Is this an authentic native american artifact?

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QUESTION:

I am looking at going to an artifact auction advertised at www.biddersandbuyers.com/sleeper to get a chanupa (pipe) and a shield and put them where they need to be, which is back in a ceremonial family’s care and not in someone’s collection. The shield looks to be a ghost dance shield. They say it is “C.A. early 1900s.” If this is real it should be from the 1890s time line. I am looking for some help on this matter. I have rescued other pipes from being sold and used in the wrong way. Please look at the shield and try to see if it is real or not. Wopila for your time.

-Submitted by Chris G.S.

ANSWER:

Hi Chris,

I can’t really tell if these are authentic native american artifacts. The pictures are too small to see details, and there isn’t enough information given to form an opinion. They don’t give the names of the native american artifact collectors these items came from or their background in aquiring the items, and I don’t know the reputation of the auction house or the sellers. See if the dealer belongs to the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association.

It would be very hard to determine age and authenticity without inspecting the items in person. Even then, there are some very good reproductions out there that would easily pass for authentic items from the turn of the last century to all but the most experienced appraisers. Even many museums have fakes in their collections.

When auction houses and other sellers say something is C.A., that is an abbreviation for “circa about” and what that really means is they have no written or other verifiable documentation to prove an exact date, so they are just guessing at the period it might be from and their estimate could easily be off plus or minus 20-30 years either way, or even more, depending on the expertise of the person who is assigning the dates. It is quite likely that the auction house did not date the items themselves or hire experts to do it, but are just relying on the word of the sellers, unless they have a reputation for specializing in native american artifacts.

When an item is labeled CA, that can also just mean the item’s appearance is consistent with similar items produced during that era. Using a CA date is a common ploy of people making artifact reproductions that look old, but really aren’t, to plant the idea that they are old in the buyer’s mind. The phrase “Museum Quality” is also often used to describe reproduction work. However, the use of those terms doesn’t necessarily mean the items are not authentic.

If the items are real native american artifacts, “Circa early 1900s” could be a legitimate guess for a ghost dance relic, because while the ghost dance wasn’t publicly performed beyond the 1890s, most of the sacred ceremonial dances were still practiced secretly all the way up to the 1960s to mid 1970s, when some of them, like the Sun Dance, finally began to be performed publicly again in some locations. However, many sacred ceremonies are still practiced privately out of public view today. So if the dates are a little off, they are still in the ballpark, and I wouldn’t necessarily think that alone was an indication of a fake.

However, a shield was NOT used in the Ghost Dance during any era, so that part of the identification of the piece in question is incorrect. Therefore, the periods when the Ghost Dance was performed are irrelevant to determining the age of this shield.

It could also be that the items are older than the CA date given, but were not added to the present collection until the early 1900s.They seem to have documentation on some of the items in the collection and are probably using the dates of things they do know the history of to compare to the items they are marking with a CA date. A CA date is really nothing more than an educated guess, and how accurate it might be depends entirely on the knowledge of the person making that guess.

Because there are other documented items in this auction, and all the items allegedly came from the same collectors, it is possible that they are all old items, assuming the original collector wasn’t fooled himself when he aquired the items. However, there are more items marked CA than items with documentation, and apparently this auction contains goods from two seller’s collections, so it is also possible only one collection is authentic, or only some of the items.

True ceremonial items are often identified with the name of the person who made them or originally owned them, and if they are important ceremonial objects, that information tends to get passed along with the artifact. I would feel more comfortable if the collectors at least knew what family or reservation specific items came from, but again, it is not unusual for them not to know.

Many artifacts were sold or traded many times before ending up with the collectors in posession of them today and could have been intentionally or accidentally misrepresented anywhere along the way. Most items collected in the early 1900s were originally collected by someone no longer living, and the seller in posession of them today may be no more sure of their true history than you are.

One indicator will be the prices these items are going for at the auction. If any of the items go for a rediculously low price and the auctioneer accepts the bid, rather than saying it’s no sale because the minimum bid wasn’t met, that would set off alarm bells for me. There are some very good fakes out there. Some will even fool the experts, so you can’t go by appearance alone.

Overall, your main guideline should begin with the price of the item. Real authentic ceremonial objects are not cheap, so if you think you are getting a real bargain, beware. The Navajo rugs in this auction that are labeled pre 1940 would be a good indicator. They should be going for thousands of dollars, five digit and possibly even six digit figures if they are in good condition is not uncommon.

Artifacts from the late 1800s – early 1900s would show signs of use and wear. I would expect to see marks of wear along the insides, along the facing sides and on the edges. Typical wear marks are shiny areas caused by rubbing, (often referred to as patina), diminishing of details through soft, repeated abrasion or rubbing, impact compacting, denting, scratches, fine cracks, etc.

Paints from natural pigments are usually dull rather than bright colors. Most 100 year old feathers are brittle, yellowed with age, and in very poor condition, often only consisting of the quill and spines with all soft feather tissues nearly or completely deteriorated.

The color quality, finish, luminescence and shape of the beads offer important clues. For example, post-1900 seed beads tend to be of brighter, but more opaque color quality, not as muted as are most of the shades made earlier.Old trade beads are irregular in shape, have many defects, and are often porous. However, trade beads are a popuar reproduction item so they aren’t a very good indicator by themselves, and while the finish acheived by time and wear on old pieces is very hard to duplicate, it can be done, so it is best to know and trust the native amerian artifact dealer you are dealing with.

A series of laws passed in 1906, 1966, 1979, and 1992 forbid the taking of Native American artifacts from federal land, including national forests, parks and Bureau of Land Management land, unless granted a permit to do so. Over the years, states have passed their own laws that restrict the taking of Native American objects from state land, echoing the federal laws. There are also laws that deal with pre-Columbian art and taking native works out of other countries.

Even if bought prior to the 1906 passage of the first federal law restricting removal of Indian property from federal lands, as many items were that were traded or sold in the late 1800s, it should not be assumed that such artifacts are legally marketable today. In many cases they are not. Legal or illegal, buying and selling artifacts that were originally taken from burial sites or plundered Indian villages also raises serious ethical issues, as you’ve noted in your question.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a United States federal law passed in 1990 requiring that Native Americans cultural items be returned to their respective peoples if and when they have been excavated, and allows archeological teams a short time for analysis before the remains must be returned.

“Cultural items” include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. This legislation also applies to many Native American artifacts, especially burial items and religious artifacts. It has necessitated massive cataloguing of the Native American collections of many museums in order to identify the living heirs, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations of remains and artifacts.

Whatever one decides is ethical, collectors need to protect themselves from these laws. Buyers should always make sure to get a letter of certification that authenticates where an object came from, when it was found, and how it was aquired. Buying these objects without documentation is the equivalent of buying a car or a house without a title. If someone can’t tell you where a native american artifact object came from and how it was acquired, you should question it’s authenticity or legality.

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