Look in your jewelry box – do you see any old Native American jewelry that you inherited or purchased? Or, maybe you have a bolo tie, belt or buckle that your grandfather passed down to you. It could be old pawn, which is in demand right now.
The term ‘old pawn’ can be misleading if you’re not familiar with the history of the Native American artisans who created the jewelry. You might think there’s not much value to them, when on the contrary, these pieces can command high prices at auction.
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Native American craftsmen would pawn their jewelry for cash at trading posts along the railway. When items were not redeemed, they became ‘dead pawn,’ and the traders sold them to tourists. Dead pawn can refer to old and new pieces, but it’s the old pawn that is the most collectible among American Indian jewelry.
Most old pawn is made of turquoise and silver, but some pieces feature seashells that were acquired through trade with other tribes. The Navajo artists were the first to use turquoise in their jewelry because it was indigenous to the area. When the turquoise was mined out, it was imported, but those stones were often softer and treated with resin to make them hard. Old pawn can also trace back to the Zuni, Hopi and other tribes in the Southwest.
How can you tell if you have old pawn? It’s important to have a professional assess it for authenticity, but the weight of the silver is often a good clue. Back then the artists used more and better quality silver. One way you can determine if the piece is silver-plated is to see if it will respond to a magnet. Silver-plated pieces contain nickel and will be pulled to a magnet, while sterling silver pieces will not.
We’ve seen some old pawn jewelry sell for thousands of dollars. On average, we see old pawn bracelets, rings and belt buckles that sell for between $350 and $500. Buyers are looking for rare pieces in good condition, so their bids will be based on the piece’s age, authenticity, quality of the silver and stones, and provenance provided, such as receipts and past appraisal records.
There’s also good news for those of you who have more modern Native American jewelry that you want to sell. Some pieces by contemporary artists, like Charles Loloma, Jesse Monongya and others can command tens of thousands of dollars at auction, depending on the condition and authenticity. In general, Native American jewelry seems to be doing well in the secondary market. That goes for Native American art, baskets and other collectibles too.
Erik Hoyer owns EJ’s Auction & Consignment in Glendale.