Indian Territory

Article excerpt


HIS LIVING ROOM IN SANTA FE, NM, is decorated with a beaded Crow war shirt, three classic Navajo blankets, and a magnificent necklace ringed with bronzed bear claws that belonged to a Red River Crée warrior almost 200 years ago. However, upon entering the room, the first thing most visitors notice is the 1954 Santa Fe Lionel freight train on the mantel. This, according to the collector, illustrates in a nutshell how little the prevalent culture in this country values American Indian art.

For four years, David Smith (not his real name) has built a collection around historic textiles from southwestern tribes and supplemented that collection with clothing, paintings, and sculpture. He has purchased antique chests and commissioned special mountings to display his Apache hide painting, Hopi kachinas, and rare Navajo weavings. Though the quality of the pieces and their dramatic presentation are museum-worthy, prestige couldn't be further from his mind. "The pleasure is in living with them and looking at diem every day," he says.

An inveterate collector, Smith has, at one time or another, amassed coins, soldiers, trains, military medals, pre-1950s baseball catchers' masks, and Australian aboriginal art. His New York apartment is filled with Asian sculpture, textiles, and paintings from Tibet, China, and Indonesia.

In his Santa Fe home, the core Indian textile collection is augmented by such sub-collections as rings by the late Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma and early 20thcentury Cochiti Pueblo drums. There are also Indian belt buckles, including one by contemporary artist Marcus Amerman with the beaded likeness of General Custer, and a half-dozen clay-faced kachinas with corncob limbs, cornhusk dresses, elaborately feathered headdresses, and miniature silver jewelry by New Mexican Gloria Hartsoch.

But textiles are Smith's first love, a passion that can be traced back to his Boston childhood and summers spent working in his father's wool warehouse. His dad was a wool broker who traveled around the West buying wool directly from sheep farmers, the first link in a chain of businessmen that led to the finished piece of cloth. Laboring in 90-degree heat, Smith's job was to remove the briars, stones, and dirt that the sheep had picked up and sort the various grades of wool. "I always had the see-touch-feel sensation," he recalls-the same sensation that later drew him to his textile collection.

In his late teens, his dad shipped him off to Wolf Creek, MT, to the ranch owned by the family of longtime U.S. Senator Max Baucus, where, among other things, Smith worked shearing sheep. That experience, which he describes as "the most characterbuilding" he's ever had, also instilled an appreciation for the American West.

His career as a corporate executive took him to far-flung places (for 18 of his 34 years with Colgate-Palmolive he lived in Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and Italy), taught him three languages, and stoked his multicultural sensibility. A decade ago, just shy of retirement, he started collecting art, first Indonesian textiles and other Asian art.

WHEN SMITH AND HIS WIFE bought a home in Santa Fe, Native American art became his all-consuming focus. Blankets led to shirts, and shirts to dresses, and quickly he discovered many other objects too beautiful to pass up. "This collection is Indian-there are no cowboys. I find Native art and culture remarkable," Smith makes clear.

"In my collecting, I don't follow any formulas," he adds. "With Indian art, there are no signatures. Every piece is one of a kind, and there's very little to which you can directly compare. A lot of times, things come over the transom and you have to make fast decisions. At least 25 percent of my collection has come to me in that way. And I've passed on 90 percent of what I've been offered."

Smith receives the occasional phone call alerting him of special pieces available for private sale, but generally he goes a more traditional route, purchasing a large percentage of his collection from Morning Star Gallery in Santa Fe. …