It was the quintessential Antiques Roadshow find. In 2002, a man named Ted from Tucson presented appraiser Don Ellis with a simple striped wool blanket,saying that it had been hanging over the side of a rocking chair in his bedroom for years, ever since he had inherited it from his aunt. His first clue that it might be something valuable? The Roadshow producers assigned burly security men to escort him around before his television taping. Sure enough, when the cameras rolled, Ellis informed Ted that he was in possession of a "national treasure."
Turns out, the blanket his grandmother had put at the foot of his bed on cold nights when he was a boy earned the highest valuation ever conferred at that time.
This first-phase Ute style Navajo chief's blanket, woven between 1840 and 1860, one of the oldest, rarest and finest examples ever to hit the market—one of only 50 or so known. And how much did Ellis think it might fetch at auction? Somewhere between $350,000 and $500,000.
On camera, Ted from Tucson could be seen wiping away tears of joy.
He and his wife sold the blanket to bankroll their retirement house. The weaving ended up in a major American museum. And dealers I spoke with report that the Roadshow publicity helped peel a few more old blankets off of people's rocking chairs and into the market.
Navajo blankets of the classic era (mid-to-late 19th century) have long been valued. As Nancy Blomberg, curator of native arts at the Denver Art Museum, points out, "They were widely traded with other tribes like the Ute, the Cheyenne and the Sioux, afforded and worn only by persons of wealth and stature." Indeed, the term "chief's blanket" comes not from Navajo—the nomadic, clan-based culture didn't even have chiefs—but from the fact that high-ranking members of other tribes acquired the striking textiles as badges of their wealth and power.
By 1850, says long-time collector and dealer Jerry Becker, of Elk Creek Trading, the weavings traded for as much as $50 in gold or "many, many horses."
But after the native people of the Great Plains and desert Southwest were stripped of their land wealth, forced into reservations and given "prairie" clothes to wear, textile patronage shifted to the non-native realm. As trains forged westward at the end of the 19th century, belching out a steady stream of tourists, trading posts sprouted up to serve them. Enterprising traders like Fred Harvey, Lorenzo Hubbell and J.B. Moore revived and regenerated Navajo weaving—not only by marketing it to white buyers, but by providing commercial yarns and aniline dyes from back east that allowed weavers to expand their palette and experiment with new designs. So-called wearing blankets were phased out in favor of decorative rugs, which are being produced to this day in regional styles that first emerged around specific trading posts in the late 1890s.
These days, Navajo textiles range from a few hundred dollars for a small contemporary rug up to a half a million and more for the oldest, rarest chief's blankets. Generally, you'll pay less at auction, partly because the best stuff still trades privately. David Roche of Sotheby's points out that you can get a good example rug from the trading post era (1900 to 1930s) for between $10,000 and $20,000, and a nice rug from the second half of the 20th century for only $5,000. Jim Haas of Butterfields says that the average price in his sales is only $1,500, up from $1,000 in recent years.
Why the dominance of blankets in the market? For one thing, they're older and rarer. And because they weren't made specifically for the tourist trade, many see them as more authentic reflections of Navajo culture, less tainted by contact with, and dependence on, the white man. Butterfields' Haas explains, "Blankets tend to be seen as artifacts, while rugs are a more decorative market."
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