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Collecting Indian Art: Baskets, Beadwork, Carvings, Jewelry, Paintings, Pottery, Sculptures, and Textiles

Collecting Indian Art: Baskets, Beadwork, Carvings, Jewelry, Paintings, Pottery, Sculptures, and Textiles – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – August 2002

This is the first in a series of feature articles on collecting American Indian arts and crafts by Dr. Gregory Schaaf. He is the Director of the Center for Indigenous Arts & Cultures, co-founder of Santa Fe’s Indian Art Collectors Circle, and author of the “American Indian Art Series.”

Everyone who enjoys exploring antique stores and shows throughout America and abroad will discover various objects of American Indian arts and crafts, pre-historic to the present. From hand-coiled pottery and baskets to Navajo silver pawn jewelry, original materials abound on the open market. Learning how to identify and to evaluate authentic Native arts can be a fun and enriching experience. The purpose of this series of articles is to inform readers on what to look for when collecting antique and contemporary works of Native artists.

My personal experience in collecting Indian art began on my grandfather’s Missouri farm north of Lake of the Ozarks. At the age of five, I found Indian arrowheads and my Uncle Floyd gave me an ancient stone tomahawk. When I was nine, my father and mother gave me a Navajo silver and turquoise squash blossom necklace. In 5th grade, I wrote 64 book reports on American Indians. I continued to collect traditional native arts & crafts, while earning a B.A., MA & Ph.D. in American History with special emphasis on Native American Studies. As a lecturer and professor of Native American Studies in California, my 300 American Indian students knew when my paycheck arrived and showed up with baskets, beadwork and other items made by themselves and family members.

After retiring as a college professor, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico — capital of the Indian art world. As Director of the Center for Indigenous Arts & Cultures, a non-profit, educational organization and division of Southwest Learning Centers, I developed relationships and friendships with hundreds of American Indian artists, as well as museum curators, directors of organizations, and tribal leaders. In 1995, Jan Duggan, former head of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, and I co-founded Santa Fe’s Indian Art Collectors Circle dedicated to sharing our collective knowledge at our monthly meetings. From these enriching experiences was born an idea to write the biographies of American Indian artists in all media and to publish a 20-volume set of standard reference books as “The American Indian Art Series.”

Beyond my years of scholarly research at universities, museums, libraries and tribal archives, I give much credit to fellow collectors and reputable dealers for sharing their knowledge on the subject. I sometimes ask them, “What was your greatest find in searching for Indian arts and crafts?”

One friend responded, “Years ago, I was poking around our local Goodwill store. I found a hundred-year-old Apache Indian basket, a big olla covered with human figures, worth at least $25,000. The tag read 25. However, when I gave the volunteer worker a $100 bill, she exclaimed, ‘What do you mean giving me a $100 for a 25 cent sale?’ I promptly placed my quarter on the counter. At the end of the year, I gave them a generous donation”

General Tips for Beginning Collectors

As in other areas of collecting, knowledge is paramount. First, recognize that our old school books and Hollywood western movies were distorted, so we must search for more authentic and factual information about American Indians. Second, acquire a good magnifying glass, so you can examine materials close-up. Third, establish active relationships with reputable dealers and museum curators. Ask them questions to help you learn. Visit galleries and museums, attend shows and look carefully at objects that attract your interest. Finally, plan trips to the centers of Indian arts and crafts where you can meet other collectors, dealers and Indian artists.

Contact established American Indian arts organizations that operate under professional codes of ethics. The Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association (ATADA) provide educational services and membership directories. The Indian Arts & Crafts Association (IACA) guarantees members offer only authentic, hand-made Native arts and crafts. Hundreds of other Indian arts organizations can be found on the Internet.

