Most Expensive Antique Native American Navajo Blanket Ever Sold
When I saw that a 19th century antique Navajo blanket was sold in an auction for – $1,800,000 – my eyebrow immediately shot upwards to my hairline. “What?!” I thought to myself – or perhaps I even spoke it aloud. “How could that sell for so much money?! ” It was an ordinary blanket, hardly more elegant or interesting than the most mundane Moroccan here in our gallery.
It looked more like the similarly colored, simply woven baby blanket (one of four I insisted on sleeping with for years) that I had dubbed “car seat blankey” because it spent most of its time snuggling with me on the short trips to preschool, or longer rides to my house in the country.
But who was I to be so discerning? I’m no expert in Native American history! So I decided to give it a chance, and read more about the item before I am so quick to pass judgjement. To my delight, I discovered that it was chock full of historical relevance and had an incredible provenance!
It dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when a Scandinavian immigrant (from Norway) named John Chantland bartered unspecified goods for the blanket. It has remained in the family until it’s recent sale.
The Native American blanket is a relic of the “First Phase” of Navajo weaving. Using techniques purloined from the Puebla, the Navajos created tightly-woven blankets of a simple striped design, made from the finest wool around.
These Native American blankets were highly valued and very expensive; so much so that they were usually worn exclusively by Native American Chiefs. They were also prized by Spanish and native traders.
Despite the excellent quality of these blankets, no more than a hundred exist today. The blanket was lot #1062 in an auction at John Moran’s, and was expected to sell for $100,000-$200,000.
Clearly it sold for many times that number, and I only hope that whoever bought it is not inspired by my childhood antics, and leaves the Navajo blanket in a temperature and light controlled glass case instead of snuggling with in their car!
What are Navajo chief’s blankets?
Navajo chief’s blankets are highly prized and culturally significant textiles woven by the Navajo people, who are Indigenous to the Southwestern United States. These blankets have a rich history and are considered one of the most iconic and valuable forms of Navajo weaving.
Navajo chief’s blankets are known for their bold geometric designs, vibrant colors, and fine craftsmanship. They are typically made of hand-spun wool, and the designs often feature horizontal stripes, diamond patterns, and serrated elements. The colors used in these blankets are traditionally red, blue, black, and white, although variations exist.
The name “chief’s blanket” comes from the fact that these textiles were often traded with Native American leaders and chiefs, as well as European settlers and traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. These blankets were highly prized for their quality and beauty, and they became a symbol of wealth and prestige.
There are several styles and variations of Navajo chief’s blankets, including First Phase, Second Phase, and Third Phase blankets, each characterized by different design elements and historical periods. First Phase blankets are the earliest known style and are simpler in design, while Third Phase blankets are more complex and often feature concentric diamond patterns.
Navajo chief’s blankets hold great cultural and artistic significance within the Navajo Nation and the broader world of Native American art and craftsmanship. They are highly collectible and can be found in museums and private collections around the world. These blankets continue to be woven by Navajo artisans today, preserving a rich tradition of weaving and design that has been passed down through generations.
What were the Navajo chief’s blankets used for?
Navajo chief’s blankets served various purposes and had multiple uses throughout their history.
Here are some of the primary functions and uses of Navajo chief’s blankets:
- Status Symbols: Navajo chief’s blankets were often used as symbols of wealth, power, and prestige. They were highly sought after and were considered valuable trade items. Native American leaders and chiefs would often wear or display these blankets as a sign of their authority and influence.
- Ceremonial Garments: These blankets were worn during important tribal ceremonies and rituals, including weddings, religious ceremonies, and dances. They played a significant role in enhancing the visual impact and cultural significance of such events.
- Trade Items: Navajo chief’s blankets were highly prized in the trading networks of the American Southwest during the 18th and 19th centuries. Native American tribes, Spanish settlers, and later European traders sought these blankets for their beauty and craftsmanship. They were traded for other goods such as horses, livestock, and European-manufactured items.
- Bedding and Warmth: In addition to their cultural and trade value, these blankets were used for their practical utility. They served as warm bedding and could be used as wraps or shawls to keep individuals warm in cold weather.
- Display and Decoration: Navajo chief’s blankets were often displayed in homes or hung as decorative pieces. They were appreciated for their intricate designs and vibrant colors, adding aesthetic beauty to living spaces.
- Gifts and Tokens of Honor: Navajo chief’s blankets were sometimes given as gifts or tokens of honor to individuals of importance, whether within the Navajo tribe or to leaders of other Native American tribes or European settlers.
- Artistic Expression: These blankets also represented a form of artistic expression for Navajo weavers. They would incorporate their cultural and artistic sensibilities into the designs, creating unique and visually stunning pieces.
The specific use of a Navajo chief’s blanket could vary depending on the time period, the individual owner and the cultural context. Despite changes over time, these blankets have retained their cultural and artistic significance within the Navajo Nation and the broader world of Native American art.
Navajo Blanket and Native American Textiles Weaving History Through Native American Blankets
Native American history is best told, not in schoolbooks, but in their art. And, some of the most revealing pieces of this cultural heritage are textiles. Pieces like this Navajo chief’s blanket tell a story of the Native American community, spirituality and struggle for survival.
Also called a serape, this blanket was made during the tribe’s internment in eastern New Mexico in 1865. Woven in rich reds, the piece is striking as much for its color as for the bordered design. Red was extremely hard to come by then, especially by the Native Americans. Their way around this was to unravel machine made rugs, and re-weave the thread into their own designs.
But this design is also rare, and shows the growing intrusion of the outside world not on just the Navajo culture, but their art as well. Notice the partial borders at the blanket’s four corners. Bordered textiles were a popular theme of the time, picked up from the detailing seen on exotic Oriental rugs. Their use here suggests the weavers had seen such rugs – though most likely through photographs – and copied the style.
Borders, however, conflicted with the inherit nature of design to Native Americans. Their creations were believed to be connected with their spirituality, and something that should be shared. Acting as a boundary, borders inhibited the spirituality of the design. The solution was to incorporate another rare feature – the Spider Woman’s Hole.
A small slit in the center of the blanket’s design field, the Spider Woman’s Hole is named after the woman who, legend says, taught the Navajo to weave. The hole acts as a sort of spirit line that allows the design energy that went into the piece back into the world.