The Old West Romance Lives On

The demand for Native American artwork and artifacts continues to rise. Wes Cowan provides advice for those looking to collect these reminders of America’s original inhabitants. — Editor

Native Americans roaming the plains, cowboys riding their horses and young women awaiting their return – these romantic views of the west have long attracted people to collect antiques relating to the opening and closing of America’s frontier.

At the turn of the 19th century, transcontinental railroads allowed intrepid travelers to explore the wild countryside, opening up an entirely new tourist market. Aware of this, Native Americans catered to the new burgeoning consumer-base, crafting pieces to fit buyer’s expectations. Pottery, baskets, beaded bags, carved ivory trinkets, wooden masks and dolls in cradleboards were sold in curio shops, trading posts and at train stops. These masterpieces were affordable to travelers and had a unique and exotic quality.

As the frontier days slip further into the past, the market for Native American art has steadily increased to the point where an early 19th century northwest coast mask brings hundreds of thousands of dollars. Coast masks are usually carved wood decoration pieces depicting creatures or humans that were used for rituals and ceremonies.

Today, contemporary pieces can be purchased for a variety of prices and they are affordable to the new collector. Artists such as Kathleen Wall, an award wining potter from Jemez Pueblo, Delbert Buck, a young Navajo folk artist, and Don Lelooska, who was a master Kwakuitl carver, all bring to the market a unique and exciting flair that is great for decorating and wonderful for conversation.

When choosing to buy a contemporary piece, research the artist and note if he or she has won awards or has held exhibits. These artisans will likely make for good future investments.

If your tastes bring you back to the age of trains, saloons, cowboys and Indians, there are many affordable and interesting objects. An eight-inch Acoma jar, circa 1910, can be bought for around $300-$500. A cute Eskimo carved seal can be purchased for $75 and a 19th century framed photograph of the undeveloped West sells from a few hundred to several thousands of dollars.

When purchasing an older Native American piece, be sure to buy from a knowledgeable and reputable dealer. The market has its share of forgeries. For example, many baskets worldwide are created with similar qualities and designs as authentic Southwestern baskets. Also, be aware of an object’s condition. Does the Acoma jar have a chip? Is the seal missing a flipper? Does the photograph have a giant water stain in the middle of the image? Condition is very important when it comes to value.
Above all, buy what you like and what you think is a cool piece. Even a chipped Acoma jar looks great on a mantle or bookshelf.

These objects, whether antique or contemporary, are a part of the history and growth of the United States. To own a part of history is exciting and to know these collectible have the opportunity to appreciate in value and act as wonderful conversation pieces only enriches the purchasing experience.

About the Author:

Kentucky native 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 info@cowanauctions.com. Article research by Danica Farnand.

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