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Many people don’t realize the fact, but the Northwest Coast art market is flooded with forgeries. Made in Asia, these forgeries sell are imported by the hundreds, selling for a fraction of genuine pieces. Often, they are low quality, and show little knowledge of local traditions, but a few of them show a reasonable level of skill, and even include forged signatures of well-known artists.

So how can you know if the art you are buying is genuine? Here are a few basic precautions:

  1. Spend some time in galleries to see what regular prices are, both for the kind of work and for a particular artist. Forgeries will usually be 20–50% of the standard prices. Although you can sometimes find genuine bargains – for instance, the work of new artists — in most cases if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Buy directly from reputable galleries or artists. Someone selling on the streets is unlikely to be genuine, and, the further removed from the artist a sale is, the greater the chance of forgery.
  3. Talk to the seller about the piece. Be suspicious if the seller cannot talk knowledgeably about what it represents or how it was made. Beware of simple, general explanations about the piece, such as the claim that a depiction of a wolf symbolizes courage or an eagle soaring ideals.
  4. Ask the seller where they studied the art, and with whom. Traditionally, Northwest Coast art has been passed down from teacher to student, and genuine artists are quick to mention their teachers. By contrast, be skeptical of people who claim to have been adopted by a First Nations group, or to have received a blessing – claims that appeal to the stereotypes of First Nations, but have little to do with the realities of the cultures.
  5. Check what materials are being used. For instance, although legitimate First Nations artists sometimes experiment with other types of wood, the most common types are ones found on the northwest coast, such as red or yellow cedar, alder, and yew. By contrast, the forgeries are usually made from Asian hardwoods, such as mahogany. Argillite pieces are usually legitimate, because the Haida control the supply, although a few pieces are sometimes sold to others.
  6. If you don’t know who is reputable, ask around galleries and online for recommendations. If you are buying privately, ask for some indication of authenticity.
  7. When you can, see the signature on a genuine piece and compare it with the signature on a piece you are considering buying. If it looks totally different, it is a forgery. However, beware of it looking too much the same, too, because no one ever signs their signature exactly the same each time.
  8. If you have a picture of a piece you want to buy, use it to search online to see if a similar design exists from another artist.
  9. Educate yourself about the art by spending time in galleries or reading books like Hilary Stewart’s Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast. Although the art is intricate, it is also stylized, especially the formline tradition of the northern First Nations. Asian carvers copying from pictures rarely have the knowledge to follow the tradition accurately. Not only does knowing the traditions teach you what to look for, but, if you know the tradition, you can also tell when the seller is using phrases like “transformation mask” incorrectly in an effort to impress you.

A single one of these precautions may not be enough to help you avoid forgeries, but several together should be. The sellers of forgeries count heavily on the ignorance and prejudices of buyers and the wish for a bargain. Respond with caution and common sense, and you have a better chance of seeing through their deceit and of not buying a worthless fake.

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I always appreciate recognizing talent before anybody else. What interests me is not so much the potential for a piece done early in an artist’s career to increase in value (since I never sell what I buy) so much as the satisfaction of recognizing talent before anyone else. So when Kelly Robinson, one of my favorite Northwest Coast artists, told me in December that he was teaching his brother Randall to carve, I was immediately interested in the results. And, given his selection of materials and the finish on “Rainwater,” in Randall James Robinson’s case I am already experiencing that satisfaction in the reactions of those who see the mask.

“Rainwater” is one of Robinson’s first masks. The carving is relatively simple, but a good choice for the material. The mask is carved from spalted alder – that is, alder infected with a fungus that discolors the wood. The discoloration apparently does not photograph well, and is actually much smoother-looking than it appears to be in the photo below, but the point is that the spalting is so interesting in itself that too-elaborate carving would be a distraction, especially since the spalting’s long lines of discoloration suggests long trails of rain running down the mask.

