A Comanche shield, ex-George Catlin
Lot 5198
A Comanche shield, ex-George Catlin
diameter 21 1/2in
Sold for US$ 144,750 inc. premium

Lot Details
Plains, Plateau and Woodlands

Property of a Nevada Family LLP
A Comanche shield, ex-George Catlin
A Comanche shield, ex-George Catlin
Of fire-hardened buffalo hide, painted with all native mineral pigments on the front with a horizontal black band across the center, the lower half decorated with a series of outlined arches over a red striped panel with sawtooth border, the top section a solid grey-white field, a band of fringe suspended below, individual strands retaining bits of sweetgrass and quill wrapping along with a single brass bell, a knotted clutch of short hide strips fastening metal thimbles, feather suspensions (legal replacements), an antelope hide strap sling on the reverse.
diameter 21 1/2in


  • Provenance:
    George Catlin; Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Harrison Jr., Philadelphia; John McIlwaine, Philadelphia; the Thomas Corwin Donaldson family, Philadelphia; Charles Stephens, Philadelphia; Earl and Elizabeth Horter, Philadelphia; Barry May, Dublin, PA; Morning Star Gallery, Santa Fe

    While this magnificent Comanche shield speaks for itself as an early and powerful statement of Plains aesthetics and belief systems, the connection to artist George Catlin confers on it a fascinating historical status as a cross-cultural heirloom of the rarest sort. Regrettably, one can only conjecture about the Comanche man who originally carried the shield. Through the study of artifacts and contemporary writings we have learned about his lifestyle during the late 18th and early 19th century, but his identity will remain unknown. Catlin, on the other hand, was a flamboyant showman, famous for his painted portraits of Native American life and the collection of objects he compiled during his five visits to the West between 1830 and 1836.

    Interestingly enough, the shield’s provenance was only “rediscovered” in 1999 while on loan to the “Mad About Modernism – Earl Horter and His Collection” exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition undertook to illustrate the importance of Horter’s collection of modern art, built over a relatively short period of time in the 1920’s and by a man of fairly modest means. Nonetheless, his brilliant eye paid off with the acquisition of a number of Picassos, Braques, and works by Duchamp, Matisse, Modigliani, Derain and Brancusi, along with African and Native American art.

    William Wierzbowski, Assistant Keeper of the American Section Collections at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, and a man whose expertise and interest is principally focused on collections of material culture of native peoples from the Plains, was chosen to write the catalogue entry for Horter’s American Indian objects. Wierzbowski was already familiar with a good deal of Catlin’s Indian items as the Charles Stephens collection of Native American art, which the Museum purchased in 1945, included some 50 items known to have been collected by Catlin. It was the previous chain of ownership for those items and a link to Earl Horter from Stephens that intrigued Wierzbowski about the possibility of a Catlin provenance for the shield.

    In a letter to the present owner, written after the “Mad About Modernism” show had closed in May of 1999, Wierzbowski states: “Enclosed is the report on your Comanche shield. I hope you find it as exciting as I do. Personally, I have been working on trying to gather together those remnants of George Catlin’s Indian collection for the last six or seven years…needless to say, I was ecstatic when I realized that your shield was a Catlin piece—another piece of the puzzle!…So far, it is the only known Catlin piece in private hands…Your shield had the good fortune to be in the hands of Charles Stephens whose record keeping was a museum person’s dream.”

    Wierzbowski’s investigation revealed the following trail of past owners:
    - Catlin’s disastrous financial affairs led him to sell his inventory of paintings and the Indian collection to a wealthy Philadelphian, Joseph Harrison Jr. in 1852
    - After Harrison’s death his wife contracts with John McIlwaine, a local taxidermist to inspect the collection – in storage for years – to determine condition for purpose of sale. Apparently, McIlwaine, a collector of Indian items, receives artifacts for helping Mrs. Harrison donate, in 1879, over 450 Catlin paintings and some of the ethnographic material to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. (In this regard, the shield shares provenance with this important American painting collection.)
    - In 1885 McIlwaine dies and his collection is auctioned off. Donaldson, another collector, purchases a number of the items and they remain in his collection with the McIlwaine provenance.
    - Donaldson’s son, after his father’s death in 1898, goes about selling off the collection. Charles Stephens purchases the Catlin shield and documents it on a catalogue card, along with a carefully rendered drawing, as “Shield - Catlin Col., Donaldson Col.”
    - Probably in 1939 but certainly after 1932 when the shield was shown in a Charles Stephens memorial exhibition of his collection at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, Earl Horter purchases the shield from the Stephens family. In his written inventory notes Horter describes it as “Sioux shield of Buffalo hide – very old and finely painted – has seen much service – pendant to shield is a series of rawhide dec – to my belief one of the finest shields in existence – Stevens (sic) Col of Phila”
    - 1940 – Earl Horter dies. Mrs. Horter keeps the shield in her possession until her death in 1985
    - The shield passes to Barry May, Dublin, PA, and from him to Morning Star Gallery where it enters the marketplace with the Catlin provenance no longer attached

    To view personal correspondence documents regarding this lot, please go to the following page on the Bonhams & Butterfields web site:


    For more comprehensive information including relevant documents, photos, letters and research, please contact the Native American, Pre-Columbian and Tribal Art Department with any enquiries.

    Perhaps the most intriguing of these documents shows the results of X-radiography and Infrared reflectography tests performed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art while the shield was still on loan: “In the X-radiography (#3), the viewer’s right side of the shield is recorded. The red drip design is the only area of the design that is visible in the X-radiograph. This paint may be visible in the X-radiograph because the paint is applied more heavily than other areas of the design. Most interestingly, it appears to cover over areas of loss, suggesting this section of the design may have been applied at a later date.” If this were true, it would be consistent with the Native American tendency to rework objects manifesting war powers, thereby rejuvenating their importance, power, and protection.
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