An Arapaho war shield
Lot 5206
An Arapaho war shield, Left Hand
diameter 19in
Sold for US$ 150,250 inc. premium

Lot Details
Property of a Nevada Family LLP
An Arapaho war shield An Arapaho war shield
An Arapaho war shield, Left Hand
Of fire-hardened buffalo hide, painted with all native mineral pigments, the red central panel with the outlined profile image of a buffalo, encircled by the dessicated skin and clawed foot of a small mammal, the remainder alternating black and green concentric circles, hide thongs fastening an array of feathers (legal replacements), some with beaded wrapping on the quill, a short strip of braided grass held by one of the thongs, a broad shoulder hide strap hung at back, accompanied by two old paper tags, one reading: "To whom it may concern - This is to certify that I Grant Left Hand, Arapahoe Indian has this day sold to W.R. Black of Watonga Oklahoma one war shield made from Buffalo hide and was made by White Crown my Grandfather was made in the year of about 1725. Was given to Chief Left Hand who was my father when he was a boy. My father used this Shield in many wars He used it in the battle with Black Kettle against Custer on the Washita in the year 1868 and was handed down to me and I say farther that there was never a man wounded that ever carried this shield. It was known as the most lucky Shield in the Tribe. - Signed - Grant Left Hand" (May 1926), the other written by the collector, essentially repeats the former claim and then adds: "I have replaced eagle wing feathers on each side they had nearly all fallen out of the(ir) wrappings. I simply slipp(ed) feathers into the wrappings...tail and small hawk feathers...removed, washed and put back also the red flannel. The foot and skin coiled in center appear (to) be jack Rabbit"
diameter 19in


  • Provenance:
    Chief White Crown, Arapaho; Chief Left Hand, Arapaho; Grant Left Hand, Arapaho; W.R. Black, Watonga, OK; Joseph O'Leary Collection, Reading, PA; Christie's, New York, IMPORTANT NATIVE AMERICAN ART, 5/13/94, lot 25; Alexander Acevedo Collection; Butterfield & Butterfield, San Francisco, IMPORTANT CUSTER MEMORABILIA, 4/4/95, lot 45; a private New Mexican collection

    "Inventing Custer: Legends of the Little Bighorn", Autry Museum of Western Heritage, May 25 - September 2, 1996. In a letter to the owner, James Nottage, Vice President and Chief Curator at the Autry Museum wrote: "The show was a substantial success and the shield was the leading object as visitors entered the gallery. As a featured item it was viewed by nearly two hundred thousand visitors and native and non-native visitors alike frequently commented upon the power and importance of the shield." The shield was displayed at the entrance to the exhibition gallery as a "signature object" alongside a sword that belonged to Lt. DeRudio, one of Custer's officers in the 7th cavalry.

    Curtis, Edward S., THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN, Volume XIX, "Arapaho Shield"; and "Lefthand - Comanche" (sic) - apparently both images were photographed around the same time. One must presume Curtis confused the cultural identity of the man when publishing the photo some years later.
    Schorsch, David A., THE EDWARDS LEDGER DRAWINGS: FOLK ART BY ARAPAHO WARRIORS, David A. Schorsch, Inc., New York, 1990, plate 44 - "Warding Off a Lance Strike", illustrating a ledger drawing of an unnamed mounted warrior wearing a distinct German silver ornament and carrying a shield that appears to be Left Hand's, plate 52 - "Ready for War, Left-Hand Rides Down an Armed Pawnee", another drawing of the man with the German silver ornament, the name "left hand" (sic) pencilled in above him, carrying a similar shield, plate 116 - "Broken Back Strikes a Soldier", with accompanying text naming the mounted man Left Hand or (interchangeably) Broken Back, depicted with the same ornament and shield.

    See AMERICAN INDIAN ART magazine, Summer, 1979, Volume 4, Number 3, Schulze-Thulin, Axel, "Prairie and Plains Collections of the Linden-Museum Stuttgart, p. 53: for an early shield collected by Maximilian Prince of Wied, with similar outlined profile animal figure.

    "Left Hand, who was long regarded as one of the leading chiefs and counselors of the Arapaho tribe, was born about 1838. In his young manhood he distinguished himself as a leader among his people, especially in war. He was generally reputed to have been one of the principal actors in the scene in the valley of Sergeant-Major Creek, Roger Mills County, which culminated in the death of Major Joel H. Elliott, four noncommissioned officers and ten privates of the 7th U. S. Calvary, during the battle of the Washita, November 27, 1868." (from the Oklahoma Historical Society's Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume 1, No. 3, June, 1923, REMINISCENCES OF THE WASHITA CAMPAIGN AND OF THE DARLINGTON INDIAN AGENCY, by John Murphy)

    The Battle of Washita was also where Custer's troops butchered Black Kettle along with a number of Arapaho and Cheyenne women and children. This event was one of the most significant battles leading up to the ultimate defeat of Custer and his force at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

    Left Hand's shield is of a very early Plains style, with its concentric banded design and stylized pictorial talisman diagnostic of the 18th century. The stick-like buffalo drawn in a very linear style and superimposed on the red bull's eye is characteristic of even earlier examples. This kind of drawing is found on some of the very earliest war shirts in European museums as well as the Prince Maximilian shield previously cited and collected in the 1830's. Shields of this era are exceedingly rare even in museums in North America. The European examples were collected during the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th century by naturalists who came to this country for adventure and who gathered the artifacts recognizing the significance of both their historic and ethnographic statements long before that significance was recognized in this country. Lacking the telltale decorative drawing of later 19th century shields, it is easy to overlook its significance when viewed with an eye for decorative appeal. The serious and historically significant objects produced by "pure cultures" at the height of their power seldom embody the decorative flamboyance that the average collector has come to demand. In the case of this historic, Arapaho heirloom, one cannot help but respond to the honest and indomitable quality of an 18th century example of warrior Society paraphernalia.

    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.
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