Robinson tells me that he got the wood from Gordon Dick, the carver and owner of the Ahtsik Gallery near Port Alberni, who produced the spalting, but found that it set off allergies when he tried to carve it.

Robinson is carving in the Nuxalk style. The Nuxalk have traditions that are vastly different from those of the northern first nations, such as the Haida, Nishga’a,Tsimsian, Tahltan. If I understand correctly, one of the major Nuxalk ceremonies is the thunder dance, which celebrates “the greatest of the supernatural beings in Nuxalk culture.” The thunder dance tells of four brothers’ encounter with the spirit of thunder on a lonely hillside, and is apparently the origin story of a major Nuxalk family.

I have seen the thunder dance performed several times by Latham Mack, who has carved a couple of thunder masks. However, I have never seen the rain-water dance, which is performed before the thunder dance. During the rainwater dance, the dancers sprinkle those watching with water as cleansing ritual. “It’s the bringer of rain before the thunder,” Robinson tells me, meant “to cleanse the earth before thunder.”

Since the entire coast is a rain forest from the American border to Prince Rupert and beyond into Alaska, a rain spirit seems only appropriate to a local culture. In the same way, “Rainwater”’s use of spalting to portray that rain spirit is a choice that speaks well of Robinson’s developing artistic sensibilities. Like any newcomer, Robinson has endless hard work and learning ahead of him in order to have an artistic career, but this early effort suggests that he has the talent to succeed if he chooses.

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Several years ago, Haisla carver Nathan Wilson was one of the standouts at the Freda Diesing School graduation exhibit. Unlike most of his classmates, he was already regularly selling masks to the galleries. They were well-finished, but, I thought them lacking in individuality. However, his masks also suggested that very soon he would manage that individuality – and I when I saw “ Tagwa” on Facebook, I knew immediately that he had. I immediately offered to buy it, nipping in ahead of several other buyers.

The only catch was that Wilson had done the panel for his YVR scholarship. That meant I would have to wait a year to take it home, while it hung in the Vancouver airport for a year. Then, ominously, when the year was up, Wilson said he wanted to make some adjustments to it.

Knowing something about carvers and perfectionism, I joked that the octopus would probably come back as a grizzly bear. Mercifully, on closer examination, Wilson decided to restrict himself to minor corrections, and the panel arrived at my front door fourteen months after I had reserved it.

“Tagwa” is an abstract piece, with the shape distorted to find the shape of the panel. In fact, the body of the octopus is upside down, with its beak at center left. The abstraction is heightened by the body, which – fittingly – resembles a loose sack of random shapes in which only the beak and eye are visible.

At first, only a few tentacles are visible, the others, presumably, being hidden by the octopus’ body. However, if you look closely, you start to realize that what at first appears to be the formlines for the body could actually be another two tentacles. You also realize that although four tentacle tips are visible in the right half of the panel, they twist in such a way that more tentacles may be present. Stare long enough, and the exact count becomes difficult to decide, because the tentacles seem to start twisting as you try to make sense of them.

The tentacles, they contrast with the body by having a contemporary design. Instead of the ovoids that many artists would have used to indicate the tentacle’s suckers, Wilson contents himself with plain ovals. Instead of a formline design, the tentacles themselves form the center of interest, twining and showing their two sides, one painted red and the other left unpainted cedar. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the wood mimics the rubbery texture of an octopus’ skin.

This contrast between the two sides of the panel is heightened by its colors. The body reverses the traditional formline colors, making red the primary color and black the secondary one. In addition, as often happens in Haisla works, blue is added as a background color.

The result is a piece that immediately catches the eyes. It now hangs prominently in the center of one wall of my living room, where it catches my eye several times a day, and where in the last nine months it has become one of my favorites pieces. Wilson himself, I am happy to say, has continued to show his own sense of style in his more recent works, consistently proving himself the artist I always suspected he was.
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Most of the Northwest Coast art in my townhouse is in the formline style favored by the Northern First Nations in British Columbia. However, I am always willing to learn more about other coastal traditions, and slowly that’s what I’m doing. The only trouble is, relatively little is written about these other traditions, so most of my knowledge comes from looking at what working artists like Kelly Robinson are doing.

