The collecting of Native American artifacts skyrocketed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to the changing landscape and the notion of the “vanishing Indian.” Not only were ethnographers sent to scour reservations and tribal communities for museum and institution collections, but it was also during this time that private collectors and Native American art dealers dominated the cultural art market.1 Trading posts were set up along railroads and coastlines and shipping and communicating across the country was easier than ever. Large collections could be amassed from the convenience of someone’s home with little or no interaction with the Native peoples that created these objects.
An incredible frenzy began for the collection and preservation of Native American art and objects. In the years between about 1880 and 1930, “anthropologists, photographers, explorers, and others eagerly collected American Indian art and artifacts.”2 Even as the government and missionaries intervened and worked towards assimilating Native peoples into mainstream society, the notion of the “vanishing Indian” took precedence, especially in the art world when the material culture of the Native peoples “represented evidence of a ‘dying’ culture.”3 The scramble for such objects stemmed from an idea that soon all Native peoples would be gone and it was thought that “while no hope was held out for the tribes whose cultures had already decayed irreversibly, objects plucked from tribal environments could be saved from a similar fate.”4
Besides physically traveling to the reservation and interacting with Native peoples directly, dealers and stores became the most accessible way to start and continue a collection. Stores boasted on having the best, finest, most rare, and most interesting curios from the Indian world. Catalogs and brochures gleamed with photographs of beautiful Native pieces along with the prices and information on how individuals could secure such items. Dealers would either seek Native artists out personally, have agents or others who would travel to reservations to collect, or trade with other dealers to obtain their inventory.
Forming collections large or small required a great deal of time, money, energy, and determination. Collectors became fascinated with Native American cultures, yet collections became not a sign of the artistry of the Native peoples from whom the objects were obtained, but of their own skill and wealth in assembling the collection.5 The objects were aesthetically pleasing and perhaps aided in the social status of individuals, but these collections came to be appreciated by collectors through their own sense of accomplishment in obtaining these items.
People collected for various reasons. Many collectors, including Harry George, had in mind a taxonomy of the things they wished to collect and their collecting activity then became concerned with filling the gaps, or the series, or purchasing representatives of all the objects in a certain category.6 What these objects symbolized to collectors was order, unification, and accomplishment, but could, in addition, gain value that was manifested in many different ways. It often did not matter so much as to what was being collected, as long as the collector achieved their goals. Even with uses of objects for personal reasons, collectors thought they were doing a good thing by preserving cultural materials. Because Native Americans themselves were thought to be disappearing at a fast rate, collectors thought gathering materials was for the good of future American academia. What happened, however, was that Native materials became dispersed and disconnected from the artist’s home and community and ended up in homes, stores, and museums nationally and internationally.
The other half of the collecting craze came from dealers. People all over the country were able to establish a business for themselves in the collecting and selling of Native artifacts. Dealers had an incredible influence in the way Native art was sold, moved, and marketed and, as ethnologist Markus Schindlbeck notes, “collections were determined by the sellers or trade partners to a much larger extent than previously assumed.”7
Reading the correspondence of Harry George from these ledgers can allow researchers not only to learn about Harry George as a collector, but also adds insight into the collecting and dealing practices in the early 20th century Native American art market. In addition, these pages provide information on how dealers promoted themselves and their goods and how both collectors and dealers fit into the larger realm of early Native American artifact collecting.
1. Janet Catherine Berlo, introduction to The Early Years of Native American Art History, ed. Janet Catherine Berlo (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992), 2.↩
2. Melanie Anne Herzog and Sarah Anne Stolte, “American Indian Art: Teaching and Learning,” Wicazo Sa Review 27, no. 1 (Spring 2012), 86.↩
4. Margaret Dubin, Native America Collected (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001), 16-17.↩
4. Mieke Bal, “Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting,” in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Richard Cardinal (London: Reaktion Books, 1994), 104.↩
4. Rubel, Paula and Abraham Rosman. “The Collecting Passion in America.” Zeitzchrift für Ethnologie 126, no. 2 (2001): 317.↩
4. Markus Schindlbeck, “The art of collecting: Interactions between collectors and the people they visit,” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 118 (1993): 59.↩