3 things to know when buying Native American rarities

Collecting Treasures: Some people object to the sale of such items

Recently, we auctioned a consignor’s collection of Native American rarities and took some heat for it. The collection included arrowheads, beaded moccasins, bannerstones, pots, vessels, bowls and more.

As an auctioneer, I have a fiduciary responsibility to sell a consignor’s property. And, I also take my legal responsibility for selling items to bidders seriously. Our consignor signed a contract stating that he owned the property free and clear from any claims, liens or other encumbrances and had full authority and lawful power to sell the items without any violation of any federal, state or other laws or regulations.

Like auction houses worldwide, many of our auctions include Native American pieces, and we’re seeing more of it since Baby Boomers are downsizing and selling off their collections.

Rare, original Native American pieces can break records at auction houses worldwide. In 2012, a Navajo “Chantland Blanket,” a First-Phase chief’s wearing blanket, realized $1.8 million at auction in California.

In our case, with many of the items in this recent auction, we could not verify the time periods and we stated that clearly in our catalog descriptions. The items that did the best included a bird mourning effigy stone pipe appearing to be from the Mississippian period that sold for $700 and a steatite platform pipe appearing to be from the Woodland period that sold for $750.

There were still some people who objected to the sale of the items, and quite a bit of confusion about the laws surrounding the sale.

Here are three things to consider before buying Native American rarities — whether at auction or anywhere else:

  1. Understand the laws: The United States has strict laws protecting cultural resources. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act, 16 U.S.C. § 470aa-470mm, was enacted Oct. 31, 1979 “to protect irreplaceable archaeological resources and sites on federal, public, and Indian lands.” The removal of Native American relics is not permitted in these areas, and in fact, you can be prosecuted and spend time incarcerated for simply removing a stone the size of a marble from a protected site. Private property, however, does permit removing items, but of course you must have the permission of the landowner. Human burial remains are federally protected, regardless of who owns the land on which they are found.
  2. Check provenance: Check the history of ownership, appraisal records, documentation from historical boards and any other evidence that backs up an item’s authenticity. The more solid the provenance, the more valuable the piece will be.
  3. Examine craftsmanship and condition: Not only are you looking to see how well an item stood the test of time, you also want to beware of fakes or reproductions.

In the auction business, many times we’re selling a piece of history from cultures around the world. Collectors who buy these items do so because they appreciate the craftsmanship and history behind each amazing piece. We celebrate that.

Erik Hoyer co-owns EJ’s Auction & Consignment in Glendale and J. Levine Auction & Appraisal in Scottsdale. Reach him at erik@ejsauction.comwww.ejsauction.com or@EJs_Auction on Twitter.

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