A Tlingit fish club
Lot 5182
A Tlingit fish club
Sold for US$ 48,800 inc. premium

Lot Details
Property from the Muchnick Milliren Collection
A Tlingit fish club
Carved in full relief, displaying a toothy open mouth, wide eyes and flowing sections of ribs, backbone, and appendages, the pierced grip grooved to fit a right-handed person.
length 19 1/4in


  • Provenance:
    Purchased from Flury and Co./Jackson Street Gallery, Seattle, WA, 24 November 1997; appeared in the exhibit Northwest Coast Indian Art Tradition: Collected Heritage, Grace Hudson Museum, Ukiah, CA, 6 September – 23 November 2003

    Seal or fish club. Most likely 19th century Tlingit. This is a nice club, representing a sea lion, with ears and short tail that distinguish it from a seal. Sea lion is a usual representation on these clubs. The backbone and ribs are represented. Possibly of yew wood. The finger grooves on the grip are unusual.
    - from a personal communication with Bill Holm

    The paucity of marks and dents in it suggest it may have been used primarily or entirely for ceremonial purposes. The exposed spine and ribs suggest it might have had shamanic significance. The handle is carved in such a way as to make the club easy to hold and use.
    - collectors' notes

    Fish Club

    Tlingit, c. 1880
    Length 19 3/8in

    Carved fish clubs are an example of how Northwest Coast carvers made art out of everyday objects. In addition to the visual elaboration of such a tool, there was a spiritual side to the embellishments as well. This fine club, which is related to several examples with a similar subject matter, represents a sea lion, one of the more common and active sea predators found on the Northwest Coast. The use of a predator image on such a club was believed to bring the strength and power of the sea lion to the fisherman's endeavors, calling out to the sea lion's spirit to assist in the work of capturing fish for sustenance. The sea lion image is recognized by the mammalian head with nostrils, large teeth, and ears (seals don't have visible ears), the placement and form of the pectoral fins, and the position and form of the rear flippers on either side of a short, stout tail, a feature often seen in images of sea lions and seals as well, such as the grease bowls of seal form. The pectoral and hind flippers exhibit finger-like forms that stream back from an ovoid representation of a body joint. Sea lions actually have fingernails that protrude from the bone structure beneath the leathery skin that covers their flippers.
    The hefty end of the club, toward the head, is the business end, used to dispatch large salmon and halibut before bringing them into the canoe for the journey home. The handle of this club is well fitted to the user's grip, as long as they are right-handed. The angles of the finger grooves and the notch for the thumb are such that the club would not fit the hand of a southpaw as smoothly. This formed grip area was created to provide a better hold on the club in the wet and sometimes slimy environment of a fishing canoe, and is an unusual feature that was surely appreciated by its owner.
    The sea lion design includes a long straight raised line flowing from the back of the head to the tail, which represents the animal's spinal column. Below this, between the front and rear flippers, are hollowed S-shaped forms. The raised ridges between these hollowed areas represent the ribs of the creature. Above the spine are four U-shapes that can be seen as the sea lion's vertebrae. Along the bottom edge of the club is a row of flat-edged lobes, packed densely together. This makes up the striking edge of the club, though most of its impacts would have been on the end closer to the head. The hard, dense wood of which the club was carved, probably either spruce or yew, makes for a strong and hefty weapon well suited to its tasks.
    The style of the design work on this club, with its rounded forms and fairly large hollowed areas, indicates a most-likely Tlingit origin in the decade before or after about 1880.

    Steven C. Brown
    April, 2011
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