the Secondary Market
Collecting historic works mostly started with baskets but as we began showcasing basketry, clients came to offer us historic works in wood and argillite as there was no place in Vancouver focusing on historic pieces. At first, this was done to give context to the contemporary artwork as these were the pre-internet years and many tourists visiting Vancouver would walk into the gallery knowing nothing of the history of Northwest Coast art.The Gallery’s main focus has always been supporting artists living and working today. However, over the 30+ years that Doug has been working with Northwest Coast art, we evolved to periodically deal with collections from private collectors looking to sell certain pieces, perhaps to make room for new works or maybe downsizing has become a priority. Sometimes it’s because they are refocusing their collecting on other aspects of Northwest Coast art, or beyond! This is called the secondary market, and it’s how some older treasures find their way into the Gallery. Last month, we received two of the largest collections we have ever received at one time.
First, a prolific, American-based collector of Northwest Coast art contacted the Gallery earlier this year to inquire about selling his entire collection of works, both contemporary and historical, including works by Robert Davidson (Haida), Don Yeomans (Haida), Freda Diesing (Haida), Art Thompson (Nuu chah nulth), Reg Davidson (Haida), Charlie James (Kwakwaka’wakw), and many others. The second collection has come from a local estate and the works from this collection are predominantly jewelry pieces. Both of these collections arrived in the gallery in May and are the focus of our June 2021 Newsletter.
These recently acquired collections feature several notable historic works dating back to around the late-1800s. Bentwood boxes, for example, are quintessential to the Northwest Coast as the large cedar trees that dominated the landscape of the coast pre-contact provided wood planks long and wide enough to create these containers out of a single plank of wood. Bentwood boxes are unique in that three of their four corners are bent at a 90-degree angle, with the fourth corner being pegged, sewn or glued. In pre-contact times, when there were no metal tools or nails, this technique proved highly reliable for making strong, long-lasting and watertight containers. While the tradition of making and carving bentwood boxes continues today, receiving historic boxes in the gallery creates a great context for the long-standing tradition and highlights the continuation of this unique artform.
Artist Unknown (Northern Coastal)
Cedar, Paint, Operculum
26 1/2″ H x 19″ W x 17 1/2″ D
Another unique historic work we received from this collection is this totem-like sculptural work (below right), featuring human-like faces detailed in eighteen abalone shell inlays and two copper bands. While we have consulted with several Northwest Coast art historians about this rare work, the origins of this sculpture still remain a bit of a mystery.
Mountain Goat Horn Spoon, c.1890
Artist Unknown (Tlingit)
6 1/2″ H x 2″ W x 3″ H
Tlingit Totem-Like Sculpture
Artist Unknown (Tlingit)
Wood, Copper, Abalone, Pigment
9 1/2″ H x 3 1/2″ W x 1 1/2″ D
One of the collections features numerous beautiful masks by contemporary artists from various communities up and down the coast, dating back as early as 1975, including this masterfully carved Transformation Mask by Art Thompson (Nuu-chah-nulth), which is one of the finest pieces we have seen by this artist. Thompson studied at the Vancouver School of Art and at Camosun College in Victoria and took part in Nuu-chah-nulth ceremonial life throughout his career. His works can be found in many public, private and corporate collections.
Called Pook-Ubs’ Rescue, this monumental work was made in 1999. When closed, the mask portrays Killer Whale. When open, the face of Pook-Ubs, the Keeper of the Drowned Souls, is revealed. This mask illustrates the noble tradition of Whaling amongst the Nuu-chah-nulth people who believe that if one possesses a great spirit and strength, they can also hold the ability to transfer from one realm to another in order to travel the surface of the earth and the depths of the ocean.
This Eagle Helmut with painted headdress is a rare find by Freda Diesing (Haida). Born in Prince Rupert, Diesing attended the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art and Design) and developed an interest in her Haida heritage through her studies. She learned traditional Northwest Coast carving techniques while studying at the Gitanmaax School in K’San.
Diesing was also a wonderful teacher. She taught many of today’s best known carvers some of the basic carving techniques. Over the years, many Haida people moved from Haida Gwaii to the mainland and settled in Prince Rupert. Diesing, being in the area, inspired Indigenous youth to carve and they took classes with her. Don Yeomans, Richard Adkins, Alvin Adkins, and Garner Moody were a few of the artists to whom she gave their early training. Diesing was one of the first female carvers in the Modern Northwest Coast art world and, in 2006, the art school at Northwest Coast Community College in Terrace, BC, was named in her honour.
Model Totem Poles
Model totem poles have captivated collectors since the late 1800s. As tourism became more prevalent along the Northwest Coast around the turn of the century, the tradition of carving these model poles to sell as curios to travelers evolved. While many artists of the earlier poles are generally unknown, one artist whose model poles became synonymous with the Northwest Coast tourism trade was Charlie James (Kwakwaka’wakw).
James was born in Port Townsend, Washington, around 1867 and died in Alert Bay in 1938. Stepfather to renowned carver Mungo Martin and grandfather to Ellen Neel, the first female totem pole carver known on the Northwest Coast, James’ work helped to establish the model totem pole as the sought-after tourist souvenir and his highly identifiable pieces can be found in museum collections around the world. James would carve the totems out of yellow cedar and use a traditional paint pigment made from ground charcoal added to fried salmon eggs to make a deep, permanent black colour. He would paint other details in European watercolours.
Henry Hunt (Kwakwaka’wakw)
Red Cedar, Acrylic
15 1/2″ H x 19 1/2″ W x 11″ D
Panels and Sculptural Works
Don Yeomans (Haida)
Cast Paper, Ed. 5/9
Framed 26″ H x 25″ W x 5 3/4″ D
Unframed 20″ L x 18″ W x 3″ D