Native Village
Youth and Education news

Volume 4  February 2012 
Aboriginal "mosquito mask" fetches $400,000 at French auction
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It became the focus of an intense bidding war at a major auction of aboriginal art in France: a 150-year-old wooden "mosquito mask" from the Tlingit people of the Pacific Northwest. The Canadian historical treasure was expected to fetch about $40,000. When the bidding ended, it sold for nearly $400,000.

A European collector prevented a rival Canadian bidder, Don Ellis, from repatriating the rare object to this country.

Artifacts that sold generations ago for small amounts can sell for enormous sums today, Ellis said. Prices are sometimes driven by museums and collectors hoping to bring these long-lost treasures back to Canada.

The mask's great age, its protruding nose and the freshness of the pigments explain the high bid. It was was worn in ceremonies by a "clown character" to make his audience laugh. The vibrant colours were produced with graphite, manganese and red ochre. These were ground in stone mortars and mixed with salmon eggs chewed to a smooth paste. The result was a rich, textured paint.

Ellis has been involved in several successful efforts to repatriate aboriginal artifacts on the international auction circuit. Some have attracted multimillion-dollar bids.

In 2006, Ellis spearheaded the $5,500,000 purchase of a stunning set of Tsimshian artifacts collected by a Scottish missionary in the 1800s. Included were a shaman's mask that cost $2,000,000.

Ellis points out that many aboriginal objects were collected by Europeans in "fair trade" circumstances. The native artists or the owners of inherited objects paid reasonable prices at the time.

But were they all fair trades?

"Absolutely not," Ellis said.  He recalls a descendant of a mask-maker telling him how the family "bought ammunition and food and clothing" after the sale of one artwork to an early collector.

"I think it's a tempest in a teapot to speak about this (artifact) in the sense that (a native community) sold these things for little and now they're worth a lot," he said. "Over a century has gone by. Andy Warhol sold 'Yellow Marilyn' for $200 in 1964 and it sold for $26,000,000 two years ago.

Ellis said the global demand for historical aboriginal art bolsters interest in the work of modern-day First Nations artists.

John Ward, spokesman for the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, expressed surprise over the hefty price paid for the 19th-century mosquito mask.

Drumming"I don't know how these collectors value these things, or what's the driving force behind it," he said.

Early collectors"helped themselves" to Tlingit artifacts, Ward said, after Tlingit cultural practices were outlawed by the Canadian government.

The Tlingit of Taku River are still "in the process of reviving our way of life" and would not be inclined to sell their own historical objects despite the strong demand in the international auction market.

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Native Village Gina Boltz
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