Ancient Art: The Price of Selling Vintage Native Artifacts

Vintage jewelry remains a popular choice for many buyers interested in Native American art. For others, however, the time period they favor goes a bit further back. In the 1960s, the popularity of ancient Native American goods began to grow. Today the market for archaeological artifacts is a lucrative one, particularly for pieces still in good condition. As Antiques Road Show appraiser Bruce Shackelford puts it, “there’s a large market for Indian artifacts in the decorator crowd.” This popularity isn’t limited to the United States. Collectors in Europe and Asia have helped fuel the rise of this market.

Prices reflect the lure of these ancient pieces. Shackelford says items which sold in the past for fifty dollars now often sell for tens of thousands of dollars. It is not unusual in today’s market to see prices of five thousand dollars or more and rare pieces can go as high as half a million dollars. Jewelry which includes such artifacts as arrowheads or pre-historic pottery tempt buyers. For many reputable dealers, however, the sale of these artifacts can present a number of headaches. As Shackelford puts it, “it’s a dangerous field to collect in.”

The intricacies involved in the sale and collection of ancient artifacts involve a number of laws which govern where and when those artifacts can be legally collected. Federal law forbids collecting any artifacts off federal land. Many states and local communities also have laws which govern what can be collected and from where. The Endangered Species Act forbids the sale of any old or new object which includes animal parts from an endangered or protected species.

Pieces collected from private land can be sold. Items which were collected from a site which later became public land present more of an ethical than a legal dilemma. Knowledge of these laws is an important component in being a reputable dealer in these types of jewelry. Thanks to the more unscrupulous dealers, those who enforce these laws have begun to look at all collectors with greater scrutiny, which is why some reputable dealers avoid this market.

Some people, referred to as “doorknockers”, go to sales or homes, attempting to purchase artifacts from individual Native Americans. One of the problems with this approach is many of these items are considered the collective property of the tribe. The individual may not have the right to sell them for personal gain. There are also laws which forbid the trafficking of artifacts which are religious or patrimonial in nature, which the items the doorknockers are looking for could very well be.

A lucrative market for archaeological artifacts increases the potential for unethical dealers to indulge in the type of collecting that destroys cultural sites and robs Native American tribes of their heritage. Using destructive methods, pothunters interested only in the monetary gain for what they collect destroy the information which could be gathered from the place where the artifacts are found. All that could have been learned about these ancestral people is lost. That loss is most devastating for the descendants of these ancient artists. As Vernelda Grant, a tribal archaeologist for the San Carlos Apaches puts it, “They’re killing us. They’re killing the existence of who we are.”

As with all purchases, it is important to buy from a reputable dealer who can provide documentation for your purchase. Ethical sellers are a way to avoid entangling yourself in any of the issues dealing with illegally obtained artifacts. There are also many artists who create replicas of these ancient items which can be purchased, thus assuring that you can have the beauty of the object without the worry about its collection.