Four Indian arts collector groups exist across the country in California, Oklahoma, Michigan and New Mexico. Santa Fe’s Indian Art Collectors Circle is free of charge, open to the public and meets the first Wednesday of every month. They feature “Show & Tell” where everyone brings an item or two of Indian art for group discussion. They also visit the homes of private collectors, local galleries and host guest speakers from museums and Native American communities. No buying, selling or trading is permitted in the meetings, but the record for a single sale in the parking lot after a meeting reportedly is $30,000! To get on the mailing list for monthly invitations and directions, send an email to the Center for Indigenous Arts & Cultures at Please also contact them if you need help starting an Indian Art Collectors Circle in your area.

Subscribe to periodicals featuring Native arts: American Indian Art Magazine, Native Peoples, Southwest Art, Indian Trader, Whispering Wind, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Runner and now The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles.


For over 10,000 years, baskets have been woven in the Americas. Baskets found on the open market often date ca. 1880 – 1930. Although a few male weavers have been recorded, basketry generally is a woman’s art form. Baskets with documentation on the name of the weaver and the exact date of creation are especially prized. An estimated 2,000 basket weavers are recorded in history, from the late 18th century to the present.

Perhaps the most famous Indian basket weaver was a Washoe woman named Datsolalee. One of her masterpieces — a large, finely coiled, globular basket — reportedly sold for $1 million in a private sale, a record price for an object of Indian art. What makes her baskets so valuable is the fame of the artist, the beauty of the form and the fineness of the weave. Simply use a ruler to count the number of stitches per inch. Over 20/inch is considered a very good weave in coiling, while the best have over 40/inch.

Some tribes are more popular in the history of basketry. In the Northeast, the Black Ash and sweet grass baskets of the Iroquois, Micmac, Anishnabe, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot are the best known. In the Southeast, the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chitimacha baskets sometimes are woven from River Cane or Oak. Few baskets were woven in the Great Plains. Strong basket weaving traditions continue among the Hopi, Apache, Pima, Tohono O’dham, Navajo, Havasupai, Walapai, San Juan Paiute, Shoshone and other nations. The California Indian Basket Weavers Association and other groups have help to preserve and to promote their artforms. Plateau weavers continue to weave beautiful twined bags. In the Northwest Coast and Alaska, hundreds of weavers have kept their unique styles alive, including the Makah, Nootka, Haida, Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Inuit, Attu and Aleut. [Spellings of these tribal names now are changing.] While some collect baskets by tribes, others are attracted to particular forms: ollas, cooking bowls, gambling trays, boat baskets, feather baskets, beaded baskets, sewing baskets, hats, caps, miniatures and a myriad of others.

Beadwork & Quillwork

Beadwork comes from more tribes than perhaps any type of Indian arts and crafts. An even older artform is quillwork, the tradition of weaving dyed porcupine quills into patterns on leather and birchbark. Examples from the 18th century and earlier are rarely found outside of museums. Some collectors specialize in 19th century materials, especially coveting war shirts, dresses, pipe bags, leggings, arm bands, moccasins, knife sheaths, tipi bags, quivers and blanket strips. Early quilled and beaded war shirts go up to $100,000. Southeast beaded shoulder bags from the Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Cherokee are highly collectable. On October 29, 2001 at Butterfield’s auction, a pair of beaded Kiowa moccasins from the Southern Plains sold for $21,075.

As 19th century beadwork is disappearing quickly from the open market, material from the 20th century to the present is growing in popularity. “Strike-a-lites” with tin cone dangles and other small, personal beaded bags have soared in value. One tip for identifying older beadwork is to gently move beads to one side. Look for impressions of each bead embossed into the leather over time. Old beads sewn on a new bag will not leave these embossed impressions.

The dating and tribal identification of Indian beadwork are intriguing challenges enjoyed by experienced collectors. Seasoned veterans have memorized bead colors and shapes according to the decade in which a particular bead was introduced. Ancient beads were made mostly from shells and seeds, thus the term “seed bead.” The size of the beads is important, the number 14 and 16 are among the smallest. Tribal identification comes from distinct design elements, form, and techniques of construction. When we collect beadwork, we show it to different specialists and try to gain a consensus. Contemporary beadwork falls into three general categories: classic revival of old forms, the blending of tribal styles in beadwork created by Pow-wow dancers, and the new pictorial beadwork of top award-winners such as Marcus Amerman (Choctaw).


