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So you want to buy some authentic Native American jewelry on ebay? There are a bunch of guides on ebay already, but what I am going to offer you is not only advice from my personal experiences, but also a list of excellent reference books. I will give a one or two line review of each so you know which might be most useful to you. If you think you want to start collecting, these books are really the best place to start!
HOW TO REALLY LOOK AT A LISTING.
Here is the list of things I check when I look at a listing. First I check the person's feedback. Since people in general are reluctant to leave negative feedback, it is extra important to read any negatives the seller has. Did anyone say they are selling fakes or frauds? Check the feedback from the writer of the negative too, they might just be a troublemaker and the seller a victim. Next I carefully scroll through the listing. Be on the watch for any warnings that say the jewelry is not made in the USA. It is illegal to pass off foreign (or even non-Native made) jewelry as Native so sellers usually have a disclaimer. Take a careful look at the photos. Although on my listings I always describe even small flaws and damage, many people expect you to glean this information from photographs. If you want to be sure, ask the seller if there is any damage (like if you are about to bid $500 on something!). Carefully look at the description for clues about the piece's origin. Check the shipping charge. If you are buying a $10 ring do you really want to pay $12 to get it shipped? I have forgotten to do this and been sorry.
CAN YOU REALLY TELL IF SOMETHING IS AUTHENTIC BY LOOKING AT THE PICTURE?
To be perfectly blunt, the only way to be absolutely 100% sure that a piece of jewelry is authentic is to buy from a reputable dealer (and there are a number of great ones on ebay!). There are societies like the Antique Tribal Arts Dealer Association (ATADA) that require their members hold to the highest standards. If someone has educational information in their listing, they probably want you as a buyer to be well informed, and therefore are not afraid of informed buyers. But there are things you can look for in a piece of jewelry. If you are lucky the piece will be signed by the Zuni or Navajo artist and will be readily identifiable. Get some of the books below and familiarize yourself with Zuni versus Navajo last names. If the piece is marked Begay or Yazzi, it ain't Zuni. If the piece is not marked, look for tight bezels and well-formed and smooth silverwork. Hand stamping and file work can be precise, but is not always utterly uniform, like it would be if a machine stamped it. A handmade bezel, for holding a stone, usually doesn't have perfectly triangular sharp uniform teeth. It is very hard to tell from a picture if a piece of turquoise is good, but if it looks plastic-like or the matrix looks too uniform and perfect, it may be block or faux. Many of the old Fred Harvey pieces do not have real turquoise, which does not make them any less collectible. In general Zuni people do the best inlay and the Navajo are known for their superb silverwork, but of course there are exceptions. I have seen both Zuni and Navajo turquoise cluster work, and even snake eyes row work. Also I have seen Navajo inlaid knifewing or rainbowman kachinas, which are more typically made by Zuni artists. Big heavy silverwork is usually Navajo. Also there are collaborations between Zuni and Navajo artists, C. G. Wallace brought Navajo silverwork by Roger Skeet or John Hoxie to be inlaid by Zuni artists Leekya Deyuse or Lambert Homer, and even now Zunis will be asked to do the inlay for a Navajo silverwork piece. One thing to watch for is the use of the term Old or Dead Pawn. Pawn has a specific meaning, Native people essentially borrow money against a valuable piece of jewelry, which is then held in a pawn vault as secure as any bank. Later they repay the loan and get their piece back. Sadly, sometimes they don't ever have the money to get their jewelry back, and so after a designated amount of time the pawn becomes dead, i.e. sellable to anyone. A lot of people think that if a piece they are selling looks old it must be old or dead pawn. Collectors feel that old pawn is some of the highest quality jewelry, as it was intended for use of the artist and his/her family rather than tourists, so many people mark their listings as pawn whether or not they actually did get it from a shop that deals in bona fide pawn. Personally I only mark my pieces pawn if I got them from a pawn trading post. Of course there are still plenty of high quality older pieces that are not directly from pawn shops. The best general advice I have for you is to get some of the books listed below and spend a lot of time looking at pictures! And remember even ethical sellers sometimes make mistakes.
For more details on how to tell fake from real Indian jewelry please see my guide:
BUYING OLD OR ANTIQUE PIECES.
If you are buying something old or antique, usually the silver has a dark patina or tarnish. Most people do not want to polish away this mark of history. But tarnished doesn't necessarily mean old, a new piece can be made to look old and dark, and sometimes well-meaning sellers work hard to get an old silver piece shiny. But as a general trend, old pieces are dark, sometimes almost black.
