Collecting Navajo weavings

These textiles look fantastic with modern decor, and competition is intensifying to track down the best, says Virginia Blackburn

c1900-1910 wool Storm Pattern rug, $12,500 from Nizhoni Ranch Gallery
c1900-1910 wool Storm Pattern rug, $12,500 from Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

The striking geometric chief’s blanket hanging in the bedroom of property investor Peter Herfurth’s Tucson home looks surprisingly modern, given that it was created in the 19th century. This Navajo weaving was passed down to Herfurth by his parents, and he has inherited their collecting passion too. “I started buying in 1981 and by 2002 I was an avid collector,” he says. He spends between $5,000 and $180,000 for the best work and owns some 40 pieces, chosen primarily for their design and colour.

Today the weavings created by the Navajo people of the southwestern United States are considered some of the most desirable of all Native American textiles. In 2012, California’s John Moran Auctioneers sold a chief’s blanket from the mid-19th century for $1.8m. This represented a considerable leap in prices; until then the very best pieces went for around $650,000-$750,000. But the rarity value, combined with the fact that the bold designs are suited to modern interiors, means that these rugs and blankets are highly sought after.

One UK dealer drawn to the Navajo designs is Cotswolds-based Brian MacDonald. “I sell them when I can find them,” he says, “but good examples are hard to come by outside the US. The last one I sold was a two-tone c1900 rug for £1,000. It was bought by an interior decorator for a London apartment and looked great on the wooden floor.”

c1870 flannel chief’s blanket, $75,000 from Shiprock Santa Fe
c1870 flannel chief’s blanket, $75,000 from Shiprock Santa Fe

Entry-level examples (from around £1,000) can be found on 1stdibs, and auction houses often have items for sale (in 2013 Sotheby’s New York sold the comprehensive Andy Williams collection of Navajo blankets for a total of nearly $1m), but the major dealers and the best examples are still found in the areas where the weavings originated.

These woollen textiles began to develop in the southwest with the arrival of the Spanish, who brought sheep with them. “The oldest known weavings are from the 1700s, while the earliest that still exist were made in about 1805 in Massacre Cave, Arizona,” says Mark Sublette, who has been running Medicine Man gallery in Tucson, Arizona, for the past 23 years. “Today the best collectable examples are from the 1840s, but these are very rare.” He currently has a classic c1850 red, cream and black rug featuring interlinking patterns for $200,000.

“It is the simplicity of the design and the vibrant colour that draws you in,” Sublette adds. In fact, the colour that is so much a part of these creations was absent in the earliest pieces, which used undyed wool in brown and white. The weavers began to use plant-dyed yarns in the mid-19th century, switching to synthetic dyes in about 1870-1880. The natural-dyed works remain the most desirable: “People will pay for spectrographic analysis of the material to see if indigo or aniline [chemical] dye has been used,” says Mark Bahti, author of Southwestern Indian Weaving and owner of Bahti Indian Arts.

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The patterns, too, evolved over time and there are three distinct design phases. “The first phase consists only of stripes,” says Kent McManis, co-author of Navajo Weavings and co-owner of Grey Dog Trading in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “The second phase has stripes and an odd number of little squares, typically nine; and the third included diamond shapes instead of squares, inspired by Mexican Saltillo weaving.”

Shiprock Santa Fe gallery currently has a number of chief’s blankets for sale, including a c1890 Navajo Germantown third-phase example ($18,000) in black, white, red and purple, and a c1870 late third-phase one ($75,000) with brown, white and coral stripes and diamond motifs. The term “chief’s blanket”, however, is a misnomer: the Navajo don’t have chiefs. The creations were so-called because only the chiefs of other tribes would have been able to afford them. It’s an indicator of just how desirable these textiles have always been.

Another distinction to be made is between blankets and rugs. The blankets were primarily produced for the Navajo themselves and tend to have simple banded designs, whereas the rugs were intended for a wider commercial market and are more complex. The latter were produced in what is known as the “transitional period”, from around 1890 to 1915, and the finest examples sell for between $35,000 and $60,000.

c1950 Trading Post rug, $6,618 through 1stdibs
c1950 Trading Post rug, $6,618 through 1stdibs

“The rugs came in after trading posts were established,” says Steve Getzwiller, who runs the Nizhoni Ranch Gallery in Sonoita, Arizona. Among his wide range of stock is a c1900-1910 Germantown Storm Pattern rug for $12,500, while a beautiful striped 1870s blanket that once belonged to Samuel Beach Axtell, governor of New Mexico Territory at the time of Billy the Kid, is $45,000.

Another popular area for collectors is rugs dating from about 1900 to 1925, which start at around £5,000. “These are known as ‘dazzlers’,” says Jan E Finch, partner at London-based Finch & Co, a specialist in ethnographic art that sometimes sells Navajo pieces, “as there is a lot of movement and colour in the geometric shapes.”

But not all collectors want to be dazzled. “I look for natural colours of the desert,” says Fred Klein, an attorney based in Frankfurt who fell in love with these textiles while working in the US in the 1980s. “I bought my first one in New Mexico and now have about 35, including several chief’s blankets.” Many of his pieces were bought from Nizhoni Ranch Gallery. “But I’ll have to stop buying now – I’ve run out of wall and floor space.”

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