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January 21 2011

Increasing Recognition for Native American Art

The Economist, January 21, 2011

An article in the Economist describes the works on exhibit at Donald Ellis Gallery as the ‘shining stars’ of the 2011 Winter Antiques Show. Donald Ellis ‘hoped to raise the profile of Native American art,’ the author writes. ‘It seems he succeeded.’

Donald Ellis explains that Native American art is still an undervalued collecting area. Although interest in Canada, the United States and Europe is rising, the prices remain relatively modest in comparison with other art masterpieces. ‘So there was much excitement at the Winter Shows preview benefit party last night,’ the author notes ‘when within the first hour Mr Ellis sold the shaman on a seal mask for more than $2.1m, breaking the world record for a Native American artwork. He then set a new record half an hour later, when he sold the other mask for more than $2.5m.’

The works on display at the Park Avenue Armory are among the most extraordinary objects the gallery has handled in its 34-year existence. ‘You needn’t be an expert to understand the power of these pieces,’ the author comments. Among the standouts are two important ceremonial dance masks from the Central Alaskan Yup'ik people of the Kuskokwim River dating to the 19th century. One of them depicts a human figure on top of a wide-eyed seal, the body opened to display a red interior. Another treasured work on display is a carved caribou antler club from Northern British Columbia. 'The sculptor would seem to be influenced by the soaring abstract works of Brancusi,’ the author marvels, ‘except that this piece was made in the 18th century.’ 

In comparison to the private market, artist and curators have recognised historical Native American works as art. The Vancouver Art Gallery has already asked to borrow the masks Mr Ellis has just sold as part of its forthcoming exhibition The Colour of My Dreams: Surrealism and Revolution in Art, on view from May 28th to October 2nd.

Donald Ellis has fought for the recognition of Native American objects as works of art since the beginning of his career. He became a dealer and advisor to Lord Thomson of Fleet (known as Ken Thomson in his native Canada), whose First Nations collection is now part of the wide­-ranging art collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Ellis’ hopes to raise the profile of Native American art seem to have succeeded, the author concludes. ‘As the fair was opening to the public today, his gallery reported selling 19 objects for a little more than $8m, along with another nine pieces from the catalogue for a further $1.3m. This well surpasses the previous auction record from the Sotheby's sale of the Dundas Collection of Northwest Coast American Indian Art.’

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