A mysterious pair of wooden figures from 19th-century Canada created by First Nations carvers on the B.C. coast, and originallyobtained more than 100 years ago by an infamous American collector was sold Monday for about $40,000 at a major sale of aboriginalart in France. Titled Kwakiutl Figures, the objects are about 85 centimetres talland depict two individuals squatting on thick, rectangular bases.Expected to sell for between $40,000 and $60,000 at a Christie'sauction of "African and Oceanic Art" in Paris, thesculptures had been described in the sale catalogue as symbols ofspiritual power meant to protect their possessor and bring goodfortune to warriors and hunters. The figures came from one of the many "Kwakiutl"communities today's Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation located at thenorthern end of Vancouver Island, and were acquired in the late1800s or early 1900s by an unscrupulous American collector namedD.F. Tozier. |
Georgia-born Dorr Francis Tozier was captain of a U.S. governmentrevenue ship the Grant that patrolled the Pacific Coastbetween Alaska and Washington. He was "notorious" for"skimming" artifacts from B.C. aboriginal communitiesaround the beginning of the 20th century, according to a prominentCanadian historian who chronicled the rush for prized nativecarvings during that era.
"It was commonly reported that Tozier had accumulated much ofhis mass of material by theft or 'by the exercise of a show offorce and authority,' " according to the late Douglas Cole, adistinguished Simon Fraser University historian and author of the1995 book Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest CoastArtifacts. Tozier "reputedly stole much of his collection," Coleadded. "On one occasion a complaint was laid by the B.C. provincialpolice alleging that the officers and men of the Grant hadillegally traded with the Indians at Ucleulet, selling them illicitwhiskey and stealing a headpiece from a native's house," Colewrote in Captured Heritage. "No museum or serious collector had any respect for Tozier orhis methods." The squatting figures sold Monday were initially deposited at amuseum in Tacoma, Washington, where much of Tozier's collection waseventually kept.
The two carvings later belonged to other majorcollections of aboriginal art, according to Christie's account ofthe objects' "exceptional" history. The appearance of historical Canadian aboriginal artifacts at majorauction sales around the world has occasionally sparkedcontroversy, particularly when questions surrounded the nature oftheir initial acquisition by non-native collectors. In 2006, a Tsimshian shaman's mask and dozens of other treasuresfrom a controversial collection of B.C. artifacts known as theDundas Collection all acquired in dubious circumstances by a19th-century Christian missionary sold at a Sotheby's auction inNew York for close to $7 million.
Most of the items, including the $1.8-million mask, were purchasedby Toronto billionaire David Thomson for the Art Gallery ofOntario, and the repatriated collection toured Canadian museums in2007 though some aboriginal critics continued to argue that theartifacts should be returned to the B.C. communities from whichthey were obtained. The Dundas Collection had been the focus of a decades-long andoccasionally bitter struggle between Canadian cultural officials,native leaders and the great-grandson of Rev. Robert Dundas, theScottish clergyman who had secured hundreds of objects from theTsimshian people when he led the establishment of a Christianmission at Metlakatla, B.C., in the 1860s. B.C.
native leaders had argued at the time of the 2006 sale thatthe objects were essentially confiscated by Dundas because of theirnon-Christian symbolism, and that the artifacts remain "assignificant to Canadian heritage as the Group of Seven.".
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