Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
When the market for Native American art soared to its 2005 peak, a 16-inch jar by the legendary potter Margaret Tafoya sold for as much as $30,000.
Today that same piece might command $12,000.
The downhill slide started in 2006 and has continued since, dealers and retailers say. Older collectors are dying, and their adult children have no interest in the art form. The artwork is heading for auction and glutting the market.
“It’s flooding the supply end, and the demand end of it is not keeping up,” 47-year Albuquerque Native American art dealer Bob Gallegos said. “So the dealers are only buying the best things or they’re buying cheap, which is risky.”
Gallegos says he receives calls weekly from people wanting to unload artwork their offspring reject.
Others deny the trend, saying the internet transformation has eliminated the middleman.
“We aren’t seeing a decline,” insisted Elizabeth Kirk, chairwoman of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, sponsor of the Santa Fe Indian Market. “We haven’t had to lower our prices. The Internet has made it so much easier to deal directly with the artist.”
Kirk is the daughter of acclaimed jeweler Michael Kirk.
“I haven’t seen people’s prices drop,” Kirk said. “If anything, they sell more on social media.”
Attendance at Santa Fe’s three anchor art markets – Spanish, Folk Art and Indian – continues to grow.
But Ken Williams, manager of the Case Trading Post at the Wheelwright Museum of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, insists younger buyers are more interested in electronics or travel than hanging an authentic piece of American Indian art on a wall.
According to Goldman Sachs, millennials – ages 18-37 – have been reluctant to buy homes, cars, music or luxury goods.
Their affinity for technology is reshaping the retail space.
Williams said he receives at least two phone calls per month from older collectors trying to sell artwork their adult children don’t want.
“I started noticing a lot of artists saying the 2008 recession was the turning point,” Williams said. “People lost money, and the disposable income is lost. Some say it’s never been the same.”
Millennials have come of age during a time of technological change, globalization and economic disruption, according to Goldman Sachs. That’s given them a different set of behaviors and experiences from their parents.
They’re also the first generation of digital natives, and their affinity for technology helps shape how they shop. They are used to instant access to price comparisons, product information and peer reviews.
Albuquerque Museum curator Andrew Connors says he receives at least one phone call, email or letter each week from families trying to unload their Native American art.
Gallegos said pottery, basketry and weavings have been hurt the most.
“I’m 72 and I still collect, although less and less,” he said. “It’s almost like a game of hot potato. The items got too high. It took so many people out of the market.”
Gallegos said one couple recently offered a piece by the acclaimed storyteller artist Helen Cordero.
“When they went to sell it, it was a very unpleasant experience,” he said. “It was probably half what they paid for it.”
A former pottery wholesaler, Gallegos once worked with 100 retail stores.
“That’s probably shrunk to 10 percent of what that market used to be,” he said.
Although some dealers say the jewelry market has remained relatively strong, others maintain it has been hurt by Japanese reproductions flooding the market.
“The Japanese fetishize American culture and the West,” said Jason Pollak of Deja vu Refinery in Albuquerque’s Old Town.
Some Anglo dealers have sent Native American silversmiths to Japan to teach their skills to the Japanese, he said. The resulting jewelry features some Native motifs, but they are not crafted by Native artists. Most are easily available on the Internet.
“If you’re a Japanese person, you don’t really get the difference,” he said. “It’s like IKEA knocking off Stickley” arts and crafts furniture.
Albuquerque’s Joe Dan Lowry, owner of the Turquoise Museum and author of several books about the stone, has sold jewelry in Japan for years.
“I don’t know if I’d call it a reproduction,” he said.
No turquoise jewelry can be called original if you trace the historic roots of silver and stone, he said.
“In the Japanese market, there are Japanese artists who have come to America and learned from Native American artists,” he said. “I don’t call it reproduction; I call it handmade jewelry.
“The most famous country in the world to sell turquoise is Iran,” he continued.
The Egyptians have used turquoise for 6,000 years, he added.
“If I make a ring in turquoise and gold, am I copying Egyptian style? Or am I copying Native American style? The Native American would have copied it from the Egyptian.”
Lowry’s store carries a selection of Native American, machine-made, Japanese, Mexican and Anglo turquoise jewelry.
“My brand is about the turquoise,” he said. “The only way we’re going to protect this culture and this art form is to learn how to compete globally.”
Turquoise prices have climbed substantially, thanks to the closing of Arizona’s Sleeping Beauty Mine four years ago, Lowry said.
Sleeping Beauty turquoise once sold for $350 a pound; today it commands $2,500 a pound.
“We are losing the battle for the glitter,” he said. “I think it will always maintain itself to a measure. But I also believe in its current format it is a dying art in terms of ingenuity and the cultural sharing of arts.”