Thursday, May 19, 2016

Attribution of Unsigned Pueblo Pottery: How To Do It; How Not To Do It

The main thesis of Steve Elmore’s book In Search of Nampeyo: The Early Years 1875-1892  is that many of the modernware pieces in the Keam collection now residing in the basement of the old cyclotron building at Harvard University is the work of the famous Hopi potter Nampeyo.  Previous to Mr. Elmore’s research, the pottery was believed to be a random assemblage of pottery from perhaps hundreds of different makers.   Nampeyo did not sign her pottery, so how can we know with any certainty that certain pots are the work of her hand and how can these be reliably distinguished from pottery by other makers?

There is a long history of attribution of unsigned art work.  Pioneered by Giovanni Morelli, and practiced extensively with European paintings and Greek vases, it involves the close observation of patterns in the production of details like ears, hands, or other objects.  Individual artists will do these motifs differently and in an idiosyncratic manner that connoisseurs learn to recognize.

In identifying Pueblo pottery, details of line work, glyphs, molding, polishing, and pattern are used to distinguish the work of different potters.  It is not just Nampeyo pottery that is identified using this technique.  Older unsigned pottery from Zuni, Acoma, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and Zia pueblos are also examined using this method.   This technique of connoisseurship is combined with other information, if available, to form a judgement about the creator of a piece.  Perhaps there is a well established provenance from the original buyer, involving a photo or a note.  There may be a photo of the potter holding the pot.  A potter may be famous for producing a certain design during a certain period and there may be known similar examples in museums or pictured in publications that can help establish the identity of the potter with increased confidence.

In the case of the Keam collection at the Peabody Museum, we know that the collection was purchased from the trader Thomas Keam in 1892, so that gives an upper limit to the possible date any of the pottery was made.  Mr. Elmore studied the historical record of travelers who visited Hopi during the period from 1875, when the trading post was opened, to 1892, when the collection was purchased.  He found that Nampeyo’s name was the only one mentioned by these travelers when they talked about pottery makers or the purchase of pottery.  In addition, Nampeyo was the sister of Tom Polacca, who greeted, translated for, and entertained most of the visitors to Hopi,  Thus she was well placed to interact with visitors from the outside world.  Of course, there were other potters, and some of their pieces are in the Keam collection, but there is no large consistent body of work attributable to another potter or potter family at Hopi during these years.  Other potters were making pieces for home use, ceremonies, or trade, not specifically for the new market, pioneered by Keam, Fred Harvey, and others, that the arrival of Anglo-Americans and Europeans stimulated.

Aside from the evidence of the pottery itself  and travelers’ accounts, the Hopi oral history collected by Nequatewa and published in Plateau magazine in 1942 is a valuable source of information.  Mr. Elmore has himself worked as an Indian Trader for many years, thus he has extensive experience buying and selling pottery from living Hopi potters and he is well aware that no trader simply goes around buying pottery at random from all potters.  Traders work with just a few potters intensively, while occasionally buying pieces from others. In addition, master potter and Nampeyo descendant Rachel Sahmie accompanied Steve and me to study the Keam collection, and her insights from the point of view of a professional potter who had learned from her mother and gone through the long path from beginner to accomplished artist in her own right, were an invaluable contribution to the book.

One aspect of the pottery in the Keam collection that struck us right away are the many batches with very similar designs and forms.  These pieces do not show signs of wear that pieces made for home use invariably have.  This suggests that Keam was buying for the tourist market.  The attributions to Nampeyo are strengthened by the fact that many of the motifs seen on these groups of pottery in the Keam collection are also found consistently on later pottery that is known to be by Nampeyo, establishing that these designs are the designs belonging to her and her family.   Photos of a great many groups of pots from the Keam collection with these sorts of similarities, but combined slightly differently, are used in the book to support this thesis.  The book is under an injunction, so it is not possible to show Mr. Elmore’s photographs from the Keam collection here, but this group of bowls from Mr. Elmore’s own collection shows the repetition of pattern over time that is important to his work.

These Nampeyo bowls, with similar swirl designs, date from the Keam period (1875-1892) to around 1920.  They are all riffs on a design from an ancient Sikyatki bowl in the Keam collection.  The Keam period pieces in the above photo are recognized by their crackled white slip, called a Polacca slip (bottom left, and second row from top, second from right).  Slightly later pieces have a white slip (first row, last bowl and bottom row, middle bowl).  Red slipped bowls were a little later (late 1890s to around 1910), after which Nampeyo specialized in the yellowware that is still most popular today (starting around 1900; the bottom right bowl is an example).  These different periods overlap.

