Rare Tlingit warrior's helmet captures $2 million at auction

Posted: Monday, June 02, 2008

A Tlingit warrior's helmet previously unknown to exist was recently sold to a private collector for what is believed to be a record amount for a Native American artifact at an auction.

On May 18, Fairfield Auction of Newton, Conn., hosted an auction that fetched $2,185,000 for the helmet that experts believe originated in the late 18th or early 19th century. An anonymous woman brought the piece to the company during an appraisal clinic several months ago, not realizing the value of the artifact, auction house owner Jack DeStories said.

"She didn't even understand it to be Native American necessarily," he said. "She didn't know; she just thought it was an interesting curiosity."

Little is known of the helmet or how it found its way to the East Coast from the traditional homeland of the Tlingit on the Northwest coast. DeStories said the consigner of the helmet received it as a gift in 1984 from her significant other but is unsure where it had come from prior to that.

"So she had basically had it sitting on a shelf for the past 24 years," he said. "To have something come out of the clear blue sky of that magnitude was pretty much a shock for everyone in our business."

The existence of the helmet and its sale to a private collector also came as a shock to Tlingit people, said Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl.

"I was very, very, very sad that something as important and as significant as a war helmet is going into a private collection," said Worl, an anthropologist and Tlingit of eagle moiety. "Who knows when we'll ever see it again."

Worl said the issue is particularly sensitive because of the way traditional Tlingit law defines ownership of at.óow, or cultural objects, including crests, songs, names, stories and spirits.

"The significance of the helmet to us is it's not just an art piece, but it represents a tie to our ancestors, a tie to the spirit of our ancestors. So it's really sad to think of the possibility that it will never come home - unless of course the collector has a soul and heart and knows that the spirit of that helmet wants to come home," she said.

DeStories would not disclose who purchased the helmet or where the object will end up.

"The most I can say is a private collector," he said. "Even for minor things we hold that information confidential unless the buyer or seller chooses to be known."

Steve Henrikson, a curator at the Alaska State Museum, said there are only about 90 to 95 Tlingit warrior helmets known to exist in the world, most of which are in museums or private collections. He said it is remarkable for such helmet to surface after so many years.

"For someone that does a lot of research on Tlingit armor, I can't help but feel a little bit of excitement that something like this has just suddenly shown up out of the blue. It's something that doesn't happen every day and it makes me feel good to know that it exists," he said. "On the other hand, I wish there was a better way to handle things like this when they are found and identified."

Items from private collections generally do not fall under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act and returning such cultural treasures to clans or tribes can be very difficult, Henrikson said.

"There are a lot of mechanisms that were used to take this material from Alaska Native clans, so the reason for the repatriation law was the concern that many of the objects were taken wrongfully or at least taken in a way that wasn't in keeping with traditional Native law," he said.

DeStories said he is aware of such laws and said he contacted experts at museums in Canada prior to the auction.

"The laws that apply to such items clearly didn't apply to this," he said. "We were aware of that right away. Aside from that, our job is to expose this to the marketplace for the consigner."

Henrikson said it would be very difficult to decipher the precise geographic location of the helmet or to what specific clan it is from. Regardless, people unfamiliar with the Tlingit people often don't realize the importance of such cultural objects.

"It certainly was never intended to be considered just a work of art and put in a glass case in someone's living room or even a museum," he said. "It was considered something beyond value that symbolized the clan."

Worl said it is more important to have the item return to its homeland than to identify which specific clan the helmet originated from.

"It's not a loss just to that one clan, but to the Tlingit people as a whole," she said.

DeStories said the real lesson of the whole story is that there are still great objects out there yet to be discovered.

"In this business you can go for months or even years without finding a really exceptional object," he said. "For everyone who's in our business it gives them hope that there are still great things out there, phenomenal things to be found."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or e-mail eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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