Cowan's Corner

Photographs Can Offer More Than Just a Thousand Words

By Wes Cowan 

Collectors of American Indian art view their objects from two angles: as art and as history. For example, the aesthetics of a war club easily transform it into a sleek modern sculpture. When viewed in an historical context, however, the club becomes a lethal weapon. Often, the history of an artifact increases its value as a piece of art.

Ever since the invention of the daguerreotype in 1837, photography has been an integral part of recording history and capturing each ordinary day. Information seen in photographs places art and antiques into a framework that may otherwise be missed or misunderstood.

Placing an object into a historical framework is more easily understood by examining a boudoir card of a Sioux Family taken around 1890. If you look closely, the earrings the women wear in the photograph are made with dentalium shells. Dentalia were held in high esteem because they are found along the northwest coast of North America and had to be traded into the interior, making them more difficult to find. Their heavy use in ornamentation suggests to an outsider that the family in the picture had wealth and prestige.

Other clues about the status of the family pictured can be seen in the clothing. The little girl to the right is wearing a wool dress decorated with cowrie shells. Cowrie shells conveyed a similar status, in that the more shells on the garment, the more influential the family. Cowrie shells came into favor after the relocation of the American Indians to reservations in the late 19th century.

Before the use of cowrie shells, American Indians preferred elk incisors. At times, entire dresses would be covered with teeth. Considering that every elk has just two incisors, a lot of elk had to be killed in order to adorn a dress completely. The social status of having a child dressed in the finest shows well on both the family and entire social group.

In a collector's eyes, owning a child's dress with elk teeth would be more important than an unadorned dress or one with only cowrie shells. Not only is it more valuable in today's market, but suggests an earlier, pre-reservation time period in American Indian culture. This is a case where both the history and the artistic detailing elevate the value to figures near or above $10,000.

As ordinary as a day may seem, the accumulation of ordinary days make history. History elevates both the interest and value of antiques. Photographs offer great insight into past ordinary days.


About the author: Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at info@cowans.com. Article research by Danica Farnand.



 Boudoir card of a Sioux Family.

Crow girl's dress decorated with elk teeth and cowrie shells, est. $8,000-$10,000.

Great Lakes Ballhead club, estimated $3,000

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