Robinson is a young artist of mixed Nuxalk and Nu-chah-nulth descent who is exploring both sides of his ancestry. In the last year or so, much of his wood carving (he is also an accomplished jeweler) has explored Nu-chah-nulth forms. In particular, he has built on the work of artists like Joe David and Art Thompson who revived the tradition and elevating it into fine art based on his time at the Freda Diesing School.

Fortunately for me, “Ancestor of Today” became available when I had just cashed a few cheques from editors. I first saw the mask in Cathedral Close, the garden outside the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver, and, a couple of hours later, I was taking it home on the Skytrain in a bag I was clutching in a death-grip.

The inhabitants of the west of Vancouver Island, the Nu-chah-nulth (formerly called the Nootka and the West Coast) were in a position to be influenced by both the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk to the east, and the Haida to the north. In fact, unlike most first nations around them, by 1900, Nu-chah-nulth had at least two different styles, a newer one based on formline, and the older, original style. There also seems to have been a third style reserved for the curtains used in the ceremonial mysteries, although I am not altogether certain.

At any rate, these mixed influences may explain the mixture found on “Ancestor of Today.” On the one hand, the mask includes elements that are universal in the coastal traditions, including the U-shapes and the labret that indicates high status. The hair, too, is arranged in a buzz-cut that I have seen in works from every nation.

On the other hand, the facial features all seem to me to be typically Nu-chah-nulth origin, from the raised eyebrows to the high forehead and the nose that swells around the nostril. One of the strongest distinguishing features are the outsized, shallow eye sockets. Unlike in the northern style, the eyes themselves are barely distinguished from the sockets. Here, they are no more than crescents indicate a closed eye, although they would probably not be much more detailed if the eyes were open. The eye sockets join the high cheekbones – another distinguishing feature – not in a plane, as in a northern style, but in a single line.

The painting, too, differs strongly from the northern style. The traditional red and black are the primary colors, but, they cover most of the mask, rather than being used only to highlight features like the lips, nostrils, and brows. Moreover, instead of the designs being painted across the face without much regard for the carving, the way they would be in the north, the designs on the bottom of the cheeks are on their own planes. Between the lips and the nostrils, a different approach is taken, with the inverted U-shape merging into the top list, and the unpainted border on each side of it into the nostrils.

(The mask’s use of gray and the unpainted wood as additional colors is also untypical of the northern style, although they may be Robinson’s innovations rather than indicating any particular tradition; I’ll have to ask him next time we’re in touch.)

The overall impression is of a simpler, bolder style than would be likely to come out of the north. It is enhanced by the slightly rough knife-finish – Robinson’s first effort at this technique, he tells me. To my modern eye, the closed eyes give it Buddha-like sense of calm dignity in keeping with the mask’s name, which asserts a claim that the tradition is still alive and evolving today.

I admire Robinson’s Nuxalk style work, especially the “Four Carpenters” and “Mother of Mischief” paintings, which hang in my living room. However, his Nu-chah-nulth work has its own fascination, especially since he is one of the few artists in the tradition who is trying to evolve the tradition. With “Ancestor of Today,” he manages the difficult trick of re-introducing the tradition while adding first-rate finishing and the steady hand on the paint brush that modern buyers expect. I’m looking forward to what he does next in this style.

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Sometimes, you may find an artist whose work you admire, but have trouble finding the exact piece you want to buy. Or maybe the artist is selling privately, and few of their works are available on the open market. In such circumstances, you might consider commissioning a piece – but be sure you know what you’re doing before you go ahead. The financial arrangements, the decisions about the subject matter, and how and when the finished work is delivered all require careful thought before the commission goes ahead.

