Oak Creek Indian Art

Advice about buying, selling and collecting

This comprehensive list of tips on Collecting Native American Arts & Crafts was prepared by the Department of Interior.

It is an excellent resource, and we share it with you here.

Tips on Collecting Native American Arts & Crafts

American Indian art, in all forms, has never been more alive and ever changing and continues to be one of the most gratifying and exciting to collect. American Indian art combines age old tradition, innovation and talent, and results in a variety of art forms for all levels of collecting -- whether you are beginning with a first-time purchase or have been collecting for a number of years. And at all levels of collecting, you are helping to support the continuation of the expression and livelihood of American Indian artists, while at the same time adding an object of beauty to your life!

These art forms, many with centuries old influences, incorporate a natural spirit with timeless appeal. Whether it is basketry, in which artists are using the techniques and materials their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, or silversmithing, which has evolved into classic as well as contemporary wearable art, there is always a place for authentic, handmade arts and crafts.

The interest in and appreciation of American Indian arts and crafts has unfortunately resulted in misrepresentations and imports in the market. Becoming an educated buyer and purchasing authentic arts and crafts will help to preserve the integrity and commitment of today's Native American artists. The popularity of American Indian arts and crafts has also brought merchandise into the market that is legitimately represented as "American Indian inspired" or influenced. This should not be confused with authentic American Indian arts and crafts. This guide should be a helpful aid in either beginning or continuing to collect with confidence that you know what you are purchasing. And, becoming an educated buyer is enjoyable, rewarding and exciting!
Tips on Collecting Native American Arts & Crafts

1) Become Educated:
a) Read books on craft areas you are interested in. Learning more about American Indian arts and crafts is often one of the most enjoyable parts of collecting and results in a strong foundation from which you can begin to buy with more confidence. You may also find as you learn more, your areas of interest may change, with each discovery leading you to another! You may not feel the learning process, but it will become evident when you realize you have the knowledge and confidence when making your purchase.
b) Ask Questions! Talk to people you are purchasing from/considering purchasing from. Established and knowledgeable dealers and artists are a great source of information and enjoy sharing it. They can direct you to publications and can point out what to look for when purchasing. Many dealers, artists and museums also offer rewarding opportunities through exhibits, presentations and demonstrations -- take advantage of these as you see them made available.
c) Explore trade magazines, publications, and organizations. The Indian Arts and Crafts Association has informational brochures on many craft areas that give a brief history and explanation of the craft, the origins and traditions and tips on what to look for when buying. Many of its members can provide these to you as well. Currently available are brochures on: Basketry, Beadwork, Eskimo Art of Alaska, Fetishes, Heishi, Jewelry, Kachinas, Navajo Weaving, Pueblo Pottery, and Sandpaintings. For your free brochure on the craft area(s) of interest, check with your local dealer or send the request with a self-addressed stamped envelope to IACA, 122 La Veta NE, Albuquerque, NM, 87108.

2) Become More Educated:
a) Purchase from established dealers and IACA members. Reputable businesses will represent their merchandise accurately and can assure you of your purchase.
b) Ask for a certificate of authenticity or a written record on a business card, letterhead or receipt for your purchase. The information should include the item description, materials used tribal affiliation of the artist and artist name, when possible.
c) Avoid stores with "perpetual" sales or unethical discounting offers. Prices are often inflated and then a flat discount is offered that results in paying close to or sometimes more than a fair retail price.
d) If a deal seems too good to be true, beware!
e) Ask questions -- a knowledgeable and helpful staff is a good sign of a reputable business. They can help explain materials and techniques used and guide you on what to look for. When an answer is not known, they have numerous resources and will make the effort to find out. One of the most exciting things about collecting is that the learning process continues for everyone -- for both the novice and the aficionados, as well as the artists and dealers in the business.

