Native American Art

Buying Native American Art

Buying Native American Art

Jemez 11-figure nativity set by Maxine Toya.

New Mexico is known for traditional Native American art. Three experts share their tips on purchasing authentic pottery, jewelry, and weavings.

By Ashley M. Biggers

Lyn FoxPottery | Lyn Fox

Lyn Fox, owner of Lyn A. Fox Fine Pueblo Pottery in Santa Fe, didn't start out as a pueblo pottery expert. He and his wife purchased their first pueblo pottery piece directly from the artist. It was a small storyteller (a woman figure with her children gamboling around her) that tilted to the side for $400. Upon visiting a Santa Fe gallery, they found larger and straighter figures — and discovered they'd woefully overpaid for their acquisition. They had a good laugh, but the experience sparked Fox's journey from art-buying amateur to authority. He came to love the art form for its design, spirituality, and stories. "There's something elemental and universal to it," he says. "Pottery connects the people with the land."

Today, his gallery exhibits primarily historic and contemporary pottery. Fox most often represents artists using traditional construction techniques, which involves harvesting the clay, hand coiling the vessel, and decorating it with slips made from vegetables and other minerals. The artists also fire traditionally, over an open flame using manure to create an informal kiln. If artists don't follow traditional construction, he's always clear with collectors about how the pot is made. Clarity, he says, is the priority when shopping.

Lyn Fox's Tips for Pottery Shopping

Native American Pottery

Shiprock Santa Fe.

Spend time looking at pottery and developing your own taste. "People get too caught up in the idiosyncrasies," he says. "They should make it about a heart connection instead."

Establish a rapport with a gallerist you trust who can teach you about the art and recommend artists to you based on your aesthetic preferences.

Ask questions about origin. These include: Who made it? How was it made?

Look at the individual piece. If it's a contemporary piece, it should be free of cracks, dings, and chips (both in the pot and slip).

Historical pottery possesses a beauty of its own. Due to decades or a century of use, it may have fire clouds (an indication a piece was fired traditionally), wear in the slip, or cracks patched with pinon resin.

Jed FoutzRugs | Jed Foutz

Jed Foutz grew up in the Indian trading business. He's a fifth-generation trader whose family, since the 1870s, has operated or been a part of 30 trading posts across the Navajo Nation, bartering Navajo-made art for sundry items. "The land and the people have always resonated with me," he says of growing up at Shiprock Trading Post. "I love the business, the people, the art."

In 2005, Foutz opened Shiprock Santa Fe, in the town where he had already supplied many of the businesses with Navajo-made rugs, jewelry, and other art. The store stocks 300 to 400 rugs at a time, the bulk during the summer season. Most of these are vintage and often come from estate collections that the Foutz family helped build in the first place.

Foutz's advice to collectors? "Trust your eye and your gut," he says. "What I love and think is beautiful may not speak to you."

Jed Foutz's Tips for Rug Shopping

Native American Pottery

Shiprock Santa Fe displays a curated collection of contemporary and historic rugs, jewelry, and other items.

Do your research. "It's like anything: You can learn the basics and some general information quickly," he says. "It takes time to learn more. Find someone knowledgeable and trustworthy to work with."

Find a dealer who represents Navajo-made pieces. Navajo weaving's popularity has led to many Navajo-inspired — and few Navajo-made — weavings.

Ask questions. Dealers should be able to tell you who made contemporary weavings. For historical pieces, provenance may be less clear. However, dealers should be able to tell you about its period and origins based on the materials and design.

Judge quality on technical execution. This involves inspecting the fineness and consistency of the yarn itself, as well as the tightness of the warp and weft.

Look for an aesthetic you like. For some, that may mean assessing design and balance. "Historically speaking, as you go earlier, straightness wasn't as important," Foutz says. "With every passing decade, our culture's concept of straightness and evenness has grown more important. In the tradition of Navajo weaving, it's been the one-of-a-kind quirkiness that sets them apart. It's the reason they have so much soul to them."

Native American ArtJewelry | Perry Null

Perry Null began learning about Native American jewelry in 1970 when he started buying from silversmiths. "I was fascinated with the Navajos and Zunis," he says of the tribe and pueblo, respectively, who make up most of the artisans his eponymous Gallup trading post represents. "They are fun to work with, and I enjoyed seeing the beautiful things they made."

Null married into the business (his late father-in-law owned Richardson's Trading Post, another Gallup institution) and learned trading from family members like Tobe Turpen Sr. (Richardson's first cousin and the founder of what is now Perry Null Trading). He enjoyed learning about the traditional designs of pawned jewelry and sought out skilled artists to try to duplicate those historical patterns. In the 1980s, when the price of silver soared, Null pulled jewelry out of trading post cases to keep it from being bought simply for the materials, thus preserving authentic Native American pieces.

His trading post is one among many in Gallup, which he touts as a prime shopping destination. "Price is the biggest difference," he says. "You'll pay less in Gallup than anywhere else in the state. Things get less expensive the closer you get to the source."

Perry Null's Tips for Purchasing Traditional Native American Jewelry

Native American Pottery
Jewelry by Aaron John

Ask where the turquoise was mined. Turquoise is getting harder to come by, especially in the United States. Much of it comes from China. "I always say God made it all, so it doesn't matter where it came from," Null says. However, if you have a preference about source, be sure to inquire. 

Ask if the turquoise has been treated. Turquoise is often enhanced or stabilized. "It's never bothered me to have enhanced or stabilized turquoise if I like it and it's a beautiful stone," he says. But you should know what you're buying.

Ask for the silversmith's name. Authentic pieces will have an artist stamp or identifying mark. "Most artists want to be identified," he says. "We can translate the hallmark into the name." Items coming from pawn may be more difficult to identify. Null says his trading post will issue authenticity certificates if collectors request them — and all reputable dealers should be able to do the same.

Check the piece for quality. Setting should be tight, for example. But "if you're buying from a reputable dealer," Null says, "a lot of that is taken care of for you."