Thinking of bidding on an old Northwest Coast native shaman's charm?
There are several important things to consider:
These ivory or bone items have been extensively faked in recent years; of those on eBay and elsewhere, perhaps only one in a hundred will be genuine.
They might look quite old and real, and will be sold as 100-year old native indian or eskimo shaman's charms; from an old estate; or perhaps from a museum that was going out of business. But because the fakes are so common, it is far more likely that a dealer will have a dozen fakes, than a dozen genuine old native charms. How can the fakes be recognized?
The fakes are manufactured by third-world craftsmen, who work from a small number of patterns; this means that their items will be found in multiple copies, and that the copies of each particular design will vary only slightly. One family produces an upraised hand, a human figure, a realistic sperm whale, a realistic humpback whale, a salmon in profile with vague "native" shapes incised, a similar stylized whale, a second more stylized fish, a triangular fox-like animal face, a bear, a bear face in profile, a turtle, and so on. They make hundreds of each and ship them off to the dealers.
So, one major clue to whether an item is real is whether it shows up over and over again. If one dealer has several of the salmon, and they are selling for $4, it is unlikely that the identical salmon, being listed elsewhere as 100-year old charms, are real. Real hundred year old ivory items are not found in boxes of a dozen. Each real item will be an individual and unique piece; there will not be another hundred just like it.
And, the fakes appear in groups of the various designs. A single dealer will have not only the three sorts of whales, but the fox-face, the salmon, the figure, and the hand. If by some chance such a group of items was carved 100 years ago, it would be very unlikely that the group would stay together, or that there would be multiple copies of the same group.
A second clue is found in the style; it does take time to learn the nuances of Northwest Coast Native design (see books by Bill Holm, Hilary Stewart, and others), but anyone who has done so will see that the style of the fakes is incorrect; they were made by carvers unfamiliar with genuine NW style. NW incised designs, if present in the fakes at all, will be blobby and irregular, to a practiced eye.
- But a much easier way to recognize the fakes is to simply note that the sperm whale is not a NW crest figure, nor is the humpback; and NW charms are not made in a realistic way, in any case. A NW whale should be stylized, in a typical NW way; it should not simply be a realistic carved whale. So, all of the charms depicting realistic sperm or humpback whales are fakes; no such items could or would have been made by NW natives.
Price is a clue also; some of these patterns were originally imported as beads; and in the bead shops, were sold for $1 or so, as fancy beads. Some are still available in the bead shops and even on eBay, for just a few dollars, Buy It Now price. But many sellers find it quite easy to say they came from an old estate, or from a shop or museum that was going out of business; a date such as "1895" or the name of the collector can easily be written on the back, and these will sell for $30, $50, $100 on a good day. However, real items of that antiquity ought to be selling for $1,000. Why is a similar one on eBay for $10? Perhaps because it isn't real.
The fish pictured here was purchased, with 9 just like it, from a bead dealer, at 10 for $2.99. Another one just like it, identical down to the number and placement of scales, just sold on eBay, represented as real, with the name of a collector, and a date in the late 1800's written on it. That one was clearly not old and native, but part of the same production run as those ten. And if it was not native, then others from the same collection are probably not real either.
- If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- If it seems like a hundred-year-old shamans charm, at a very good price, and the seller has a whole family of similar ones.........it probably isn't.
And of course, high price is no guarantee of authenticity either; a seller may really believe the item is valuable, or inexperienced bidders may drive the price up; and such a pattern may not be obvious if the bidders are kept private.