3) Keep Records

It is extremely helpful (and very interesting over time!) to keep your receipts and certificates together for the purchases you make. This can be done by simply clipping the receipts and certificates together and placing them in a box or envelope. Many collectors may include a photo and notes or additional information on the artist. Some may even have a journal or album for details, and include updated appraisals for their collection. Having the item description, where and when it was purchased and the purchase price is most important and each person can use the method they are comfortable with. Keeping records:
a) is a good record of history
b) is helpful if there is a problem or concern with an item, its condition or care
c) helps in time of "the failing memory"!
d) is good information for family members who may some day acquire the item(s)
e) is good for insurance purposes
f) you never know when the emerging artist you purchased a piece by becomes the next highly collectable, award-winning artist!

4) If you feel an item has been misrepresented,
allow the person or shop it was purchased from the opportunity to clarify the information -- this can clear any misunderstandings.

5) Know the Law that Protects You and American Indian Artists.
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, PL 101-644, is a truth in advertising law in that it mandates honest representation of American Indian arts and crafts and sets forth the definitions of such.

For a copy of the law, write or call the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Department of the Interior,MS-4004-MIB, 1849 C Street, NW, Washington, DC 20240, (202) 208-3773. Written complaints concerning misrepresentation of Indian arts and crafts can be addressed to them also.

1. What are the sources for American Indian Art? Isn't it better to purchase directly from the artist?
Answer: There are different ways of acquiring American Indian arts and crafts -- buying from the artist, shops/galleries and from special shows/ceremonials. Everyone will collect differently -- some only with dealers and some who may add pieces purchased directly from artists. The "best" way overall to collect, is to purchase what you like, what fits your budget and to be assured of what you are purchasing. Many artists establish retail prices for their work, and offer dealers a re-sale discount, so the prices you would pay are often the same. While there is a small artist minority who can make their living by selling their work directly, the success of the majority of artists depends on strong relationships with representatives and galleries who market and promote their work.

2. Where do Indian artists get ie. lapis? That's not traditional is it?
Answer: Today artists are using many materials that may or may not be indigenous to their area. Historically, many materials such as shells were traded among tribes. With the arrival of Europeans, trade for other materials such as beads, silver, and gold began. All art evolves, and the term "traditional" may have different interpretations at different periods in history. From the beginning of time, all peoples have borrowed from each other and over time, traditions have evolved. Today many artists seek out a variety of materials to achieve their expression of art, most often made available by gem/supply stores or through traders who assist in being a source for artists. The evolution of the arts is one of the exciting aspects of buying American Indian arts and crafts.

3. Which is the best piece of i.e., pottery I should buy? Which i.e., kachina is my best investment?
Answer: When you are buying American Indian arts and crafts you are buying a piece of art -- your personal taste and budget will guide you to the right choice. We recommend buying first and foremost because you like a piece. There is good quality work being done today by many artists, in different styles and price ranges. Decide on the style of work you like -- subtle detail or very fine detail; traditional, contemporary or somewhere in between. Some people may collect work by certain artists or artist families, some may collect themes or want particular tribal areas, some may want "name" artists and others enjoy collecting emerging artists works -- and some may collect one or two pieces while still others collect a bit of everything! Collecting and buying Indian arts and crafts is very personal and is exciting for many different reasons. For those who choose to invest in the grace and beauty of an object of art, collecting authentic American Indian arts and crafts will continue to be a rewarding experience.

One of the oldest creative endeavors still practiced today is the art of weaving baskets. Although the utilitarian aspects of basketry for everyday use have been almost entirely supplanted by modern conveniences, the ceremonial use of baskets persists in many communities. The need for ceremonial items and the recognition of basketry as an art form have helped this exquisite form of creative art to survive. American Indian basketry relies on local materials that are gathered by the basket maker and techniques that have remained unchanged from prehistory to the present day. Many southwestern baskets are made with yucca leaves and various grasses, while baskets from other parts of the country are woven from different woods which have been split into very thin strips.