In their pleadings for this lawsuit, Harvard claims that they find Steve’s thesis “unconvincing”, yet discovery documents reveal otherwise.  Prior to Steve’s work at the Keam collection, there were no pieces attributed to Nampeyo.  Now, despite their public statements to the contrary, we see that identifying Nampeyos in the Keam collection has become quite common.  As can be seen in this link, the collections manager, two directors of collections, a research associate, and others are all Finding Nampeyos.


There are about a dozen galleries selling old pueblo pottery in Santa Fe, New Mexico and another half dozen in Albuquerque.  During the summer there are antique shows, Indian Art shows, and Tribal Arts shows that bring in many more dealers in addition to a half dozen auctions at which old Pueblo pottery is sold.  Pottery sellers range from people selling at flea markets and estate sales to high end galleries on Canyon Road.  There are many people, both amateurs and professionals, looking for Pueblo pottery in Santa Fe and much interest in how to identify the pieces correctly as to Pueblo of origin and to specific artists, if possible.

Sellers of old Hopi pottery will usually label a piece they think is a Nampeyo in some way.  These identifications range from the rather generic “Probably a Nampeyo”, “Possibly a Nampeyo” , “attributed to Nampeyo”( perhaps with a date range attached), to a much more detailed account which mentions known design elements, aspects of the molding and firing of the ceramic, similar ceramics known to be by Nampeyo, and any notes about provenance that may help to tie the piece to Nampeyo.  The more of these elements that are present, the more definitive the identification can be, though it is rarely possible to be 100% sure.  Below is a portion of an attribution letter by Steve Elmore which will give a good idea of the kinds of information dealers, museums, and collectors find important to attribution.

"This bowl is attributed to Nampeyo for many reasons.  First, she worked in this particular colored red slip with grayish blue white outlining before and after 1900.  So the materials of this piece match other known examples of her work.  This bowl’s size and depth also match other pieces by her, (see Kramer, p. 179, figure 1). In particular, this one also has her characteristic double coiled rim.  The bowl’s form has her confident molding and her long polishing marks on the base.

Because the design is simply rendered without decoration along the inner or outer rim, this would indicate a date of around 1900 for the piece.  The bold confident lines are characteristic of Nampeyo’s hand….The symmetry of the pill shape is boldly offset with asymmetrical wings on each side, which is common for Nampeyo’s design palette…..Four other similar bowls to yours are depicted on page 82 of the Blair biography, (fig. 2.23).  These four bowls were collected between October 1903 and February 1904 by Professor Die Solberg of the University of Oslo.  These are black and white on red bowls, not yellowware, and clearly show large singular elements as their main design.  Blair attributes these designs to Sikyatki and prehistoric Four Mile area potters, “with the added Nampeyo touch.”  Another example of the bold single design is shown in the Color Portfolio section of Blair’s book, page IV, figure I."

Many other examples of attribution letters can be found by looking, for instance, at auction web sites such as this one from the Bonhams auction house:  Nampeyos at Bonhams
The methods mentioned here are the ones commonly used to determine the pueblo of origin, date of manufacture, and artist as best we can.  Many collectors are extremely knowledgeable, having read the literature, visited museums, studied auction results, and handled hundreds or even thousands of pieces of pottery over the years.   Less experienced collectors do rely on others to identify pieces correctly.

People worry about the trustworthiness of attributions, as is only fair.  It is rare to have 100% confidence for any unsigned piece, but we can often have some degree of confidence and that degree of confidence also contributes to the prices asked and paid.  At times, we can also be rather confident that a piece is NOT by Nampeyo.  If the piece is, for instance, made of commercial clay, painted with acrylic paints, or fired in a commercial kiln, it is not a Nampeyo.  If the piece is signed by someone else, it is unlikely to be a Nampeyo.

One of the controversial points of Mr. Elmore’s theory has been his assertion that the trader Keam was working extensively with Nampeyo and that many of the modern ceramics, especially the pieces that show signs of mass production, are hers.  Though there are pieces by other potters in the collection, Mr Elmore has not identified another potter as producing large numbers of pots for Keam to sell during this period.   In the Autumn 2013 issue of the now sadly defunct American Indian Art Magazine (pp. 68 - 81), David Schramm takes issue with this assertion and mounts a pre-emptive attack on Mr. Elmore’s argument, entitled "Righting the Record."  The number and specificity of the points about which Mr Schramm takes issue with Mr. Elmore is disturbing; the manuscript was still under review at this point and the contents should have been confidential, yet the record being righted is the very thesis is Mr. Elmore's unpublished manuscript.   This seems to be another lapse of professional ethics with Mr. Elmore’s work surreptitiously given to yet another researcher (see previous blog entry for another such breach).