You can commission art either through a gallery, or directly from the artist. Going through a gallery gives you the advantage of expert advice, and could make getting a refund easier if too many problems arise. It is also considered proper etiquette to go through the gallery if it has introduced the artist to you.

However, one problem with commissioning through a gallery is that you will usually pay more overall. Some galleries, too, are so anxious to preserve their position as go-betweens that they will will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent you from meeting the artist, even with a gallery employee. This attitude means that deciding the subject matter is much more difficult. In fact, in one case, it caused the artist and I – both of whom were originally perfectly willing to observe proper etiquette – to make our own arrangements.

By contrast, a direct commission usually takes less time to arrange. You may receive a price closer to the wholesale price – but don’t count on it. You may also have trouble contacting the artist, although these days so many are on social media that is less of a problem than it was a few years ago.

But the most serious problem with a direct commission – for both you and the artist – is whether you can trust each other. Bad faith and outright theft sometimes happen on both sides of a direct commission, so before any money changes hands, you should learn what you can about the artist’s reputation (if they are experienced, they will be doing the same about you). After all, you could be spending thousands of dollars, and, if something goes wrong, your only recourse may be small claims court.

Whatever way you approach the artist, the subject and the design should be a balance between what you want and the artist’s interests. Personally, I see no reason to commission a standard mask such as a Hamatsa raven or a sculpture based on Raven’s theft of the light unless you have an interesting variation in mind. For me, the whole point of a commission is to get something unusual, and to give the artist a chance to do something the market might not otherwise allow them to do.

For that reason, I like to suggest a general subject or design, and hope that the artist will be intrigued enough to develop it in their own way. If possible, I ask for sketches to approve before the final work begins. What I am looking for is something that both intrigues the artist and will satisfy me.

Before the commission begins, you also need to discuss the financial arrangement. Some artists may expect no money until the commission is finished. However, a more common arrangement is for the buyer to pay one-third when the deal is accepted, one-third when the artist finishes, and one-third after any final adjustments requested by the buyer. This arrangement minimizes any possible loss for the buyer, and compensates the artist for their time if the buyer walks away from the deal.

Another matter you should specify is the approximate delivery time. Despite all the jokes artists make about “Indian time,” an increasingly number of artists these days take a professional attitude and do their best to meet their obligations, but, even so, the emphasis here is on “approximate.” You are dealing with art, not utilitarian manufacture, and by definition artists are perfectionists. As a result, a strict deadline would be almost meaningless even if you insisted on it. With the best of intention, slippage may happen, and, so long as you are kept informed, shouldn’t be a matter for concern unless it drags on indefinitely.

Even if completion is delayed, you may be content to wait. One commission took two years to complete – so long that I sometimes concluded that it would never happen. However, I felt reasonably sure that the artist meant to meet his obligation, and, in the end, he delivered a piece that I regularly describe as breathtaking.

As I said, it all comes down to how much you and the artist trust each other.

Speaking of which, it can’t hurt to write down the terms of the commission and have both you and the artist sign it, especially if the two of you have never worked together. In many cases, though, a commission is a verbal agreement, aside from any receipts you may receive from any gallery involved.

With all these considerations, commissioning can be an exhausting experience – and, sometimes, a harrowing one. So why attempt it? The answer is simple: a commission is a mental collaboration. As the buyer, you may not raise a carving tool or dip a paint brush, yet seeing the completed work can be an exhilarating experience. It gives you a small taste of what the Medicis must have felt as patrons of Renaissance Florence – a mixture of pleasure and pride that, indirectly the piece of work in front of you would never have existed except for you. Despite the many setbacks that can happen, that is an addictive feeling that you can easily come to want again and again.

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My parents were children of the Great Depression.. The era left its mark on them, and continues to leave its mark on me, especially in my attitude towards art.

