A Plains Apache shield
Lot 1323
A Plains Apache shield
diameter 24in
Sold for US$ 48,800 inc. premium

Fine Native American Art

7 Jun 2010, 12:00 PDT

San Francisco

Lot Details
A Plains Apache shield
A Plains Apache shield
Constructed of thick buffalo hide, painted with a large central crescent flanked by a cross and triangle below, series of smaller triangles in an arching band starting midway on each side and across the top, a hide valance partially obscuring these fastened across the upper section and hung with tin cones and short strips of red stroud, a pale red band encircling the perimeter, the back emblazoned with a "sunburst" motif scraped from the surface, with attached hide carrying strap.
diameter 24in


  • Provenance:
    George Terasaki, New York


    The dark brown, cracked and crazed epidermis apparent on the reverse side of this shield immediately determines the hide to be bison (American buffalo) rawhide — the standard material of unmatched durability selected by Native Americans for the construction of their shields since ancient times. With time, buffalo rawhide in particular desiccates and forms myriad wrinkles and minute cracks across the epidermal layer (the top, or "hair" side). This process causes the characteristic cragginess of the exterior surface of buffalo hide — as seen on the back side of this shield. As is typical of most Plains Indian shields, this example, measuring some 24 inches in diameter, consists of a single thickness of leather. In fact, it is somewhat larger overall than other Plains/Southern Plains shields of the approximate period of the early/mid 19th century into the 1870's.

    Considering a number of features apparent on this shield, along with the historic movements and intertribal relationships of various groups, the most plausible tribal attribution is to one of the Plains Apache groups, and perhaps expressly the Kiowa-Apache. For at least two centuries prior to the respective reservation period, the Kiowa (Tanoan speakers) and a group of Plains Apache (Athabascan speakers historically called the "Kiowa-Apache") traveled, conducted ceremonies, enjoyed social functions, hunted, and warred together. Understandably, their material culture—including the arts, exhibited much in common. Producing masterfully tanned buckskin for handsome garments, creating striking beadwork, and excelling at hide painting counted among their skills. Using a variety of painted designs, all Apache groups decorated a range of objects such as pouches, moccasins, shields, and various styles of leather headgear. The equilateral triangle served as a prevalent motif generally replicated in a circle with the points radiating outward, in a line with the points to bases, or in a row "shoulder to shoulder" so to speak. Under the valance of this shield such a row of black-painted triangles arcs across the top. In fact, Geronimo — that infamous Apache figure of historic note, appears in a photograph wearing a hat decorated in this manner (Denver Public Library, # X-32890). Triangles radiate from the perimeter of a circle painted above the forehead. In addition, a row of triangles delineates the browband. In yet another photo, Geronimo wears a different Apache style leather headdress or "hat" with a pair of large "horns" extending upward. A row of inverted cut-out triangles likewise forms the browband (Denver Public Library # X-32893). Additionally in Apache arts cross and crescent motifs occur both in beadwork and painting, as on this shield. While it is reasonable to take the large crescent form dominant on the front of this shield as symbolizing a crescent moon, it could embody different significance. The meanings held by the isolated black triangle and cross motif below the crescent are subject to conjecture in the same manner.

    Metal cones attached in profusion to objects constitute another trait frequently seen in Apache material culture. Cones suspended in clusters or closely together in rows adorn moccasins, dresses, bags and other containers, as well as the valance across the top of this shield. This same feature-- also with possible symbolic or emblematic implication appears on a shield in the hands of the Kiowa, White Horse, in two historic photographs. A valance hung with numerous metal cones, but divided at midpoint, borders the shield's upper rim. In one photo, White Horse holds the shield in front of his body as he stands in front of a tipi (National Anthropological Archives # GN01379A). In the other image, dated 1892, while mounted horseback before a tipi, White Horse bears the shield on his left arm (photo # P3700, Fort Sill Museum).

    The sunburst-like design created by the removal of epidermis on the reverse side of this shield constitutes an elaborative feature that undoubtedly embodies considerable symbolic meaning, but that unfortunately must remain arcane to us. Any attempt at interpreting the symbol specifically would be speculative at best. As seen on a number of other historic shields originating from diverse Plains tribes, designs created against the epidermal surface are generally first outlined using a sharp blade to demarcate the margins. The dark-colored surface layer of the area within is removed either by peeling, scraping, or being pared away — thus revealing in contrast the lighter layer of hide beneath. In addition to the semicircular "half sun" or "sunburst" motif extending from the perimeter of the back side of this shield, a light-colored, perpendicular band, possibly created by abrasion on purpose, extends long the middle of the back. Generally it is to be cautioned to suggest or apply specific terminology or apply a name to motifs or designs, for the exact meanings therein are usually lost to us. Herein, "sunburst" is intended to serve merely as a descriptive term. Together with considering the appropriateness of a given object type to any cultural area or particular group - along with the treatment of the materials comprising the object, and the nature of any embellishment, all combine as silent documents to determining the place of origin of the object itself.

    Benson L. Lanford
    April 2010
Auction information

This sale is now finished. If you are interested in consigning in future sales, please contact the specialist department. If you have queries about lots purchased in this sale, please contact customer services.

Buyers' Obligations


If you have any complaints or questions about the Conditions of Sale, please contact your nearest customer services team.

Buyers' Premium and Charges

For all Sales categories excluding Arms & Armour, Coins & Medals, Motor Cars, Motorcycles, and Wine & Whisky:

Buyer's Premium Rates
25% on the first $250,000 of the Hammer Price
20% from $250,001 to $4,000,000 of the Hammer Price
12.5% on the excess over $4,000,001 of the Hammer Price

Payment Notices

Payment for purchases may be made in or by (a) cash, (b) cashier's check or money order, (c) personal check with approved credit drawn on a U.S. bank, (d) wire transfer or other immediate bank transfer, or (e) Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Discover credit, charge or debit card. A processing fee will be assessed on any returned checks. Please note that the amount of cash notes and cash equivalents that can be accepted from a given purchaser may be limited.

Shipping Notices

For information and estimates on domestic and international shipping as well as export licences please contact Bonhams Shipping Department.

Similar Items