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June 10 2006

Growing Market for Historical Northwest Coast Art

The Globe and Mail

In an article written for The Globe and Mail, Sarah Milroy assesses the fast rising market for historical First Nations art of the Northwest Coast. Although traded since the time of the first contact with European visitors in the late 18th century, it is only in recent years that private collectors and institutions are catching up with the true artistic merits of these works. ‘These days, buyers are hungry and getting hungrier, responding at last to the power of the work,’ she writes.

As Milroy points out, the biggest market for art from the Northwest Coast remains in New York and London. Due to the significant impact of Native art on numerous Modernist movements, the vast majority of private collectors who are buying these works are outside of Canada.

The work of Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit artists is especially sought after: ‘There is a kind of drama in these pieces that you don't quite find anywhere else,’ David Roche, head of tribal art at Sotheby's New York says. Steven Brown, one of the leading scholars in the field of historical Northwest coast art ads that ‘there is something about the refined power of the northern work, a tension between restraint and release in the design that feels much more calculated and evolved.’

Traditionally female forms of artistic expression such as weaving basketry and textiles are experiencing particularly explosive growth. Early sculptural works in wood, chiefly those that have not been on the market before, are also doing extraordinarily well, art dealer Donald Ellis explains.

Yet although prizes have as much as tripled for the high end of the market over the last decade, Ellis points out that ‘they are still nowhere near where they should be.’ Milroy condones the fact that ‘one of the least popular of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe lithographs sold on April 29 at Sotheby's New York for $51,000 (they were printed in editions of 250),’ while a unique ivory walking-stick handle carved in the shape of a wolf’s head some time between 1880 and 1910 by the most celebrated artist of the Northwest coast, Haida master artist Charles Edenhaw, is being offered for $28,000. ‘Something is wrong here,’ she concludes.

‘On some level,’ Donald Ellis is quoted, ‘it's about racism, pure and simple.’ Yet it is also about the fact that most historical art is anonymous. ‘It takes a lot of confidence and faith in your own eye to buy something when you don't know who made it,’ he says.

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Growing Market for Historical Northwest Coast Art