The gavel had just dropped on Lot 451, and David Roche, Sotheby's American Indian art specialist, was ecstatic. A 200-year-old Navajo blanket made for a child had changed hands for a record-setting $76,750, more than triple Sotheby's $25,000 initial estimate. By day's end on May 26, the New York auction house had sold 480 lots for nearly $2.5 million, making it one of the most successful Southwestern art auctions in years. A day earlier, Sotheby rival Christie's had a similar experience, landing prices for Navajo rugs and blankets that far exceeded presale estimates. "Demand for American Indian art remains high," says Roche. "Interest in Navajo textiles, in particular, has snowballed."
Indeed, demand for Navajo weavings is the most intense since the Southwestern art boom in the 1970s. Prices are up around 30% since that time, and sources say they have climbed at a faster rate in the past year. Collectors are moving in as they come to realize Navajo weaving is a rapidly disappearing art form. "The old, traditional weavings are simply no longer available unless a private collector decides to sell," says Kathleen Foutz, co-owner of the 94-year-old Teec Nos Pos Trading Post in Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., near the New Mexico border.
Moreover, the number of Navajo weavers has been declining steadily for the past decade, leading to a scarcity of contemporary pieces. For the younger, more worldly generation of Navajos, weaving is their elders' craft. In a high-tech world, sitting at a loom for hours creating intricate, eye-straining patterns holds little appeal. "While the quality of contemporary weaving has never been better, the quantity is clearly waning as weavers retire or die," says Foutz. "I have lost 30% of my weavers this year alone," adds her cousin, Jed Foutz, who operates the Shiprock Trading Company in Shiprock, N.M.
Whether you're buying an older piece or contemporary work from the 1960s on, the first rule is to pick a design you like (table). A plain pattern can be worth as much, if not more, than a multicolored creation if the weaving is intricate. Better-quality rugs have a tight, smooth weave and symmetrical design. Edges should be straight, not curled; corners square, and patterns centered.
HAGGLE-FREE. The best source for modern Navajo textiles are the trading posts on or near the 16-million-acre reservation that spans Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, as well as Native American galleries in various cities. Typical markups are double what the weaver gets, and there's little room for bargaining. Auction houses specialize in older works, and tack on a 15% commission.
Navajo weavings exhibit 16 regional styles, which evolved around trading posts starting in the late 1800s. The early weavings were blankets, which people wore as a sign of wealth and status. As the Navajo people have become more mobile, genres have blended. Some distinctive styles include:
-- Teec Nos Pos and Red Mesa: Almost Oriental in appearance, these weavings feature intricate, multicolored designs and several borders. The pattern might include serrated diamonds or zigzags that resemble lightning bolts. Triangles, squares, and hooked figures often seem to float on caramel and gray backgrounds.
-- Two Grey Hills and Ganado Red: Two Grey Hills tapestries are geometric in design and subdued in color, as the weavers preferred the browns, grays, and whites of undyed wool. Ganado works are similar, though they add crimson to the palate.
-- Sand Painting: These are copied from the sand paintings Navajo medicine men, or shamans, draw on the ground as part of their healing rituals. Few weavers create these rugs because the designs are considered taboo. Those who do often hire a medicine man to perform a ceremony before and after the rug is woven to protect against blindness. The rugs are elaborate and time-consuming to create. Also, the weaver has to bear the additional cost of paying the shaman to bless their passage. As a result, works inspired by sand paintings often command lofty prices.
-- The Tree of Life: This is the most common of the scenic pictorial rugs. The design, which first appeared around 1900, shows birds perched on cornstalks and trees growing out of a Navajo basket.
ANONYMOUS ARTISTS. Unlike other art forms, where the artist is identified, Navajo women rarely sign their creations. So it takes an expert to recognize the mark of a particular artist. A handful of contemporary Navajo weavers stand out, though. One is 73-year-old Lucy Whitehorse, who lives near Teec Nos Pos and produces rugs that are at least 9-feet by 12-feet and sell for $30,000 each or more. Mary Redhouse, 89, began weaving at age 13 and is still at it. She sold her first rug for $13. Today, people pay thousands of dollars for her pieces.
Among smaller works, says Kathleen Foutz, a good-quality contemporary 3-foot by 5-foot rug, woven with commercial wool, typically runs from $1,000 to $3,500. "Compared to modern art, Native American weavings are still a bargain," says John Krena, owner of Four Winds Gallery in Pittsburgh and Sarasota, Fla. But as the number of Navajo weavers dwindles, those attractive bargains seem destined to fade away.