Beginners Guide to Collecting Native American Pottery
A lot of Native American Pottery collectors start off by being attracted to “Southwest” themes and are attracted to pottery that has that Southwest feel but isn’t necessarily Native American. We know, because that is how we started, later realizing that it was really Native American pottery that we loved and not just Southwest designs. This guide is meant to help the true beginner who has found themselves attracted to Native American pottery but has a desire to educate themselves first before buying or investing too much. True Native American pottery is a tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. It takes an enormous amount of work, time and talent to create one vessel. This article is focused more on the Pueblos of New Mexico for reference because that’s where we are located. We hope you enjoy this guide and learn something new!
Slip Cast – Greenware
“Slip Cast” or “Greenware” are terms that you will hear on occasion when discussing Native pottery. Slip Cast pieces are not handmade. The clay is liquefied and poured into a mold forming the shape of the vessel. These are generally mass produced by ceramic companies and sold in stores. Some Native Americans will purchase these and paint them to sell. These can also be hand etched or used for horsehair pottery. Horsehair pottery is when they take the piece and heat it to a high temperature and then throw horsehair on it while it’s hot burning the hair in unique designs onto the pottery. There are also some companies that produce slip cast pottery and actually hire Native Americans to paint or etch them in an assembly line type of production. These pieces can be beautiful and very decorative, but are inexpensive and will stay that way. These types of pottery are not suitable for investment purposes as they will not increase in value like handmade pottery will. Slip cast pottery can be identified by how smooth it is on the inside of the pot or sometimes a line that goes across the bottom of the pot where the 2 molded pieces were joined. Always ask the seller before buying if it’s handmade or slip cast. This includes if you are buying directly from an artist.
Example of Horsehair Slip Cast Pottery
Example of Navajo Etched Slip Cast Pottery
Processing the Clay
Processing clay is extremely hard work. First, the clay is gathered in clay pits located in secret locations around the Pueblo. Digging the clay is done with picks and shovels and put into 5 gallon buckets. The clay is then soaked in water and once liquefied enough is poured through a screen to get out all the impurities. These techniques vary from Pueblo to Pueblo but the end result is clean clay to work with. Sometimes it is dried and ground to a fine powder and then sifted again.
What does Hand Coiled mean?
Hand Coiled pottery is the traditional way of making Native handmade pottery. The potter starts with a base for the pot and then rolls the clay into long rope like shapes, then proceeds to lay the ropes on top of one another forming the vessel. As they go, they pinch the clay ropes together to the desired thickness of the pot walls. This is a tedious process and takes a lot of patience. Once the pot is formed it is left until it is semi dry at which point it can be carved and then sanded. Not all Pueblos carve their pottery. Because of the work involved, hand coiled pots will always be more expensive than slip cast or molded pots. You can tell hand coiled pottery by the artists’ finger prints or indentations inside the pot. They are also typically not as symmetrical as molded pieces. Native Americans typically do not use a wheel to throw pots. The pot is then covered with a wet clay slip then polished with a river type smooth stone that are typically handed down from generation to generation. The stone polished finish itself is a testament to how skilled the potter is. If you can see the lines from the stone polishing then the artist probably rushed it and didn't take their time. The final finish from a good stone polisher makes a big difference in the price of the piece. If it looks like a mirror and you can't see any lines then you know they took their time and did a good job.
Store Bought Paint vs Natural
After the pot has been sanded smooth it is ready to paint. Most traditional pottery is painted with slips made from plants or minerals. Some artists will use store bought acrylic paints, which is another good question to ask when considering buying a piece. Rocky Mountain Beeweed is a plant that is commonly used to make black paint. It is boiled down until it makes a thick gooey liquid. There are also several minerals that are used for paints that are ground up and mixed with water to use for different colors including red, orange, brown and even blues or greens! Some of the slips go on one color and then turn a different color when the pot is fired! The pots are then painted with traditional motifs that are important to Native Americans including, rain, mountains, clouds, animals, insects, mesas, eagle feathers and Kiva steps among others.
Outdoor Firing vs Kiln Firing
After a pot is painted it is ready to be fired. Firing the pottery at high temperatures changes the silica contained in the clay to a hard ceramic. You can check a piece of pottery that’s been fired by tapping it with your fingernail and it should produce a nice “ping” sound. Collectors prefer the traditional outdoor firing method to kiln firing, but outdoor firing is becoming scarce in certain Pueblos. Acoma Pueblo had a recent ban on outdoor firing due to the drought in New Mexico. It has since been lifted, but many potters got used to the ease of kiln firing and still do it. Outdoor firing is done by the artist basically making their own kiln out of old pieces of pottery or metal objects and then building a wood fire around the pieces using cedar or juniper wood. The Hopi use sheep dung to fire their pottery. Santa Clara & San Ildefonso potters will cover the firing in manure which robs the pot of oxygen and impregnates the vessel with soot that turns it black. Outdoor firing is much more risky than kiln firing as air pockets or imperfections in the clay can cause the piece to crack which renders the piece worthless. A cracked piece is generally ground up and used as temper for new pots.
