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Cooper’s Corner

The Wonderment of Collecting Indian Artifacts

I am sure you have wondered why you are obsessed with collecting Indian artifacts. I have heard other collectors calling it “the fever” as they envision the next hunt or show. So what is it about collecting that is so attractive and alluring?

I think it is the wonder of the unknown. You wake up; walk out into a field, with no idea what you might find. I guess it is the same thing that drove thousands to California during the Gold Rush. Those individuals gave up everything and endured great hardships for a chance at immediate instant wealth. Each day they looked and panned hoping to have an amazing discovery. Some succeeded, some did not, just like hunting for artifacts. And the next hunt always holds the hope of the “big” find. For instance, while you might think all the gold was found in the first few years following 1849, it took nearly twenty years to uncover the largest nugget. Weighing in at 109.2 pounds, it was found by five partners in August of 1869. Of course, a dollar had more buying power then. In fact, a dollar in 1849 had the buying power today of more than $3100. So taking that into account, that nugget was worth a bit more than 7 billion dollars in today’s dollars. Holy molly! No wonder the gold miners were driven!

Of course, you are not going to find an Indian artifact worth that much, as that was an isolated case. But the thrill of seeking the unknown will spin into the mind of the artifact collector and cause him(or her) to spend countless hours walking, looking and probing – just like that of the gold prospector.

The hunting thrill extends to shows to. I hear countless collectors say at a show to each other “What did you pick up?” – alluding to bending over in a field and uncovering an artifact. Of course, you are just buying, but you are hunting and gathering throughout the room, making the rounds, hunting for that artifact which will enhance, start or complete a frame. The thrill of the show is the thrill of the hunt.

Of course, there is another aspect to collecting. We learned it all in kindergarten. It was an afternoon activity called “show and tell.” When we display, we are unconsciously returning to the glorious times when we showed off a new toy, special pet or gift. Of course, with this activity there has to be some storytelling. Stop by any collectors table and just look at their frames and they will immediately start into a story about some of the artifacts on display. And as long as you will pay attention they will continue.

Is there anything wrong with all of this? In fact, there is everything right about it! It is a way for even shy people to make friends. It is a way to belong, as you are hunkering down with a group of likeminded individuals who love the same things you do. It can become a way of life. Talk to some collectors, and they eat, breathe and sleep collecting. I would contend it extends your life. For each collector has a purpose beyond working, something lacking in modern life and especially in the glorified retirement we are sold on by the media! Sit in a chair and watch Netflix or HBO day after day and you will quickly see a decline in your health and longevity.

Modern collecting can sometimes exclude the “field hunt” aspect, but this issue has been solved by the “mailbox find.” You sit in a chair, pull up an internet sales site and off you go, hunting and gathering arrowheads that once bought, take just a few days to arrive in the mail. It takes a lot less effort, does not physically wear you out, but is just as gratifying. I know a few collectors who wander the shows hunting for artifacts to resell. These guys did all of the footwork!

One thing that most collectors do not think about is the fact that “each and every artifact was found by someone.” While viewing an awesome collection and someone invariably someone asks “Did you find all of this?” The collector answers back, “No, I bought each and every piece.” They may say they know the finder of such and such, but most pieces were traded, bought or given to the collector by someone other than the original finder. Does this diminish this collection? Of course not! If a piece was uncovered in 1900, the odds of the original finder still living are zero. In fact, any piece found 95 years ago is most likely not in the hands of the finder(s) anymore. Why didn’t the family keep it? Let’s be honest, not everyone cares for or loves artifacts. Sometimes these heirs want money, but most of the time it is their own lack of interest. I view it as “their loss, our gain.”

Speaking of “owning” an artifact, that is a complete misnomer. We are only the temporary stewards of our collections, for none of us are immortal and our collections will pass on to someone else eventually. A limited few have immortalized their collections by assembling them into a museum, such as Thomas Gilcrease , George Gustav Heye and David Bogle. But museums require immense amounts of money, usually way beyond the means of even the greatest collectors. One such museum, that of Dr. T. Hugh Young, is one of collector fascination and imagination. He assembled one of the best collections ever, opening a small personal museum on his property. Sadly he became ill just a few years later, and the collection was rapidly dispersed. Luckily Thomas Gilcrease did step up and many of the finer things from the Young collection are still together at his museum, but this amounts to only about 10% of the Young collection. This just shows the impermanence of our collections. It is also interesting that once one starts to amass a huge collection, it becomes difficult for our brain to organize it, know it or understand it. Think about the incredible collection of Edward Payne. Collected over 60 years, with several “pickers” (he invented the word) out in the field, his final collection of way over a million objects overflowed several bank vaults and much of it ended up being stored in several railroad cars. . In fact, it is said that he never saw most of it by time he passed away in 1932! The auction of artifacts from the collection is legendary, but the bulk of the collection took nearly twenty years to disperse.  I sometimes think the words hoarder and Payne should be synonymous.

Collecting is a connection. When you hold an artifact, you are connecting directly to the prehistoric individual who made it, used it and discarded it. If you have ever viewed or owned pottery, you may have noticed that the majority of the vessels have blackened spots of them, called by collectors “fire clouds.” Modern potters create similar patterns by using large leaves next the vessel so that the combination of heat and leaf create interesting patterns. These usually resemble the form of the leaf utilized. Ancient pottery usually has random patterns. Well, random until you hold the vessel and realize these patterns were created by oils on the hands of the maker! You can usually find the exact way the pot was held prior to firing if you put your fingers on the fireclouds. I have several pots in my collection where you can virtually see the fingerprints of the maker in the firecloud.

Another connection is the common scraper. If you pick one up and move it around in your hand, there is a moment where it perfectly fits. These scrapers were not randomly made, but custom fit for the hands of the user. You can easily feel how they were held and utilized. Scrapers are perhaps more numerous than projectile points, so a lot of the handiwork of prehistoric peoples can easily be connected to.

But the connection goes beyond the prehistoric. Think about whom you know or have met while collecting. Collectors come from all walks of life. You can have a one-on-one conversation with people you would never meet in an ordinary day. A multi-millionaire who lives in a huge gated property all of a sudden is talking and sharing stories with you. You are equals at this moment, each sharing a connection to collecting. This bonding of like-minded collectors, from farmers, factory workers, doctors to lawyers is one of the true wonders and joys of collecting. We are a community, and should always be proud of it.

Collecting is part of the human experience, and it has been shown that some of the earliest humans were collectors of things. Ancient peoples gathered artifacts from even more ancient peoples. We want to know the human story. We are fascinated by the lives of those who walked this earth before us. There is nothing wrong with this, for it is a part of who we are. Collecting is recognizing the human experience, and collecting prehistoric objects lets us connect to a time when cell phones, grocery stores and automobiles were not even a thought, the true wonderment of collecting! Embrace it, enjoy it and pursue it. You will never regret it!

Steven Cooper – June 2019 – copyright 2019