A Northwest Coast bowl
Lot 4198
A Northwest Coast bowl
length 10 3/4in
Sold for US$ 206,000 inc. premium

Native American Art

14 Dec 2009, 12:00 PST

San Francisco

Lot Details
Property from the Berthusen Collection, deaccessioned from the Lynden Pioneer Museum, Lynden, WA
A Northwest Coast bowl A Northwest Coast bowl A Northwest Coast bowl A Northwest Coast bowl
A Northwest Coast bowl
A grease bowl carved in the likeness of a seal effigy, head, tail and flippers projecting at both ends, with ribbed interior, the underside worked in schematic composite animal parts, a human figure splayed below the seal's head, the head of a bird under the tail, dark oily patina.
length 10 3/4in


  • Grease Bowl-Seal
    Tlingit or Haida
    c. 1800-1850

    Grease Bowl-Eagle
    Tlingit or Haida c. 1750-1800

    Grease bowls were made to contain edible oils used as an accompaniment to the dried fish or meats that were served during feasts and potlatch celebrations on the Northwest Coast. Grease is an adopted English word used to indicate eulachon or candlefish oil, rendered in large wooden vats from small river-run fish in the early spring, or seal oil, rendered from the thick blubber that insulates the various coastal species of seal from the cold northern Pacific waters. Smaller bowls of this kind were often personal property, used by individuals or family groups on a daily basis, while the larger ones were used for bigger gatherings as serving vessels, from which these oils were ladled into smaller bowls. Decorated bowls, such as these two fine examples, were the property of the nobility, whose wealth and influence enabled them to commission such utilitarian artworks from the artist class.

    The larger of these two bowls represents an eagle's head with a wide-open mouth, the interior of which is the cavity of the bowl. There are a small number of other bowls with this basic image, though few of these appear to be as early as this example. The two-dimensional design forms that wrap over the entire surface of this bowl are executed in a very early style, indicating a date of origin that could span from circa 1800 to well back into the eighteenth century. The broad formlines and very narrow and minimal carved-out areas are typical of objects that are documented to the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and many of those were undoubtedly created well before their documented date of collection by Euro-Americans. This archaic-style design work is usually attributed primarily to the Tlingit, and it's very likely that this group was the original source of the bowl. However, in the very early historic period, northern Northwest Coast design styles had much more in common than they did in the mid-nineteenth century, after many decades of artistic evolution. Numerous examples of archaic-style objects collected from the Haida exist to indicate that this style was common in their area in the early years of the contact period. The formline designs on this bowl appear to represent the head of the eagle on the upper-beak end, the wings of the bird on the sides, and the tail feathers on the lower-beak end. This dual-representation or punning style of imagery is very common in the Northwest Coast tradition.

    The bowl is carved from Sitka spruce, a common forest tree on the northern Northwest Coast, but one that is almost never mentioned in the ethnographic literature as a carving material. Once one learns to recognize the appearance of this wood, however, it becomes apparent that there are a great many carved objects, many of them very early examples, that were carved of this material in the historic period. It was commonly used for bowls in the early contact period and before, as well as Tlingit war helmets, canoe paddles, and such works as combs and other small objects.

    The seal bowl in this collection is also a very early example, as evidenced by the style of the design work as well as the darkness of the patina and the volume of dark, oxidized oil that has saturated the entire vessel. The image of a seal was often used for grease bowls, in part as an homage to the spirit of the creature that was hunted as the source of the oil. Seal bowls are often upswept at the ends, which echoes the shape of a seal that stretches out in the sun while resting upon wave-swept rocks. This bowl has a subtle amount of rise to the ends, which is consistent with the early style of the carving and design work in the vessel. Later bowls often tended to exaggerate the curvature of the upsweep to the ends.

    The compact, early style of both the sculpture of the head and the design work on the sides of the bowl serve to indicate its age, and the four fine grooves carved just below the rim on the inside also tend to be an earlier characteristic. The human figure relief-carved on the breast of the seal is an uncommon feature, one that only appears in a handful of related examples. The head of this human and that of the seal are carved in a sculptural style that is perhaps most likely Tlingit, though the possibility of a Kaigani Haida origin cannot be wholly ruled out. The pectoral flippers of the seal and the ovoid joints of the tail flippers are carved on the sides and back end of the bowl in an archaic style that suggests an early origin, most likely sometime between circa 1800 and the first decades of the nineteenth century.

    Steven C. Brown
    November, 2009
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