By Carole Deutsch
MONROVIA, Calif. — John Moran Auctioneers gained their reputation as champions in the field of collectible Native American Indian textiles when, in 2012, they were able to identify a Navajo first phase chief’s blanket, known as the Chantland blanket. Not only was the blanket rare, but those in the know concerning its value were just as rare. The then owner, who inherited the piece from a generational line, shopped it around comprehensively and extensively in all the right places, but it was not until he walked into Moran’s that he was told he likely had something of great value. John Moran recognized it immediately and obtained permission to have it sent to a lab for testing to verify the authenticity of their perceptions that the red color, which accented the blanket, was “lac,” a rare substance as valuable as gold. The blanket sold for a staggering $1.8 million, shattering the previous Navajo textile world record of $522,500 set by Sotheby’s New York in 1989.
Since the saga of the Chantland blanket, which virtually “blew the roof off” the auction arena, Moran has become the epicenter of important Native American textiles for both buyers and sellers. The April 25 auction that consisted of three separate sessions included a segment headlined “The Art of the American West,” in which 74 lots of rare Navajo weavings, Hopi kachina dolls, and Western and American Indian-subject works of art were offered, the top lot being a Navajo first phase chief’s blanket.
The Ute style blanket, circa 1840-1850, one of the rarest renditions of classic Navajo weaving, was made of fine handspun churro wool with indigo dye, with bands of cream, brown and indigo. It was accompanied by a letter from Dr. David Wegner, Ph.D., dated Jan. 16, 2017, outlining dye analysis and interpretation certifying indigo dye. The catalog noted that the size had been reduced and that the selvedge edges and fringe had been re-woven. It measured 5 feet 3 inches long and sold, as expected, for $132,000. The blanket had been gifted to Mr. Albert Schmidt, the personal butler for Mrs. Randall Morgan of Chestnut Hill, Pa., in the early 20th century and was handed down by descent through the family to the present owner.
Another blanket from the same consignor, that of a Navajo transitional second phase chief’s blanket, circa 1860 to 1870, was made of natural cream, brown, cochineal-dyed red, and indigo-dyed blue wool, designed with blue and brown stripes interrupted by 12 concentric rectangles of red and blue. It was nearly 5 feet long and sold for $33,000, along with a letter from Dr. Wegner outlining dye analysis and interpretation certifying cochineal and indigo dyes.
An essay written by the consignor concerning the history of his family and how they came to possess the blankets stated in part, “My grandfather came to this country in the early 1900s with his parents and brothers, working as indentured servants for several different wealthy families, including the Morgans, Wanamakers and Rockefellers. For 50 years, my grandfather, Albert J Schmidt, worked as a personal butler for Mrs. Randall Morgan. It was my grandfather’s job to travel with her to ensure her safety and comfort during her travels. After the death of the Morgans, as decisions were being made as to what to do with the estate and its contents, various items were gifted to the staff. Shortly thereafter, Albert, his wife, and two of their sons moved to Lafayette Hill.”
Years later the grandsons were looking through one of the old trunks containing all kinds of objects when they came upon the old blankets, which they remember using to make forts as they played cowboys and Indians. “We now know that it had to be one of the gifts given to my grandfather from the Morgan family. We never imagined it would be such a wonderfully historic and important item.”
The 20th Century & Contemporary Design session of the sale, which was composed of 157 lots, also had its stand-out items. The leader among them was a lacquer on panel work of art by the Japanese artist Shiryu Morita (1912-1999). The powerful piece depicted an abstract dragon and was inscribed and dated with the artist’s chop mark on an artist’s label. It was done in 1964 and measured an imposing 62 inches high by 31 1/4 inches wide. It carried an estimate of $10,000 to $20,000, but went well beyond the mark to achieve $84,000.
A freestanding walnut cradle hutch, 1971, one of six examples made by Sam Maloof (Alta Loma, Calif., 1916-2009), was signed and dated. The 80-inch-tall piece was widely exhibited and illustrated in a number of prestigious publications and commanded the sum of $42,000.
Highlights among the Traditional Collector segment of 133 lots was a late 19th century Meiji period Japanese Satsuma porcelain vase. The 9 1/2-inch-tall vase had a tapering cylindrical body that was elaborately gilt and polychrome painted with images of sumo wrestlers. It sailed past the estimate of $600 to $900 to achieve an impressive $9,375.
Prices include a 20 percent in-house and 25 percent online buyer’s premium.