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Top Ten Points to Value in American Indian Art

Top Ten Points to Value in American Indian Art

by Gregory Schaaf, Ph.D.

People often ask, “What should I consider when buying American Indian art?” My first advice is: “Buy what brings you joy.” Indian art appraisers also consider the following ten points:

  1. Who? Is this an authentic, handmade Indian item? Learn the biographical backgrounds of your favorite artists. Good reference books are available. Consider the artists’ tribal affiliations, exhibitions, awards and family histories.
  2. When? An artist’s recent works may be his or her finest achievements and most valuable. Rare early works also are prized. For antique Indian art, dating is important and based on scientific testing or educated opinion.
  3. Where? Buying directly from the artist ensures authenticity. Top galleries and auction houses also offer quality artworks. Many gallery owners are happy to share their knowledge and provide books on your favorite subjects.
  4. Condition? A damaged object has a lower value. When considering restoration, add the purchase price plus the cost of repair, and then compare with fair market value. Perfect condition often is called “mint.”
  5. Rarity? Some artists produce few artworks. When the supply is low, demand may grow. Values rise with competition among collectors.
  6. Popularity? Museum exhibitions, gallery showings, exhibit catalogs, magazine articles, books, and other media add to popularity. Some artists become more popular through demonstrations and exhibitions, including the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Arts and Crafts Show.
  7. Awards? Competition is strong to win awards at major American Indian arts and crafts shows. Ribbons are offered for “Best of Show,” as well as in various categories of Indian arts. Special awards are presented to the children.
  8. Technical Fineness? The number of stitches per inch is measured in weavings. The quality of polish and painted designs are important in pottery. Jewelry collectors look for refined finish work and style of construction.
  9. Size and Materials? Bigger often is more expensive, except in miniatures. Manufactured materials generally are discouraged. Are the gem stones, fibers, paints, clays and dyes natural?
  10. Artistic Design and Aesthetic Quality? Quality of design is a balance between form and content. Compositions may be symmetrical or counter-balanced. Aesthetics are a matter of personal taste. Look for special qualities in each work of art. In time, you’ll develop an eye for quality. Trust your judgment and acquire Indian art that will bring you much personal joy.

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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