Collections and the Secondary Market Part II
Family Trees and Legacies
The secondary market in Northwest Coast art can be a unique and exciting space to reacquaint ourselves with “vintage” Northwest Coast works. Perhaps these are works that we’ve seen previously, resurfacing when a collector decides it’s time to part ways with a piece. Sometimes they’re works by influential artists who have since passed on, and it’s a delight to see works for the first time by an important carver from a previous generation.
We received great response from our previous newsletter about the secondary market, featuring two collections of artworks by numerous contemporary Northwest Coast artists, including Ellen Neel, Charlie James and Art Thompson, and recently, we were contacted by another prolific collector with a special assembly of pieces he had acquired over many years of collecting.
This collector regularly visited the Gulf Islands, where he now resides in his retirement. During his earlier trips, he became acquainted with renowned Kwakwaka’wakw carver Chief Henry Hunt, from whom he purchased many of the pieces in this collection. He later met and purchased artworks from Henry Hunt’s son, Chief Tony Hunt, who had learned to carve from his father.
The collection grew over time to include works by several members of the Hunt family, as well as works by Charlie James and Mungo Martin, both of whom share relations with the Hunt Family. Acquiring this collection offers a great opportunity to look at the long-standing artistic traditions that have been passed down through the many branches of the Hunt Family Tree.
The Hunt Family Tree
The Hunt family name traces back to Robert Hunt, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader who married Mary Ebbetts, a high-ranking Tlingit woman and master Chilkat weaver from southeastern Alaska, around 1850. The family lived in the Kwakwaka’wakw community of Fort Rupert, British Columbia, a small village on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Together they had many children, including renowned ethnographer George Hunt.
George Hunt (back, left) with his first wife Lucy Homikanis Hunt (back, center),
and American-German ethnographer Franz Boas (back, right).
Though hereditarily Tlingit, George was raised to speak the traditional language of the Kwakawka’wakw people, Kwak’wala and, through marriage and adoption, he became an expert on their cultural traditions. Today, he is acknowledged for his considerable contributions to the documentation of Kwakwaka’wakw culture, language and history. George and his wife, Lucy, had many children and grandchildren, one of whom was Chief Henry Hunt.
Henry Hunt’s father, Chief Jonathan Hunt (left) with George Hunt (right), Henry Hunt’s grandfather.
In 1939, Henry Hunt married Helen Nelson, the adopted daughter of acclaimed Kwakwaka’wakw carver Chief Mungo Martin. In 1954, Henry went to work for his father-in-law, assisting him in the creation of totem poles and monuments at Thunderbird Park at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.
With Mungo’s passing in 1962, Henry followed as the lead carver on the Thunderbird Park project and through this experience, passed along the carving tradition to his sons, Tony (1942-2017), Richard (b. 1951) and Stan (b. 1954), all of whom established their own careers in the Northwest Coast art market.
In 1973, Henry’s son Richard assumed the duties of chief carver on the Thunderbird Park Carving Program. He was the first Indigenous artist to be awarded the Order of British Columbia and has also been made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Henry Hunt’s Final Work and Legacy
Henry Hunt was a prolific carver whose creative career spanned more than three decades. His legacy is imbued in the generations of artists he helped to inspire and teach over the course of his life. In 1984, Henry completed the Eagle Model Pole (below) which was the final piece he would carve. He passed away in Victoria on March 13, 1985.
In 2000, the Art Gallery of Greater Vancouver exhibited a retrospective of Richard Hunt’s works, which featured a collection of Richard’s pieces alongside works by his father and other well-known Kwakwaka’wakw carvers. The show featured a work by Richard entitled Three Eagles, a model pole carved to honour his father, Henry, and grandfather, Mungo Martin. The piece was displayed alongside Henry’s final work, the Eagle Model Pole, as it had inspired Richard’s design of his own work.
Henry Hunt’s final work, Eagle Model Pole, alongside Three Eagles Model Pole by his son, Richard.
Richard Hunt (left) and his father, Chief Henry Hunt.
The carving tradition passed down through the generations to several of Henry’s grandsons and descendants, including Tony Hunt Jr., Trevor Hunt, and Tom Hunt Jr., amongst many others whose works have been part of the Gallery’s offerings over its almost three decades of operation.
Before Henry’s Time…
As much as the collector enjoyed purchasing artworks directly from the hands that created them, he also focused much of his collection on works of Henry Hunt’s teachers and predecessors, namely Charlie James and Mungo Martin. One of the feature works of this collection is this highly detailed multi-figure model totem by Mungo Martin.
Top to bottom: Thunderbird with Sculpin, Bear with Whale and Halibut, Human with Seal
In marrying Mungo Martin’s adopted daughter Helen Nelson, Henry Hunt became affiliated with Martin, as well as with the carving tradition that Mungo had inherited through his own stepfather, Charlie James. James became stepfather to Mungo Martin through marriage to Mungo’s mother, Sara Finlay, in 1934 after Sara’s first husband passed. Having already established himself as a notable figure in the burgeoning art community, Charlie James embraced Mungo as an apprentice and since the age difference between Charlie and Mungo was small, the two established a rapport as friends and fellow carvers more so than father and son.
Charlie James (left) and Mungo Martin, c. 1930.