Jason Ebelacker firing outdoors (Santa Clara Pueblo)
How to buy pottery
The first piece of advice we would give is don’t buy pottery for investment purposes. It’s very important to buy what you like and what you’re drawn to. Every collector is different and has different tastes. Some buy just from a particular Pueblo while others might collect a particular family. Others like to have a variety of everything. Whatever your collection winds up looking like, it will be a reflection of you and your taste!
Below are avenues to start you on your way to buying Native American Pottery:
This is probably every collector’s preferred purchase point. There is something to be said for buying directly from the artist. First off, you know it’s authentic and you have the memory of meeting the artist and knowing that your money went to a good cause to support the artist. You can find Native American Art shows all over the country year round. Some notable ones are Santa Fe Indian Market usually held the third week of August every year. Heard Museum Art Show in Phoenix held in March every year. There is also the Eiteljorg Museum Indian Market in Indianapolis every June and the Autry Indian Arts Marketplace every November in Los Angeles. These are just a few of the many Native Arts shows that are available year round. Some artists are becoming more internet savvy and creating their own websites or selling on Facebook. We’ve learned that the best way to buy is when the artist has their work ready and you can buy in person. Trying to commission a piece or buying long distance can have its risks. Just like buying anything online, if there are no protections in place (like Ebay has) and you send money ahead of time you run the risk of losing your money or waiting an extremely long time to get your piece. Some artists are certainly more responsible than others. Buying directly from the artist is no guarantee that you're paying the lowest price though.
Dealers and Galleries
Buying from reputable dealers or galleries is probably your next best option next to buying from the artist. Reputable dealers and galleries have the experience and knowledge to help you with your purchase. They also tend to have a large inventory on hand representing most or all the Pueblos. They are an important part of the Native art industry as they support the artist by buying in large quantities and buying when no one else is. They help support Native artists and develop long lasting relationships with them, often buying from many generations of the same families. If you’re buying online make sure you check their return policy. Is it a no questions asked policy where you can return it for any reason? Sometimes online photos aren’t entirely accurate and you may not like the piece when it arrives or maybe it has a small defect that wasn’t mentioned in the description. Dealers and galleries are also very proficient at shipping pottery so it arrives undamaged. This is important when buying online.
Ebay is actually not a bad place to acquire Native American Pottery. However, like anything else it has its risks. It’s better to buy from an established dealer on Ebay than it is a private individual. Ebay is fraught with misinformation and items not being described accurately. Some of this is just innocent folks that don’t know what they’re selling and some of it is downright deceit. Ebay is also good to use to look at what values might be for a similar piece that you’re interested in. If you see a piece you like listed on a website, go to Ebay and type in the artists name and see what their pieces are going for. Of course with handmade pottery, each piece is unique and not all values will be the same. For instance, if you have 2 Acoma pots by the same artist that are the same size, but one has a simple painted design and the other has a fine line design the fine line will be much more expensive because it takes much longer to paint. Ebay is also very good at protecting the buyer. If you want to return something, Ebay makes it very easy for the buyer even if you don’t have a good reason to return it.
Online Auction Houses
There are many online auction houses that specialize in Native American Pottery. Cowan’s, Allard Auctions, Bonhams’, Liveauctioneers, Invaluable and many others. Keep in mind when you’re bidding on something that there are buyer’s premiums and shipping costs associated with your final cost. Some of which can get pretty pricey. Find out what those fees are ahead of time and calculate those into your bid. Shipping fees from auction houses tend to be very high. Also, just because an experienced auction house has something attributed to a certain artist doesn’t mean they’re right. They make mistakes in their attributions on a regular basis. So do your research ahead of time so you can bid with confidence.
Thrift Shops & Second Hand Stores
Yes, many Thrift & Second hand stores will have Native American Pottery from time to time. Usually they are small tourist type pieces that may not be worth much but have a certain charm or character. Occasionally you may find a real gem. Keep in mind that Thrift shops and Online Auction house purchases have no direct benefit to the Native American Artist. Only buying direct from the artist or a gallery and/or dealer benefits them directly.
In closing, we hope this information was helpful. We are excited that you have read this far and are starting your journey in collecting Native American Art. You will become a fellow "Pothead” as we like to call ourselves! Yes, someone could probably write an entire book as a beginners guide to buying Native American Pottery (and probably has) but we wanted to touch on the basics. Speaking of books, we highly recommend buying a few to start you on your journey. Gregory Schaaf has several books on Native potters that are most helpful. Of course online research is great as well, but beware of misinformation on the world wide web! We would recommend you stick with reputable online galleries for accurate information. One more excellent source for information is a Facebook group put together by Dr. Jim Barufaldi Sr. We will put the link below.
Feel free to comment below or contact us if you have any further questions.