The first thing that comes to mind for many people when they think of American Indian crafts is beadwork. Although glass beads were not available until they were imported by Europeans as a trade item they quickly became a traditional form of embellishment for a variety of everyday items and ceremonial objects. There are distinctive types of beadwork from different regions of the country, and subtle differences of style from different tribes within each region. Beads can be applied to fabric or hide in different ways, most of which are variations of sewing techniques. A common form is called the lazy stitch, (although there is nothing lazy about doing it!), in which the beads are sewn in even rows with different color combinations used to create geometric designs. Beads can also be contour stitched in which the rows of beads are sewed in curvilinear patterns with varying numbers of beads used to fill spaces and create curved designs such as flowers. Beads can also be stitched together into tubular strips which are used finish the edges of designs and to cover the handles of rattles or the stems of pipes. Unique to the Northeastern United States is raised beadwork, a technique which creates dimensional designs which rise up from the surface of the fabric.

Quill work:
Prior to the introduction of glass beads as an European trade item, tribes in many parts of the country used porcupine quills to decorate clothing and everyday items. Made soft by soaking, the individual quills are then trimmed and flattened, and sewn or plaited in a variety of ways to create smooth even rows. A variety of colors obtained from dyes allowed a wide range of designs to be produced. As small glass beads became a common item they quickly supplanted the use of quills in most areas. With no preparation required, beads were a much more efficient way to provide decoration. Although greatly diminished, quillwork did not vanish completely, and there are many artists today reviving this art form. Mostly from tribes living on the Great Plains, there are many beautifully quilled items available to include moccasins, medicine bags and pipe bags, hair ornaments, key rings, jewelry and many other accessories. One of the most popular is the medicine wheel, a round shape with four directional bars inside the circle. It is covered with plaited quills which are dyed in either the traditional directional colors or in a variety of colors.

Central to the traditional religion of the Hopi people of the Northern Arizona are Kachinas. A Kachina (Katsina) is a supernatural being relied upon to provide rain, fertility, health, and well being. While Kachinas play a role in many of the Pueblo societies, the Hopi are most noted and prolific today in kachina doll carving. Each year in elaborate ceremonies, men of the Hopi villages dress and mask themselves for ritualized dances to represent and call on the different Kachinas. Kachina dolls are carved from cottonwood root and have long been used to instruct Hopi children in the ways of the traditional religious cycles, and to help them learn to identify the hundreds of different beings. The carvings convey the movement of the dancer, and the specific particulars of the mask, costume, and accessories. In addition to Kachinas, Hopi artists also carve figures from Hopi mythology and folklore as well as other Pueblos dancers.

From the looms of Navajo weavers come wool rugs that are comparable to the world's finest weavings. The transition from producing weavings for personal use to producing items for commerce was largely responsible for the development of the modern Navajo rug, just over one hundred years ago. The advent of reservation trading posts encouraged this transition by creating market outlets for products like rugs that previously had circulated only in trade. Exposure to larger markets had a significant effect on the evolution of the art form. The most apparent example of this was the development of regional styles and patterns. Although they are no longer accurate indicators of a modern rug's geographic origin, the regional names such as Two Grey Hills, Wide Ruins, or Ganado still identify rugs of a particular style.  While two Navajo rugs may be very similar, there are no two exactly alike….and that's part of the fun!

Southwest American Indian pottery is the legacy of a tradition over one thousand years old. To be considered a "traditional" piece of pottery the potter must dig the clay out of the ground and construct the pot entirely by hand without the use of a potter's wheel. Designs are then painted on to the surface of a dried piece before it is fired. Designs can also be applied with a "slip", a thin mixture of water and clay. Different clays, ground minerals, or plant materials are used to make slips of different colors. Many traditional potters do not use electric kilns for firing their work, instead using an outdoor pit fueled by wood and dung.  Pottery with a shiny finish has been polished by rubbing the surface of the piece with smooth stones.