A Tlingit war dagger

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Lot 2027
A Tlingit war dagger

Sold for US$ 37,500 inc. premium

Native American Art

4 Jun 2012, 12:00 PDT

San Francisco

A Tlingit war dagger
Consisting of a double-edged hammered raw copper blade, with raised median ridge, flat at back, the ivory pommel carved to depict a humanoid figure within the jaws of some other creature, abalone-inlaid teeth, the grip wrapped in hide cordage, inscribed on the back: NW. Coast America. Hooper. Coll. No. 1286 and H.1562.
length 17 7/8in


  • Provenance:
    ex-Lady Brassings, England, acquired during a series of voyages on the Sunbeam between 1876-83; Hastings Museum, acquired from Lady Brassings; the James Hooper Collection, obtained in 1947; Christie's, London auction of the Hooper Collection, 1976; Morning Star Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; the Stewart Mills Collection, Southern California

    Phelps, Steven, p. 326, plate 194, #1562, commentary on p. 310; also: Burland, Cottie, p. 32: "The tools of the Northwest Coast Indians were often decorative as well as efficient. This ancient knife has a blade beaten out from raw copper, the blade is lashed with hide thongs to an ivory handle in the form of a hero being swallowed by a whale."

    Tlingit Dagger with Ivory Pommel
    Copper, ivory, abalone shell, rawhide
    17 7/8" Long

    Large daggers were commonly carried personal protection weapons among Tlingit men well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Lt. George T. Emmons, who lived and researched in the area in the 1880s, noted that "The commonest weapon, possessed by every Tlingit man, and particularly noticed by early visiting Europeans, was the dagger. This was a double-bladed knife...sharpened on both edges, fifteen or more inches long." Examples were made of copper or steel, forged and hammered with varying degrees of skill and refinement by Native metalsmiths. Some daggers were said to have been made of meteoric iron, but this has not been confirmed scientifically. Some were made from one piece of metal, with either a second, shorter blade or a decorative pommel opposite the primary blade, while others featured a steel or copper blade and a carved pommel of bone, ivory, wood, or sheep horn. Many daggers with carved pommels were made of recycled steel from Euro-American long knives or sword sections.
    This dagger has a blade of copper hammered into a somewhat unusual form. Like most Native-made dagger blades, it is double-edged, flat-backed, fairly broad near the grip and tapering down do a blunt point. Less refined and symmetrical than many other examples, though, it's possible that this could be a particularly early blade that was kept as an heirloom dagger over a long period. Collected by Lady Brassey on a journey to the Northwest Coast between 1876-1883, the dagger was probably already very old at that time.
    The whale-tooth ivory of the pommel is carved in a totemic style, with a humanoid face and forearms surmounted by a toothed zoomorphic head. The teeth of the humanoid figure are formed of inlaid abalone shell, a highly valued trade item that brought additional status to the image. The precise identity and meaning of the two figures is unknown, but probably relates to the clan affiliation of the original owner. The carving style of the imagery is distinctly Tlingit in character, and its features suggest that the sculpture was done between about 1800 (or possibly earlier) and 1840 or 50.

    Steven C. Brown
    October, 2011

    A transcript of a conversation between the collector and Bill Holm that took place on June 15, 1994, quotes Holm in reference to the dagger, suggesting "It's in a class by itself; the way it curves, for instance. It looks so different from other daggers; not to suggest that it's not authentic. I'm sure it's authentic, but it is hard to classify it with others of known date because this dagger is unique. There are no other daggers like it...I'm sure that this dagger is an old piece; could be early, could be prehistoric or right after the Europeans were there. It could be late 18th or early 19th century, or even possibly the first quarter or first half of the 19th century, not later than that date I tend to believe, because they had so many European files and knives by then...One thing I'm definitely sure of, and that is that it's not the type of the late copper daggers of the 1890's which were all made for sale; those with sheep horn shell pommels. No, yours is much earlier and older."
A Tlingit war dagger
A Tlingit war dagger
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