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Did TV show exaggerate rarity, cash value of artworks? s


“Antiques Roadshow” overestimated the value and the rarity of two Tlingit masks that reportedly originated in the Chilkat Valley, according to experts in Haines and Juneau.

“This is really, really remarkable material. These are among the most rare objects in North America,” appraiser Ted Trotta told a TV audience about two masks that were brought forward by a man on an episode recorded in Bismarck, N.D.

Guests are not identified on the show, but the man who owned the pieces said they dated to 1890s Haines, when his great-grandfather was here as a missionary.

Steve Henrikson, senior curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum, this week estimated there are “hundreds” of such masks in museums around the world, though not as many in private ownership.

Further, the masks on the show aren’t of masterpiece quality, he said. “They’re pretty standard. As far as the degree of artistry exhibited, they wouldn’t reach that upper level.”

TV appraiser Trotta valued the larger mask at $175,000, and a smaller, wolf face carving at $75,000. He said they dated to the 1700s.

Henrikson said the value of the two pieces could reach that amount, but only if two very determined private collectors were facing off at an auction. “I would say it’s an exaggeration, but it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility.”

Knowing the “provenance,” or origin of a piece of art is one element used in determining an artwork’s value, and that appears to be missing from the pieces, he said. Age also can add value to a piece of indigenous art, but only to a degree. Crumbling or broken sections subtract value, he said.

Lee Heinmiller of Alaska Indian Arts said the show’s valuation was off by an exponential factor. “There’s no chance in hell anybody would pay that for masks like that. They’re rare, but not that rare. Lots of museums have dozens of them.”

If the two masks fetched a combined $70,000 at an auction house, that amount would be “steep but believable,” Heinmiller said.

Heinmiller and Henrikson both said the value of Tlingit artwork has been climbing in recent years.

But Heinmiller, who tracks sales of Tlingit art at major auction houses, said the going price at such auctions can vary widely. A Chilkat blanket might fetch between $35,000 and $100,000, he said, depending on factors including where it came from and who shows up at the auction.

“If you’re hoping you’re going to get $100,000, you may get half of that, depending on how the bidding goes,” Heinmiller said.

Heinmiller said “Antiques Roadshow” tends to overvalue Tlingit art. A Raven rattle on the show was once valued at $75,000, he said. “They’re common in that there might be hundreds of them out there.”

He said a visit to the Tlingit art collections in places like the American Museum of Natural History puts the rarity of pieces into perspective. Compacting storage units there include thousands of Tlingit objects, he said. “If there were mountain goat spoons, there were 20 in a drawer, and there were drawers and drawers. We couldn’t get through one room.”

The value of Tlingit war helmets can go to $500,000 or more, but there are only about 90 of those known to exist, Heinmiller said.

Henrikson said the deteriorated condition of the masks suggested they were shamanic and had been exposed to weather when left at a shaman’s grave, typically above ground. Such pieces may have been particularly helpful for fundraising work by missionaries, who might use them as examples of the work – and money – needed to convert indigenous people from their heathen practices.

If the pieces came from a shaman’s grave, it’s difficult to see how they were acquired legitimately, Henrikson said. Such pieces were “radioactive” to Tlingits, and removing them from shaman grave sites would have required permission of Native landowners, he said.

Tlingits and Sheldon Museum officials have said they might seek to acquire the masks. Tlingit anthropologist Rosita Worl told KHNS News that features on the pieces indicate they likely came from Klukwan’s Kaagwaantaan clan.

The unidentified owner of the pieces said he would be keeping them because they had value to his family.

A federal law requires the return of certain indigenous objects when they’re held by institutions like museums receiving federal funding, but the law doesn’t apply to private owners.


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