Like most people, the times in which they grew up left them with a conviction of the correct price to pay for goods (I’m no different; unless I stop to think, a paperback should cost me $2.95, the average price when I was a young man). However, those hard times also left deeper impressions.

If I had to summarize their attitudes towards spending, I would choose the word “thrifty”. Not cheap or mean, and certainly not ungenerous, but thrifty. Although by the time I was I started high school, they were solidly middle class, their spending habits remained cautious. Generally, they thought twice about making a purchase. They delighted in finding a sale or a bargain, or, better yet, a freebie, even if it was not quite what they wanted. They used credit, but paid off the balance every month, except for major purposes like cars and houses. Spending money on themselves made them feel daring unless it was for essentials, and when they received an extravagant gift, their inevitable exclamation of, “You shouldn’t have” was meant in the most literal sense.

My father relaxed these attitudes as they prospered, but, to a large extent, my mother never has. She remains the product of the 1930s, budgeting and balancing her cheque book to this day.

Intellectually, I can see that some of these attitudes are no longer needed. But, despite growing up in moderate privilege, I can never ridicule their attitudes, because, with very few adjustments for the era of my childhood, I mirror many of them.

Like my parents, I tend to keep appliances until they break down (and then I’m shocked, because it was only five years ago that they were working perfectly). It took years after I moved out on my own for me to realize that I could buy furniture of my own, because the castoffs and remnants with which I started my first household hadn’t fallen apart yet. Except for food and clothes, I hesitate to spend money on myself, although I do spend more on books, music, and dining out than my parents would approve. Until a few years ago, I didn’t even own a credit card, and, if I could buy on the Internet or pay travel expenses some other way – preferably by debit card, so I couldn’t spend money I didn’t have – I would. A strong ascetic sense runs through me, all the stronger for the fact that status and goods matter far less to me than ideas and conversation.

However, at the same time, parts of my personality undermine these core attitudes. For instance, while I share my parents’ reluctance about buying things for myself, I thoroughly enjoy buying for others, especially Trish. Each Christmas and birthday, both of us would given the other one dozens of presents, enlivening each gift giving by adding cryptic clues to the tag and making a point of taking each special day as a holiday. So long as I wasn’t buying for myself, the primordial guilt wouldn’t erupt – and never mind that many of the gifts that Trish and I gave each other were enjoyed by the giver as much as the receiver.

Similarly, I enjoy giving money to charities. Admittedly, some of the money I donate can be declared on my income tax, but that’s not the point. Although I keep most of my donations quiet, giving money is an opportunity to be generous without triggering my instincts to hoard and save. The family thriftiness may show through in the care with which I choose where to donate, but the point is that giving is an excuse to go against my usual tendencies.

But the most significant way that I’ve circumvented my upbringing is in the buying of art. By the standards of my upbringing, buying art is an extravagance that can have no justification. Maybe art buying would be acceptable if I did it as an investment, but all I’m doing is displaying it in my townhouse.

Meanwhile, all my upbringing is telling me I should be saving my money instead. If I am going buy art at all, I should content myself with limited prints, and frequent the tourist shops rather than the art galleries. That way, I could have things that were almost as good, while spending far, far less.

However, to me, that’s part of the point: No piece of art that I buy is a substitute for any other. I don’t turn down bargains, but I don’t go looking for them, either. When I buy art, I’m looking for something that I respond to, regardless of price. I am bringing home exactly what I want, not settling for something else because it costs me less I can never be disappointed because a piece is second-best and almost as good, and although a part of me is clamoring about spending recklessly, the larger part finds immense satisfaction in realizing that I am not disappointing myself in the name of being thrifty.

I’m unlikely to ever be a careless spender. If I go to Las Vegas, anyone who wants to find me will have to visit the sights rather than the casinos. I’m more likely, too, to ask about time payments if I can’t afford artwork rather than go into debt. But more than anything else in the satisfaction of having arranged my life so that my eyes fall upon imagination and craft wherever they look, I feel certain – at least for the moment – that I have outgrown my thrifty conditioning.

