Native American beadwork, birdstones soar at Cowan’s auction

Slate cylindrical-eyed fantail birdstone from the Collection of Jan Sorgenfrei. Price realized: $49,200. Cowan’s Auctions image

CINCINNATI – The final opportunity to acquire a piece from one of the most revered prehistoric art collections in history and a truly remarkable assortment of beadwork drove a record number of bidders to Cowan’s April 6 American Indian and Western Art Auction. A capacity crowd in Cowan’s Cincinnati salesroom vied with nearly 500 bidders bidding over the phone and online for well over six hours on the way to a $1.4 million day. All told, the auction featured 689 bidders, a record for a Cowan’s American Indian & Western Art auction. Absentee and Internet live bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.

“As soon as the consignments started coming in for this auction last fall we knew that we were going to have a big auction, but a lot of these prices were beyond our wildest hopes,” said Danica Farnand, Cowan’s director of American Indian & Western Art. “Today showed that not only is the market rebounding, but it’s growing. We saw 116 new bidders in this auction with a record number of bids coming over from Europe, particularly France. It’s a great time to be an American Indian & Western art consignor.”

The day began with the final installment of the coveted Jan Sorgenfrei Collection of Prehistoric Art. An avid collector, Sorgenfrei (Ohio, 1942-2012) was the owner of Painter Creek Auction Service and Old Barn Auction, specializing in Native American artifacts, mostly from the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions. This superb collection not only represents many of the finest examples of their respective types, but is also a testament to the creations of prehistoric art created in this archaeologically rich area.

“It’s a little bittersweet to see this collection go,” said Farnand. “Of course we’re happy these incredible pieces did so well and have found their ways to collectors who appreciate their beauty and history. It’s just a little sad to think we will not get to catalog any more of these wonderful little birds, though.”

In a sign of what was to come, the very first lot of the auction, an elongated slate fantail birdstone, saw a half-dozen floor bidders and two phone bidders vie for the piece for five minutes, sending the lot well past its estimate of $10,000-$15,000 estimate before selling for $45,000.

As it turned out, the only item from the collection that would top the first lot was the very last Sorgenfrei piece to be offered: a slate cylindrical eyed fantail birdstone (above). Prehistoric art collectors had been buzzing about the piece for days as more and more had the opportunity to preview it in person. It was no surprise, then, when three floor bidders aggressively bid on the piece the second the lot opened, bidding so quickly, the phone bank and online platforms were unable to get in on the action. When the action finally appeared to die down, a new floor bidder jumped in from the back of the room, casually standing over the glass case the birdstone was displayed in. After a few more exchanges, the new floor bidder won the piece for $49,200.

Other highlights from the Sorgenfrei Collection included an elongated slate birdstone that sold for $29,400; a geniculate bannerstone for $21,600; an elongated slate long neck birdstone for $21,000; a steatite bear effigy pipe for $19,200; an elongated long-neck slate birdstone for $18,600; and a fine, ferruginous slate fantail birdstone for $15,600.

If Sorgenfrei was the hottest collection of the day, the hottest category of the day was beadwork. The highlight of the category was an A’aninin (Gros Ventre) beaded hide war shirt (below), which also took the honor of top lot of the day, selling for $55,200. The war shirt was published in McClintock’s 1910 book The Old North Trail, a first edition of which was included in the lot.

A’aninin (Gros Ventre) beaded hide war shirt. Price realized: $55,200. Cowan’s Auctions image

Walter McClintock was a photographer sent out west by the United States government in 1896 to document national forests. He became close friends with the expedition’s Blackfoot scout and quickly developed a deep fascination and appreciation for the Montana tribe’s culture. He would spend the next 20 years of his life documenting the tribe, its customs and their homeland.

Other highlights from the category included an identified Ponca beaded hide war shirt and leggings that sold for $45,600; a Sioux child’s beaded hide shirt for $28,800; a Sioux painted ghost dance shirt for $26,400; an Arapaho beaded hide belt pouch with cornhusk wrapped slats for $20,400; a Sioux boy’s beaded hide war shirt (below), collected by Gustav Sigel (1837-1923) for $19,200; a plateau pony beaded hide dress for $19,200; and a Cheyenne beaded hide tobacco bag for $16,800.

Sioux child’s beaded hide shirt. Price realized: $28,800. Cowan’s Auctions image

While the Sorgenfrei Collection and beadwork were the talk of the auction, it was quietly a very good day for textiles from both the southwest and northwest. A 19th century late classic Navajo child’s serape (below) was the top lot of the category selling for $24,000. Other highlights included a Navajo Moki-style weaving for $15,990; a Navajo eastern reservation weaving for $7,380; and a Navajo third phase chief’s blanket for $5,700.

Late classic Navajo child’s serape. Price realized: $24,000. Cowan’s Auctions image

A 19th century Tlingit Chilkat blanket (below) woven with mountain goat wool in colors of blue, yellow, cream, and brown, which sold for $23,370, was the top lot from the Pacific Northwest in the sale.

Tlingit Chilkat blanket. Price realized: $23,370. Cowan’s Auctions image

A Zia pictorial pottery olla (below) from the collection of Forrest Fenn brought $14,760.

Zia pictorial pottery olla, from the collection of Forrest Fenn. Price realized: $14,760. Cowan’s Auctions image

Other notable lots from the auction included a Sioux painting on muslin of a grass dance, which sold for $20,400; a Hopi Saviki and Zuni warrior god katsina for $9,600; a lot of 16 albumen photographs from A. Zeno Shindler (American, 1823-1899) believed to document an Otoe delegation’s trip to Washington D.C., circa 1868-1869 for $8,400; and a western Great Lakes pipe tomahawk with inlay from the Sorgenfrei Collection for $7,200.