I want particularly to concentrate on the novel method Mr. Schramm suggests for identifying the work of another potter in the Keam collection.  Mr. Schramm quotes Jesse Fewkes about Morphy “Up to the present summer there lived a man at Hual-pi who had great skill in the decoration of clay tiles with symbolic figures.  Much of his handiwork is in the justly celebrated Keam collection, which ought to be carefully studied” and in a note “Known to Americans as ‘Morphy.’  Although a man, he wore woman’s clothes throughout life and performed a woman’s duties.  He died of tuberculosis during the last summer” (quoted from Schramm). That is all we have about Morphy.  There is not one attributed piece of his pottery in any museum; there are no published photographs of him or of his ceramics.

If I wanted to try identifying Morphys in the Keam Collection using the limited amount of information that we have, I would search for well made tiles with similar design sets that set them apart from other tiles in the collection.   They would need to be of a type that are not seen on Hopi pottery after 1891, when Morphy died.

Mr. Schramm chooses a very different tactic.  First, Mr. Schramm identifies Fewkes’ mention of tiles displayed in Madrid in 1892  as perhaps a reference to Morphy (though Fewkes does not mention Morphy in the quoted passage).  Next Mr. Schramm  theorizes that if Morphy was painting symbolic figures on tiles AND if katcinas were the symbolic figures referred to, then Morphy probably  painted katcinas on bowls and jars as well.  Next, he assumes that these tiles, bowls, and jars with katcina figures by Morphy are in the Keam collection misidentified as Nampeyos.  

This method relies on a string of conjectures, all of which must be true for the conclusion to follow.  Despite the tenuousness of this line of reasoning, at least one Pueblo pottery dealer embraced what I call the  “Morphy Method”  and has attributed and sold ceramics by Morphy. 

In fact, there may be works by Morphy in the Keam collection.  However, I mention this aspect of Mr. Schramm's paper to show the very different standards used to judge work submitted for publication.  If we go back to the critique of Mr. Elmore's research by reviewer #1, we see that, with far less reason, Mr. Elmore was criticized for basing his analysis on "assumptions and unsubstantiated argument", for lacking "art-historical analysis....rooted in documented or safely attributed examples".  Mr. Schramm is not expected to meet the same high standards as Mr. Elmore.

Of course, as with all scholarship, new evidence comes to light and that evidence needs to be evaluated and incorporated with the previous information.  For about ten years now, a group of pueblo pottery scholars has been referring knowingly to materials in the National Archives that they have not been willing to share with the larger community of interested collectors and scholars.   If this essay does nothing else, I hope it will prompt these scholars to actually publish the material that they have discovered so all can evaluate it for themselves and the study of Pueblo pottery can progress. One reason Mr. Elmore wrote his book was so that the ideas he had been developing and using over a period of more than 20 years could be available to other scholars, collectors, and artists, including the Hopi-Tewa potters.

Since publishing In Search of Nampeyo,  another Hopi pottery researcher gave Mr. Elmore 80 photographs of drawings made by Nampeyo’s great granddaughter Dextra Quotskuyva, which the researcher  took in the 1980s.  Many are copies of drawings Nampeyo herself made.  Some are sketches of ancient pottery and pottery shards, some are partially worked out designs.  One of them is shown below.  A fitting place to end this essay is with the promise of an upcoming study of this new information that will help us figure out more about the origins and development of designs on old Hopi pottery.

A judge has just ruled in our favor on the copyright claim discussed in blog #1.  We are relieved that Harvard was not granted copyright to the Native American designs on pottery in their collections and that Steve was found innocent of copyright violations.  However, In Search of Nampeyo is still under a temporary injunction and cannot be sold. Please sign the Free Nampeyo Petition asking Harvard President Drew Faust to stop censoring In Search of Nampeyo.

 This is the third in a series of blogs about In Search of Nampeyo and Harvard's lawsuit against Steve Elmore. Future essays will deal with the judge's decision in the copyright infringement case, contracts and abuse of the legal system.

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