Carving is an ancient artform going back to the dawn of humanity. Materials include wood, bone, and ivory, as well as sandstone, marble, alabaster, turquoise and other substances. Stone tools were replaced with metal knives and chisels.

The most active regions for native carvings are the Northeast, Northwest and Southwest. Master-ful Indian wood carvers in the Eastern Woodlands preserve their ancestral traditions. Men such as Andy Swamp of the Akwasasne Mohawk Nation on the New York-Canadian border still hand carve beautiful wooden baby cradles embellished with intricate carved and painted flowers.

In the Northwest Coast and Alaska, the carving of certain masks for collectors is accepted and promoted. Hundreds of different masks have been recorded, often associated with particular songs and ceremonies. Totem poles represent different clans or figures. Other forms include canoes, paddles, bentwood boxes, rattles, halibut hooks, spoons and dolls. The Haida from the Queen Charlotte Islands carve argillite, a black slate material. Alaskan Natives are legally permitted to carve walrus ivory, but they must sign their miniature carvings of bears, seals, whales, kayaks, wolves, huskies, birds and good luck figures.

Kachina dolls are popular Southwest carvings made mostly by the Hopi and Zuni. Kachina dolls are given to children to help teach them about some 300 Kachina spirits at the core of their religion. Their spiritual traditions are reinforced at annual Kachina dances.


American Indian paintings on rock walls and leather hides date back to ancient times. Painted shields and buffalo robes are among the most valuable items. In the late 19th century, Plains Indians using the paper from the traders’ ledger books made ledger drawings. In the 1920s & 30s, exhibits of Southwest and Oklahoma Indian paintings were held in Chicago and New York City. Noted American painter John Sloan recognized the greatness of some Native American artists. In 1941, New York’s Museum of Modern Art hosted a major exhibition of American Indian art in all media. From 1950 to 2000, hundreds of exhibits were hosted by major museums across the country. Thousands of American Indian painters have been recorded in history. Soqueen was one of the early San Ildefonso painters. Pablita Velarde is perhaps the oldest living woman painter. Hopi painter Raymond Naha follows in the footsteps of his famous uncle and namesake. Navajo painter Tony Abeyta, Zuni painter Duane Dishta and Hopi painter and sculptor Dan Namingha are recognized modern masters.


More items of Indian jewelry are sold when compared with all other artforms combined. On any given day in any major city in the United States a good antique hunter could find dozens of examples of Indian jewelry. This is a great way to start a new Indian art collection, because jewelry can be quite affordable and is “wearable” art.

Although 19th century material is rare and hard to find, 20th century Indian jewelry abounds. The Navajo Nation has produced more jewelers than any other native peoples, outnumbering other nations by at least ten to one. They are known to produce sandcast, hand stamped, inlay, overlay and almost every technique. Zuni Pueblo is best known for their cluster, mosaic and channel inlay of turquoise, coral, mother-of-pearl and jet cut into miniature pieces that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Santo Domingo Pueblo also create mosaic jewelry, but produce greater quantities of finely ground disk beads of shell and other materials called “hieshi.”

In the 1940s, Hopi jewelers “overlay” jewelry made with two layers of material. With tiny hack saw blades they cut into the top layer designs of animals, plants and other clan symbols. The most elaborate works portray Kachina spirits and entire village scenes.

The top layer is then melded over a back layer to create a black silhouette effect. In the 1960s, Hopi jewelers Charles Loloma and Preston Monongye were innovators of the “New Jewelry” movement, elevating Indian jewelry into the realm of contemporary modern art. However, the world record for a single item of Native jewelry without gemstones — a solid gold bracelet by Northwest jeweler and carver Bill Reid — was set at $150,000.


