by Judy Stoffman
via the Toronto Star website:
The Museum of Northern British Columbia succeeded in buying a carved spoon for $25,600 at auction Thursday, but there is more sadness about the famous 19th century Northwest Indian collection being dispersed than joy over this acquisition.
"It was one of about 30 pieces we would have liked, but prices were astronomical. It's very beautiful," said Susan Marsden, director of the museum in Prince Rupert.
The Sotheby's auction in New York netted $7 million (U.S.) on 57 lots, a record for native artifacts. The highlight of the sale was a record $1.8 million (U.S.) paid for a multi-coloured Tsimshian mask. The lion's share of the items is coming home to Canada.
Art dealer Don Ellis bought four pieces for the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, four for his own gallery in Dundas, Ont. — to be offered to Canadian institutions at cost — and 19 pieces (including the mask) on behalf of two Canadian philanthropists. One is David Thomson, son of the late Ken Thomson, whose collections have gone to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The Tsimshian and Tlingit artifacts, known as the Dundas collection, included chief's regalia, rattles, boxes, a bone "slave killer" club, wooden bowls, masks as well as combs and spoons.
The objects had been consigned to Sotheby's by Simon Carey, a retired British psychologist whose great-grandfather, the Rev. Robert James Dundas, had acquired almost all the objects on Oct. 26, 1863, from the missionary William Duncan.
The collection, the last 19th century field collection of Northwest Coast art in private hands, had tantalized Canadian museums for decades but attempts to buy it in its entirely foundered because of the many strings attached. Besides asking for a lot of money, Carey wanted it kept together on permanent display. He also demanded the publication of his great-grandfather's 250,000-word journal.
While many in the cultural community celebrated the fact most of the artifacts were staying in Canada, a high-ranking Tsimshian chief expressed disappointment at the sale itself.
"The missionaries got them (the artifacts) for nothing and now they put such a big price on it," James Bryant said by telephone yesterday.
The Tsimshian and Tlingit descendants of the makers of the objects in the Dundas collection live in the area around Prince Rupert.
But Gerald McMaster, a member of the Siksika Nation of the Plains Cree and a curator at the AGO, is gratified to see prices of native art catching up with European art.
"Maybe we'll no longer ask the question, `Is it art?'" he said. The rise in valuations reflects that "we are more aware of our heritage. There is greater interest and more scholarship now."