Identifying Alaskan Native American Items

For centuries Northwest Coast Native people (those inhabiting the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Northern California and British Columbia, Canada) lived as fishermen, hunters and subsistence dwellers. These folks created hauntingly beautiful and distinctive carvings, paintings, and woven works and their subject matter came directly from their natural surroundings. Using only natural grasses, spruce roots and cedar bark the women wove intricately designed baskets of every imaginable size and for every imaginable purpose. Some were brightly colored and used for trade while others were plainly constructed for day-to-day use. Other items were made from scavenged items found on the beaches and discards from the hunt. The men carved walrus ivory and whale baleens into jewelry and sculptures, often hand-decorated with inlays made of various types of natural materials. The carvings are called 'Scrimshaw', and is recognized as an advanced art form in this culture.

While technically a form of folk art, the fine workmanship and the artisans commanding ability to capture the natural movement and pose of their subjects, places these craftsmen and women with the most accomplished artists and sculptors in the world. Late 19th and early 20th Century Tlingit spruce root basketry is unrivaled for its distinctive design elements and exceptional construction. Unique to the decorative aspects of these baskets was the Tlingit weaver’s use of false embroidery, a method by which the colored design was raised on the exterior wall of the basket but could not be seen on the inside wall. It is breathtaking to see such a basket created by a master weaver. Understandably, vintage walrus ivory jewelry, carvings and basketry created by Northwest Coastal people is prized and highly sought after by collectors, and as a result, the values have increased dramatically.

An unfortunate fact of life in today’s environment is there are individuals who deceptively reproduce Native Alaskan and Northwest Coast artwork and introduce them into the market as authentic when they are not. The purpose of this article is to offer insight into the characteristics one should look for to ascertain authenticity. Whether adding to your own private collection or acquiring these types of crafted articles for sale, it is important to be aware that fakes do exist. Having a basic understanding of the specific characteristics found in a particular style of work is a must before making any major purchase.

A few years ago, so-called Alaskan native ivory carvings made their appearance in gift shops and souvenir stores along the cruise ship routes in Alaska. The carvings are represented as authentic Alaskan Native artwork but the artwork is actually manufactured in Bali, and legally exported to the U.S. with paper tags stating the items to be of Balinese origin. The tags are removed and the item put on the shelf for sale as Alaskan art. In some cases, the craftsmanship of a fake can be excellent (but still not as good as the original) and differences in style can be difficult to discern for the unpracticed eye. To further complicate matters, an artificial resin material made to emulate the striations and color of one of the popular types of walrus ivory is used, making it even harder to identify as a fake.

How does one know that a ‘vintage’ Alaskan or a Northwest Coastal item is genuine? While provenance can be the best and most reliable method of identifying many types of genuine art, it is problematic here, as written records for 19th Century to mid-20th Century Native work are hard to come by. These are and were verbal cultures whose histories have been handed down mostly in stories, songs and artifacts, and the origins of works of art are rarely backed up in writing. Further, up until about the mid-20th century, carvers rarely signed their work and basketry is hardly ever signed even to this day.

What’s left is to both understand and be able to identify the work stylistically, or to buy it from a knowledgeable and reputable seller who will stand behind his or her guarantee of authenticity. There are a considerable number of written resources available, and in particular, there are several highly regarded written works on the subject of Native American basketry. Also, if traveling in an area that is known for these types of art forms, take the time to visit the workshops of contemporary native artists that are open to the public. Many will have a wealth of knowledge to share if you but ask the questions, and some contemporary artists still use the same process and tools as their forebears, and are happy to demonstrate their techniques. Visiting local museums where aged examples are displayed is also a good idea.

While not comprehensive, there are some basic rules that should be applied when contemplating the purchase of Native American art work:

First, there is almost no significant artwork available for retail sale that dates earlier than the 1880’s. Earlier pieces of interest are usually in museums or private collections.

Second, work from the last quarter of the 19th century until about 1972 are unsigned. The early 1970’s marked the passage of the Marine Mammal Act that prohibited general trade in ivory but specifically exempted Alaskan Native carvers from its provisions. This pretty much assured that Alaskan Native produced ivory art was signed as a protection to the carver after this law was enacted.

Third, pre-1970’s unsigned ivory art is distinctive in style and subject and is generally of very high artistic quality. A hallmark of Northwest Coast Native carvers’ work is their preference for depicting their animals ‘frozen’ in motion; they were true masters at capturing movement in their work. A genuine piece will be efficiently wrought with relatively few strokes and yet the subject will have a flowing look to it that one can easily put in motion with the mind’s eye. Facial expression and other subtle details will be minimal as the artist’s interest is not in the details but in the movement. The movement of an animal is what struck the subsistence-based artisan as beautiful and what he strove to express in its highest form.

Fourth, often by carefully examining the color you can arrive at a rough estimate of the age of the piece. There are three basic forms of ivory identifiable by coloration. New ivory is recently harvested and is a gleaming white color. Old ivory, which was frequently collected along the beaches, usually displays tan or brown coloring from its exposure to the elements. And finally, fossilized ivory is often very dark as a result of having been buried for years in the permafrost. Much of the old carved jewelry is made with fossilized ivory.

Fifth, in 1974 the Alaska Native Arts & Crafts Co-op (ANAC) was formed in Anchorage for the express purpose of adding legitimacy to the aboriginal art and to serve as a symbol of authenticity for Alaskan Native arts and crafts. Items sold through the co-op carried a special tag as certification that it was of genuine Native Alaskan origin. Vintage pieces sold today will frequently still have this tag attached.

Finally, as the commercialization of Native arts has grown, the quantity of art carvings has increased while the quality has decreased. Early artists focused on the expression of the piece. Contemporary artisans for the most part reproduce similar stylized examples designed to appeal to a much wider tourist and non-Native audience. This work is fairly easy to identify because it is usually made with new ivory and displays little or no coloration. Further, few contemporary pieces have the quality of artistry attributed to older work. Most new pieces are sold in gift shops and online by vendors who are truthful about their origin and age, but occasionally new pieces are misrepresented as vintage by unethical dealers. Online auction venues tend to have more problems with truthful representations than other outlets.

As with all antiques and collectibles, the best protection against being victimized by a fraudulent deal is to be personally knowledgeable about the characteristics of genuine work, or to buy from a well-known legitimate and honorable vendor who is knowledgeable and has a track record of trouble-free sales. A reputable dealer will always be willing to stand behind his sales and can be trusted to make honest representations as to the origins of his pieces.

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