It's easy to imagine the uninformed eye overlooking the blanket on this page. Its edges are a bit frayed, the design is rudimentary, and the colors don't exactly turn your head—unless, of course, you're a collector of vintage Navajo textiles. Then the sight of the simple banded pattern, deftly woven with hand-spun churro wool in colors of brown, ivory, and naturally dyed indigo, would make your heart beat fast. You would have spotted the unmistakable signs of an early classic chief's wearing blanket, the oldest, rarest, and most precious of its kind. Dealers of such treasures would rate it a perfect 10.
"There's a subtlety to the artistry, but the beauty is quite profound," notes David Roche, director of Sotheby's American Indian Art department. Indeed, this particular piece passed many years of rather unremarkable service. Handed down through generations of a South African family, it functioned at turns as a travel blanket, a house curtain, and finally, a sturdy camping companion. On a 2002 trip to the UK, the owner happened to catch an Antiques Roadshow episode featuring a similar piece—estimated to be worth between $350,000 and $500,000. Needless to say, the South African blanket made a journey of its own, to New York and into the expert and appreciative hands of Delia E. Sullivan, head of the American Indian Art department at Christie's. "I knew it was valuable the second I heard about it," Sullivan says. Appraised at $125,000 to $175,000, the piece sold for $317,500 at a January 2003 Christie's auction.
So far only 50 or so early chief's blankets have been authenticated, but that number is rising as other examples start popping up in similarly far-flung places. "We really have no way of knowing how many exist," Roche says. "They are so iconic of American Indian art that they have always been highly sought after by travelers who then brought them back to their homes."
Appreciating the intricacies of these weavings requires viewing them from an artistic, as well as historic, perspective. "They are philosophically similar to work done by minimalist artist Agnes Martin," Roche says. "Both have very basic linear-banded designs. There are people who really respond to that kind of simplicity." One such person is Victoria Price, owner of the Price-Dewey Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Unlike the majority of the city's Southwest-themed showrooms, hers mixes American Indian art such as pottery and textiles with modern and contemporary furnishings, from Barcelona chairs to Jonathan Adler pillows. "I've always been drawn to the graphics of the nineteenth century," says Price, whose father, the actor Vincent Price, was also a collector. "I grew up with this great mix of styles. It's been a real advantage as a dealer."
Experts believe Navajo women began weaving textiles in the late 1600s, having learned the skill from neighboring Pueblo tribes. When the Spanish invaded what is now the southwestern United States, they brought along churro sheep, and gradually the Navajo started using wool instead of the traditional cotton. The blankets they made, which were worn over the shoulder, quickly became desirable trade items: Woven so densely as to be virtually waterproof, chief's blankets were considered nearly as valuable as firearms. (It should be noted that there are no actual chiefs in Navajo culture; the label "chief's blanket" refers to the fact that the textiles were admired by Plains Indian chiefs.)
In the mid-1800s, as outsiders flooded the area, the design and materials changed. "The Navajo began incorporating patterns from Mexican serapes," explains Price. Shapes like diamonds and zigzags appeared for the first time. "They would take things they saw in nature or the work of other artists and distill it down to some kind of essence that resonated with them."
When the U.S. government forcibly moved the Navajo to central New Mexico's Bosque Redondo in 1864, the weavings changed drastically. Unable to get churro wool, tribal members used colorful machine-made yarns supplied by the government. After the relocation plan was abandoned in 1868 and the Navajo returned to their native lands, the weavers accumulated yarn by unraveling blankets they'd been given. Manufactured in East Coast cities like Germantown, Pennsylvania, these blankets ended up providing the material for future projects, which came to be known as Germantowns. The railroad arrived a few years later and with it came even more synthetic dyes, yarn, and materials, a development that led to the creation of new patterns in vibrant colors. This is what textile experts call the transitional period, when the idea of the Navajo rug was conceived. "It is often difficult to determine whether the weavings were meant to be worn or used on the floor," Sullivan explains. "Very large or very heavy ones, of course, were used as rugs."
Around the turn of the century, ambitious traders—the most prominent being John Lorenzo Hubbell and J. B. Moore—set up shop in the Southwest and commissioned weavers to produce textiles that would appeal to a broad American audience. They influenced both what was woven (more rugs) and the designs. As Sullivan says, "Originally the Navajo didn't use borders in their weavings. It was an influence from Oriental designs that the traders had seen." According to Sotheby's Roche, works from this time—called early regional style—are a developing niche for collectors.
In determining the price of a textile, appraisers consider several factors. "The process of evaluating the early Navajo weavings has become quite sophisticated," says Mark Sublette, M.D., owner of Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona, and a frequent lecturer on the subject. "We use microscopy for yarn identification and spectrophotometry for dye analysis." Certain colors are especially coveted—early weavings with naturally dyed red in them, for example, are more highly prized because the color was difficult to obtain. Another important factor is the overall quality: A tighter weave and softer texture is generally regarded as being more desirable. Then there's the design. While contemporary rugs are appreciated for their perfection and symmetry, the early weavings have a certain organic charm. "The older pieces are more interesting because there were fewer constraints on the weavers' imaginations," says Ross Traut, a Manhattan trader whose clients include Diane Keaton's interior designer Stephen Shadley. For collectors, separating the commonplace from the extraordinary is the greatest challenge. "There were a lot of weavers, but not all of them were artists," says Roche. "The most successful collectors see beyond the market demand and appreciate a weaving's true aesthetic significance."
CONTEMPORARY WORKS Weaving is still a vital part of Navajo culture, with modern pieces often costing as much as classics. Generally, the finest examples of these—like the Two Grey Hills style at left—have a busier design and a close weave. "Many people love the new rugs, but there's little crossover between those enthusiasts and collectors of the older styles," says Delia E. Sullivan, head of Christie's American Indian Art department. One specialist, the HUBBELL TRADING POST (928-755-3475), sells only contemporary textiles to encourage the tradition; it holds auctions every spring and summer in Arizona.
A Stitch in Time: Four Styles of Vintage Navajo Weavings
These are the rarest—and the most valuable—weavings. The chief's blankets are divided into three phases where the design evolved from simple bands to stripes to diamonds and steps. Sotheby's David Roche suggests first-timers consider buying the smaller, more affordable women's, children's, or saddle blankets.
Rugs began to take the place of classic blankets. Larger in size, without borders, these pieces have very brightly colored, tightly woven designs. The patterns include zigzags, serrated diamonds, and rows of crosses. Look for Germantown Eyedazzlers—like the one here—named for the yarn manufactured in Pennsylvania.
Textile traders began commissioning weavers to create patterns that would please a wide market. Thus, the Oriental-style rug made its debut. One particularly collectible variety, says Victoria Price, owner of Santa Fe's Price-Dewey Galleries, is Chinle revivals: borderless rugs with banded patterns.
Objects or people are featured in these weavings. Early pictorials are generally the only early Navajo textiles to have artists' names attached to them. The most famous is medicine man Hosteen Klah (1867-1937), one of the first weavers to depict sandpainting, a traditional ceremonial design.
VICTORIA PRICE Owner, Price-Dewey Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; 505-982-8632; www.pricedewey.com
DAVID ROCHE Director of American Indian Art at Sotheby's, New York; 212-606-7250; www.sothebys.com
MARK SUBLETTE Owner, Medicine Man Gallery, Tucson, AZ; 800-422-9382; www.medicinemangallery.com
DELIA E. SULLIVAN Head of American Indian Art at Christie's, New York; 212-636-2233; www.christies.com
ROSS TRAUT Private trader, New York; 212-691-6212