American Indian art in Arizona: A buyer’s guide

Collection of Vintage Navajo Turquoise and Silver Jewelry
Collection of Vintage Navajo Turquoise and Silver Jewelry

The finer the workmanship, design, and materials, the more a piece is worth – and Indian arts and crafts can be very expensive indeed, priced in the tens of thousands of dollars. While it’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, keep in mind a few points when judging arts and crafts.

The Hopi are known for the “overlay” style in which a design is cut out of a sheet of silver and welded onto a blackened layer below. The Navajo are known for their work with silver and turquoise and distinctive “squash blossom” necklaces and concha belts. Sterling silver should have a stamp on the back. Be careful of turquoise jewelry; mock turquoise can fool an inexperienced eye. Check the piece for file marks, sloppy soldering, and other irregularities. Check the stones for cracks, pits or discoloration, and make sure the settings are adequate to hold the stones.

Silver and turquoise concho belt. Photo: Warren Price Photography/Shutterstock

Traditional Indian pottery is made by hand without a potter’s wheel, painted with natural dyes, and fired over an open flame. The first thing you should ask about pottery is whether it is handmade or manufactured, and made from local or commercial clay. Because the price of handmade pottery is so high, manufactured pots have become quite common. They are often handpainted in the traditional way and can be quite beautiful. Manufactured pots and pots made from commercial clay tend to be lighter in color and weight and uniform in size and shape. If you’re shopping for handmade pottery, look for a graceful, symmetrical form, fairly thin walls, and precise, neatly applied decoration. Watch for irregularities: cracks, discoloration, bumps, or pits in the clay, lopsidedness, slanted or uneven decorations. Firing clouds, which appear as dark smudges, are sometimes desirable.

Navajo Native American Clay Pottery Decorative Vase. Photo: James Marvin Phelps/Shutterstock

There are basically two types of basketry: coiled and woven. In both cases, look for tight, even, and sturdy construction; a pleasing shape; and clear and even designs. To test the tightness of the weave, hold the basket up to the light. You should also check how the basket was started; the first coil should not stick out or be loose.

A few Navajo weavers still do their own washing, carding, dyeing, and spinning, but most buy prepared wool. Some use a mixture of commercial products and traditional techniques. The finished product should be tightly woven, with a “balanced tension” of design and color. The rug or blanket should have a smooth texture and the corners should not curl. It should also have fairly even edges (all four corners should meet when folded). Ask if the rug is 100 percent wool. Some weavers will use cotton or synthetic fibers in the warp. Commercial dyes tend to give brighter, more saturated colors. Vegetal dyes are subtler and are hand-made.

Vintage Navajo doll. Photo: MustafaNC/Shutterstock

Although most often associated with the Hopi, kachina dolls are also made by other Pueblo people as well as by the Navajo. The most valuable kachina dolls are carved from a single piece of cottonwood root. Less expensive pieces may have separate arms or legs and possibly leather, feather, or other adornments attached to the figure. Most reputable dealers will tell you if the figure is Hopi-made. Many people feel that Navajo kachinas are less authentic, but considering the high price of Hopi work, they may be a reasonable option.

Two Navajo Wise Elderly Women. Photo: tobkatrina/Shutterstock

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