Phil Nuytten writes in The Totem Carvers (1982):
“Having Charlie James as his stepfather was a fortunate turn of events for Mungo. James was only five or six years older than Mungo, but already a skilled carver of some reputation. Because of their closeness in age, Mungo and Charlie James enjoyed a relationship closer to ‘pals’ than father and son. From Charlie James, Mungo learned to master the real skills of designing, carving, and painting – skills that Mungo thought he already possessed until he watched his stepfather!”
Model Poles by Charlie James
Establishing Provenance and Authenticity
on Secondary Market Artworks
Provenance and authenticity are two major considerations when looking at works on the secondary market. Often provenance is fairly straightforward to establish – perhaps the owner purchased the work directly from the artist or inherited it through a family estate. It’s always interesting to learn when a piece has a storied provenance. This is the case with one of the carved totem poles by Charlie James from this collection.
This particular pole was carved for a well-known Canadian artist, Walter J. Phillips. Born in England in 1884 and raised in Winnipeg, Phillips’ artwork was heavily inspired by the vast Canadian wilderness. He is perhaps best known as a master and pioneer of the Canadian woodblock print.
Walter J. Phillips in his studio with Charlie James Model Pole.
Phillips made acquaintance with Charlie James during his many trips to the West Coast, and James carved this pole for the artist. The above photo, published in the 1981 retrospective The Tranquility and the Turbulence: The Life and Works of Walter J. Phillips, shows the artist working in his studio, his Charlie James totem pole displayed on the desk behind. A hand-written note by Phillips’ daughter, shown below, tells of how the artist came to own this totem.
A note from Phillips’ daughter telling of how the artist came to own the Charlie James Model Pole.
On the note of authentication, one of the most unique pieces in this collection is a small unsigned, engraved, and painted plaque featuring Sisiutl, the double-headed Sea Serpent, with a human figure on top.
Although unsigned, in a conversation between the collector and Chief Tony Hunt, Hunt attributed this piece to the hand of Chief Willie Seaweed, a prominent Kwakwaka’wakw carver who is remembered for his technical artistic style and protection of traditional Indigenous ceremonies during the Canadian potlatch ceremony ban. Seaweed is known to have rarely signed his works, and though Tony Hunt’s authentication of this work is not doubted, the owner did not have anything documenting what Tony had shared with him.
When we need to substantiate an attribution, we will reach out to several consultants, many of whom are current or former curators at institutions with prominent Northwest Coast collections, as well as several local collectors who have become experts in the field. To confirm an attribution, these experts often look for distinguishing features in the formline design that would be characteristic of a particular artist’s hand.
For this plaque, one of the most compelling characteristics that it is by Seaweed is the shape of the ovoid in the eyes of the Sisiutl and Human figures, which are markedly squared and angular, rather than rounded and oval. For reference, one of our consultants compared the eye shape to a Chief’s Headdress, pictured below, in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) known to be Seaweed’s work. This is the same headdress that Seaweed is wearing in the above black and white photo.
Chief’s Headdress by Willie Seaweed, National Museum of the American Indian.
Another comparable work that was used to confirm the identity of the artist was this Child’s Settee with Sisiutl design from the collection at the Burke Museum in Seattle. The composition of this design is strikingly similar to that of the plaque, and provided further confirmation that Willie Seaweed was the artist of the plaque.
Child’s Settee with Sisiutl Design by Willie Seaweed, Burke Museum.
With these two comparable works, and the assistance of consultants, including former Seattle Art Museum Northwest Coast art curator Steve Brown, we were able to authenticate with certainty that this piece was in fact a work by Seaweed, making it a rare treasure amongst this collection of unique pieces.
As Brown said, “I would say without doubt that it’s a Willie, which occurred to me as soon as I saw the whole object, especially noting the two outward facing heads. The comps that others have provided you with serve to confirm this. Yes, those sort of five-sided eye ovoids are a signature element of his, sometimes more angular than others. I surmise that the complete image represents a Sisiutl in a more compact form than the one on the settee back from the Burke. Center head above, the two terminal heads to each side.”
Vancouver Mural Fest Collaboration
Phil Gray’s new mural, Force of Nature, on the north wall of the Douglas Reynolds Gallery.
In other exciting gallery news, we recently collaborated with Ts’msyen artist Phil Gray and Vancouver Mural Fest to install a beautiful mural on the north wall of the gallery, overlooking the community garden.
“The story of Salmon Woman tells how this supernatural woman brought salmon to Raven. After Raven’s many travels, he was worn down and tattered. He met and married Salmon Woman who healed him and cleaned him up. While he was searching for food, she touched the water and hundreds of salmon appeared for him to feast on. Although she saved him and nursed him back to health, he took her for granted and treated her terribly. In the end, Salmon Woman became fed up and took everything with her when she left him, leaving him as desolate as before.This design is a commentary about how colonialism has negatively affected the way we treat women, LGBTQ+, and the environment. Although women are life givers and interconnected with the environment, heteropatriarchy forced a shift in our morals and responsibilities in relation to them. This representation of Salmon Woman with all the colours of the rainbow is a reminder that until women and LGBTQ+ are valued, respected, and reinstated back into their traditional roles and responsibilities our communities will continue to struggle to become healthy vibrant communities again.”
– Phil Gray, 2021
The Gallery is open to the public seven days a week with physical distancing and Covid-19 safety protocols in place. No appointments are necessary to visit. We look forward to welcoming you!