For over a thousand years, Indian women have hand-coiled clay pots and hardened them in bonfires. Pottery making generally is a family affair. Pueblo Indians in the Southwest have been noted over the centuries for their fine quality pottery. In compiling their biographies, we recorded 500 Hopi-Tewa potters, 750 Northern Tewa potters and 2,150 potters from the twelve pueblos south of Santa Fe.

The late Tewa potter Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso is recognized as the most famous Indian potter. One of her large black pots sold recently at Sotheby’s for $250,000. Margaret Tafoya was considered one of the great matriarchs from Santa Clara Pueblo, while Lucy Lewis was honored at Acoma. The world record for a single pot reportedly was a large, unsigned Acoma olla sold privately for $350,000.


The oldest stone carvings are animal forms for ritual purpose sometimes called fetishes. The Zuni are most closely associated with these forms, although other tribes made them. Much secrecy surrounds these mysterious objects.

The late Allan Houser is widely acclaimed as the greatest Indian sculptor in history. He made monumental sculptures in stone and bronze. His early work reflected his Apache heritage, being a descendant of Geronimo’s people. His later work became more abstract and modern in style. He told students at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe that they were free to create any style of art, and it would still be “Indian” because they were “Indians.”

Jemez sculptor Clifford Fragua recently has been honored by being chosen to carve a marble sculpture on Popé, leader of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The monumental sculpture will be displayed in Washington, D.C., representing New Mexico in a national sculpture display of heroes from each state.

Today, a dynamic Native American sculpture movement is gaining momentum. Interest has spread beyond the Southwest into each region of the country. From out of the North, native artists from Canada and Alaska are creating powerful sculptures out of soapstone, marble and other materials. Their future looks bright.


For over 2,000 years, Native people have woven textiles. Early Puebloan weavings were of plant fibers and cotton. Hand woven cotton garments with wool embroidery continue to be created mostly for ceremonial use. Alaskan Native weavers utilize Mountain Goat and Bighorn Sheep wool. One Chilkat wool and cedar bark blanket recently sold for $34,875.

However, the Navajo claim the world record for a single textile — a 19th century First Phase Chief’s blanket — sold at Sotheby’s for $530,000. A contemporary Navajo Two Grey Hills tapestry by Barbara Jean Ornelas & sister Rose Ann Lee won Best of Show at Santa Fe’s Indian Market and reportedly sold for $50,000. Respected traders, such as Mark Winter of Todlena Trading Post, contribute greatly to the development of Indian textiles by encouraging weavers to create the finest woven tapestries over a hundred stitches per inch.

The Future of Indian Art Collecting

In two years, the National Museum of the American Indian, a division of the Smithsonian Institution, is scheduled to open on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Preparations are being made to handle crowds totaling tens of millions each year. What people will see is perhaps the greatest collection of American Indian arts and crafts ever assembled in one place. We received a private tour of the collection as it is being prepared for exhibition.

We believe the impact of this experience will change fundamentally the way people view American Indians. We predict that demand for American Indian arts and crafts will grow exponentially. Given the very limited supply of the best materials, we expect values will soar. For this reason, combined with our great love for Indian art, we presently are collecting with a passion.

See Also

Top Ten Points to Value in American Indian Art by Gregory Schaaf, Ph.D.

About the Author

Dr. Gregory Schaaf is Director of the Center for Indigenous Arts & Cultures in Santa Fe. He earned his doctorate in American Indian History and a degree in Art History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During his distinguished teaching career at the University of California, California State University and Minnesota State University, he became an Associate Professor and Coordinator of American Indian Studies. As a recognized scholar, he addressed the United Nations and testified before the United States Senate of Indian Affairs. He co-founded the international Tree of Peace Society and Santa Fe’s Indian Art Collectors Circle.
Dr. Schaaf has been a writer for the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Visitors Guide and the official Indian Market Magazine. He has served as historian for over twenty Indian nations. He is a tribally enrolled member and is advisor to the Chief of the Northern Cherokee Nation. He continues to work directly with American Indian communities and schools, developing educational and art projects. Articles about his work have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, National Geographic and People Magazine.

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