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I don’t know quite how it happened, but I was born into a Christian culture that has transformed into a post-Christian one. This change is a basic fact of my time, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks about it.

I am too young to remember fully Christian times. However, from what those a few years older than me say, when I was born, Christianity – or Protestantism, to be exact – was considered the default. Shortly before I was old enough to take an interest in such matters, the expectation was that any respectable man or woman would go to church on Sunday. If anyone wanted to succeed in business in a recognizable community, they made sure they attended regularly, and, if they were really ambitious, they became involved in their local church. Naturally, too, everybody was married in a church. Everybody knew the bible, too, or at least the stories in it.

These norms were so pervasive that I attended Sunday School at the United Church until I was about twelve, even though my mother was only moderately religious and my father an agnostic or atheist, who probably only attended holiday church services as a family outing

By the time I quit attending, I had absorbed that Catholics were an odd, barely tolerated sort of Christian, no better than the Christian Scientists that I passed on my way to Sunday School. I had encountered only one family of Jews, but I often wondered what made them so different. As for Sikhs or Hindus or Muslims, they were mostly a distant rumor to my young ears, but I understood that any I encountered were to be trusted only to the extent that they acted like good Protestants.

Even my grandfather, who I rarely saw be impolite to anyone, belonged to the Orange Lodge. Admittedly, in British Columbia, this was a much watered-down version of the organization that had been involved with religious violence in Ontario and was still in the middle of the chaos in Ireland. Yet my kind and gentle grandfather apparently believed that the mostly theoretical Catholics of the neighborhood needed opposing, because their loyalty to the Pope meant that they were denied religious freedom.

Looking back, I realize that things were already changing when I was a child. The minister, a pale man who always did his best to sound earnest, talked about social service and good causes as much as about Jesus – and never about hell. But the remnants of a Christian culture were still strong enough that few questioned them openly.

And now? When polled, a majority still will say they still believe in God. In the United States, people are still reluctant to vote for anyone who is an open atheist. Yet despite such hypocrisy, church attendance has sinking for over two decades. When morality is discussed, it is rarely in terms of the bible or Christianity, or any other religion. Asked on a census, many still call themselves Christians, but by their actions and attitudes, clearly Christianity does not steer their actions, and very few would be considered Christians by the standards of fifty years ago.

But probably the greatest sign that we are in a post-Christian world is that religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter have become secular holidays, and governments are careful not to endorse even a generic Christianity over any other religion. A few of the remaining devout Christians complain about these changes, citing the occasional excessive zeal of non-denominationalists as proof, but what they really seem to object to is the loss of any special status in the culture.

My own beliefs parallel these changes, since I have been agnostic since I was a young teen and drifting towards atheism ever since. If anything, I am more at home in the culture of my middle-age than I was in that of my youth. Generations younger than me seem to have caught up with my thinking as a young man.

At the same time, while decidedly a non-Christian, I am glad that I was lucky enough to be educated in its basic tenets. After all, no matter what I think of Christianity today, at one time it was an undeniable creative force.

How, I wonder, do those brought up entirely non-Christian appreciate the cathedrals of Europe without the understanding that they were physical prayers to God? How can they listen to Handel’s Messiah and understand how it develops? Or read the works of Christina Rossetti or Gerald Manley Hopkins, whose styles and phrasings were where they worked out their relationships with their deity?: Even great agnostics like George Eliot or Thomas Hardy make little sense without a thorough knowledge of Christianity, because their passing references and analogies draw upon the common Christian mythology. I would only be short-sighted and false if I attempted to deny that Christianity was a major influence on much of our cultural history.

Knowing Christianity, I have a sense of the continuity in my culture that most people no longer have. But, as for the decline of Christianity as the foundation of the culture – for that, I feel nothing except relief, tempered by only a mild ambiguity stirred by the cultural accomplishments of the past.

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