I tried to find a reference for when the STERLING mark first began common usage. I can't find an exact date but if something is supposed to be from the 1930s chances are it is not marked STERLING or marked in any way. I would estimate the usage of STERLING stamps somewhere between 1940 and the 1950s. Another mark of an old piece is the type of pin clasp in a brooch. Although the safety clasp was used as early as the 1910s in costume jewelry, the earliest Native American piece I have seen referenced that had a safety type clasp was somewhere in the mid-1940s. Before the safety clasp was developed silversmiths used the C-clasp, just a bent piece of silver that would catch on the pin. The use of WHIRLING OR ROLLING LOGS (looks like a Nazi swastika) ended by the late 1930s. Watch out for modern fakes, the swastika pieces are super popular and they are being reproduced. I have also seen new pieces made in an old style, for instance I would have mistaken a new butterfly cuff I saw in Gallup recently for an old piece if I hadn't been told it was made recently. Some contemporary artists are resurrecting the use of old styles, for instance Harry Morgan makes wonderful high-end cuffs (expensive!) that are done in an old pawn style. If something is made poorly or looks primitive, that doesn't mean it is old! The Zuni master craftsmen like Teddy Weahkee and Lambert Homer did spectacular work. The early Navajo silverworkers did some amazing precision work with fairly primitive hand tools. The Fred Harvey era Indian style jewelry was already being manufactured for the souvenir trade as early as 1910. It is common to see old petit point or cluster pieces with turquoise of varying colors. Old, untreated turquoise develops greenish hues with age, and this is considered desirable by many collectors.
SOME USEFUL WEIGHT COMPARISONS.
People often measure their jewelry weights in grams because is it more accurate than ounces. There are about 28 grams in a ounce (I am talking an Avoirdupois ounce here, not Troy ounce which is not 28 grams). Here are weights of some typical household items for compairson, done on my scale at home, all weights approximate:
Zebra Sarasa gel pen approx. 10 grams
AA battery approx. 25 grams
Tennis Ball approx. 60 grams
Music CD in a case approx. 115 grams
Great website listing all of the major American mines with some history on each and a bit about mines in other countries. Has excellent pictures:
The Allure of Turquoise (2nd Edition) Articles from New Mexico Magazine, Edited by Arnold Vigil. This has a lot of useful information about geology and uses of turquoise and good information about fake stones and jewelry. Also check out chapter 6 for some examples of faked Zuni jewelry compared to the real thing! Can YOU tell the difference? See my guide "Navajo and Zuni jewelry: A short guide on pricing" for what you can do if you've been faked out by a fake.
Turquoise Unearthed An Illustrated Guide by Joe Dan Lowrey and Joe P. Lowrey. Excellent reference work listing many of the American mines with great pictures of turquoise from each of them.
Turquoise the Gem of the Centuries by Oscar T. Branson. This is out of print but easy to find. This is similar to the Turquoise Unearthed book with even more of the mines and photos of turquoise from them, but I find the red background on many of the photos distracting.
NAVAJO AND ZUNI JEWELRY
Zuni the Art and the People (3 volume set) by Barbara and Ed Bell This is also out of print but easy to find. These are 3 volumes showing Zuni artists of the 1970s with photos of the artists and great examples of their jewelry.
Zuni Jewelry by Theda and Michael Bassman This is a great book full of photos and has a very useful artist index on the back cover. It mostly shows contemporary artist's work.
Turquoise Jewelry by Nancy Schiffer. This has many great jewelry photos with short descriptions, not much on history or techniques.
The Beauty of Navajo Jewelry by Theda Bassman. This is full of really nice photos of mostly contemporary Navajo work.
Indian Silver Jewelry of the Southwest 1868-1930 by Larry Frank. This is a treasure trove of photos of very early Native jewelry, mostly Navajo, but note that many of the photos are in black and white.
Southwest Silver Jewelry by Paula A Baxter. This is my MOST favorite book. It is chock full of color photos and excellent historical information. You can think of it as a continuation of the Larry Frank book above, as it deals with older pieces but then extends its reach up through the 1960s or so.
Indian Silver by Dale Stuart King. This is an out of print but easy to find small paperback. It has a lot of really good information on how to look at jewelry and how it is made. Lots of photos of Zuni and Navajo work with attributions, but unfortunately all in black and white.
HALLMARKS AND IDENTIFICATION
Hallmarks of the Southwest by Barton Wright. This is a must have book if you want to start collecting. He lists many different Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi hallmarks, both initials and symbols, that will help you identify a piece you are interested in. There is often a little bit of information about the artist but not tons.
American Indian Jewelry I 1,200 Artists Biographies by Gregory Schaaf. This book has an alphabetical list of many Native artists, not just Southwestern but also Pacific Northwest and Plains, with descriptions of their work and sometimes photos of the work. A good reference but doesn't always have everything you'd like. He told me he is working on volume 2 though!