A Haida figural bowl
Lot 5195
A Haida figural bowl
Sold for US$ 36,600 inc. premium

Native American Art

6 Jun 2011, 12:00 PDT

San Francisco

Lot Details
Property from the Muchnick Milliren Collection
A Haida figural bowl
A Haida figural bowl
Comprising a carved grease bowl, inverted abstract face designs on the sides, each end supported by squatting human figures gripping the vessel's sides.
height 5 3/4in, length 10in, width 6 1/4in


  • Provenance:
    Purchased from Alaska on Madison, New York, NY, February 2001; published in Alaska on Madison's advertisement in the Autumn/Winter 2000 issue of Tribal Arts; a Denver, CO, private collection; appeared in the exhibit Northwest Coast Indian Art Tradition: Collected Heritage, Grace Hudson Museum, Ukiah, CA, 6 September – 23 November 2003

    Small grease bowl, probably Haida, mid-nineteenth century or earlier. Fine carving and detail. The bowl itself is carved in the form of a bent dish...The two little men grasping the bowl are great examples of mid- or early 19th century Northwest Coast sculpture, probably Haida.
    - from a personal communication with Bill Holm

    Double Human Figures with Bowl

    Haida, c. 1830

    Haida carvers were (and are still) known for taking on any kind of carving challenge, of which the elaborate panel pipes and figure groups made of argillite are clear illustrations. Here two sensitively carved human figures grasp the sides of a rectangular carved bowl. The bowl is based on a traditional type that is rectangular in plan view, and curves slightly outward and upward from the bottom on the sides and ends. The upper edge or rim is left quite wide, with a strong undercut below it that leaves the true thickness of the overall bowl rather thin. The rim arches gently up at the ends, and curves slightly downward along the sides, a characteristic that is typical of many Northwest Coast bowl types. These bowls almost always have a small area on the sides of each corner marked with narrow parallel grooving, and that has been replicated beneath the hands of the human figures in this elaborate vessel. Bill Holm has suggested that these grooved areas represent the folds that are found at the corners of traditional Athabaskan birch bark bowls, a kind of non-functional holdover that is known as a skeuomorph. Oral histories of the coastal people speak of arriving at the coast from the interior as the great glaciers retreated into the mountains, so these carved details may record some of that migration. Usually these rectangular bowls feature relief-carved designs that cover only the ends with formline face structures, but a small minority of these vessels also feature relief-carved formline designs along the sides, as is seen in this 'out-of-the-box' example. Interestingly, on one end of this bowl, the maker appears to have started carving a design on the end, but quit before it was very far along. In such a difficult to reach and hard to see area, it's not surprising that the artist decided to forego the relief-carving of the ends.
    The grand human figures that crouch at each end of the bowl appear to bear the weight of a vessel that is truly gigantic in relation to their size. Rectangular bowls of this type were often used to serve whipped soapberries at feasts and potlatches, and this small but elaborate example may have been used to serve a personal portion to an honored guest. The visual metaphor of a giant serving bowl supported by two bearers is an appropriate one for such a ceremonial context, where displaying the wealth and generosity of a host was the major object of the gathering.
    The sculpture of the two figures is in a style that relates directly to early nineteenth-century wood and argillite carvings such as pipes and standing human figures. The men's faces are carved in a naturalistic style, more like an early portrait mask than a stylized mask type, particularly in the handling of the eyes, which are carved without a defined iris as is usually seen in Haida masks.
    The design style of the formline complexes on the bowl sides, with their circular ovoids and large carved-out or negative areas, suggest a creation date for this bowl of around 1840. The two-dimensional design system evolved greatly from the early historic contact period of the 1780s through the middle of the nineteenth century, and therefore provides a reasonable means of comparing dated and documented objects, such as those collected by early traders and explorers on the coast, with the majority of extant objects that have no recorded histories to accompany them. This bowl must have been a highly valued and cared-for heirloom to have survived in great condition for so long with such an overall delicate form. It is these unusual and rare examples that help make the study of Northwest Coast art so interesting and ever-changing for scholars and collectors alike.

    Steven C. Brown
    April, 2011
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