9” or smaller. A piece of argillite should be examined to see if it is broken or chipped. Pieces have often been dropped and later fixed with glue, which can greatly affect the value. The level of detail in the carving in relation to size is another indication of value. Larger carvings with an array of imagery will bring more than a piece of comparable size with less detail.

While an 11” plate carved by Edenshaw sells for nearly $45,000, a new collector can purchase a turn-of-the-century totem pole for several hundred dollars. In addition to antique Haida argillite, contemporary carvers are using this medium to design intriguing pieces of art. These carvings range in price from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

Haida carvings have always captured the imaginations of both their creators and collectors. Argillite is one form of Northwest Coast art that is affordable and a true conversation piece.

About the Author:

Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at Article research by Danica Farnand.

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