Katsina Buying 101
Heard Museum katsina buyer James Barajas offers some DO'S AND DON’TS when it comes to collecting the popular doll carvings.
Heard Museum katsina buyer James Barajas offers some do’s and don’ts when it comes to collecting the popular doll carvings.
When it comes to collecting anything—from baseball cards and vintage lunchboxes to fine art paintings and Fabergé eggs—informed buyers will always have an advantage over uniformed buyers. This rings especially true for Native American katsina dolls, which have layers of symbolism, a rich history and a variety of styles that the artists carve in. Going into any gallery, market or artist studio prepared will set the stage for a rewarding experience and what could be a lifelong interest in katsina dolls
For James Barajas, assistant shop manager and katsina doll buyer at the Heard Museum Shop in
Phoenix, the dolls are terrific entry points into Native American art, particularly because of their low-dollar access point. “First thing I ask collectors is what kind of collection they are looking for. We have 11-year-old artists that sell works that are under $20, and then we have also sold pieces that are $20,000. So there are lots of ways to enter the market,” he says. “One thing that’s important to remember, whether the artist is 11 years old or a great great grandparent, is that katsinas represent a living culture. It’s not something that only exists in history books. It has a living presence.”
Barajas also offers a piece of advice that will help collectors in all fields: “Buy from somebody you trust. Stick with a dealer who has a reputation to protect,” he says. “Once you familiarize yourself with the dealer, or the artist, you can learn so much more, more than you can in any book.”
This leads to another point, which is to meet the artist. Dealers are sometimes told by the artists about their work, or sometimes speculation or educated guesses are made, but most often the artist themselves will have the most accurate information. And once in their presence, a whole new world opens up as collectors can ask questions, learn about the artists’ history, the style of the work, the meaning of the symbols and can also engage with them on a personal
level. These conversations aren’t always about dolls either, and they can easily transition into other art forms, interests or hobbies. “It never hurts to develop a rapport with people,” the doll expert says. “Learn from them and let them learn from you.”
One aspect that often comes out in discussions with artists will be about the meaning of the dolls. Every doll is representative of a katsina, a supernatural being that symbolizes aspects of the world. “There are katsina that are associated with moisture and for bringing the rains, and also ones for healthy crops, fertility to the people, dances, animals…they all interrelate because they all are in communication with the creator,” Barajas says, adding that asking about symbols, objects in the dolls’ hands, colors and other details will open up a dialogue between the artist and the collector that most buyers feel is deeply rewarding and mind opening.
Barajas says that once collectors are in the door they have some questions to ask themselves. For starters, which tribes should they examine? Several tribes use and sell katsina dolls today, but the big two are Hopi and Zuni. Many great katsina carvers are Hopi, and the Heard Museum Shop carries hundreds of varieties. The other question is a big one: Old Style or contemporary? Old Style—sometimes, though rarely, called traditional—katsina dolls are considered the classic example for the dolls. Many Old Style dolls have a similar look: short arms, cylinder-like torsos, flat feet that jut out beneath carved regalia and larger-thannormal heads. Using that very rough template, Old Style katsina artists can then decorate their dolls with feathers, elaborate headdresses, exaggerated facial features or carved objects. Most Old Style dolls are
painted with mineral pigments, which give the works an authentic coloration directly from the soil of the Hopi people.
On the other side of that coin is the contemporary style. These dolls are almost always more realistic, with many dolls that are carved to show detailed facial features, muscles in the arms and legs, fingers and toes, exquisite regalia and objects, and they are posed in dramatic positions to show movement, dance, ceremony and celebration. Because of the elaborate nature of these designs, contemporary dolls are often carved onto bases so they won’t fall over and also so the artists can control how the doll sits in relation to the viewer—some dolls are tipped downward with arms raised and without a base it would be difficult to get the doll to balance on its own two feet. Contemporary dolls also are painted with a range of paints, including oil and acrylic paints. Contemporary dolls are often, though not always, more colorful and vibrant than Old Style dolls due to the intensity of the paints.
According to the Heard expert, the differences between Old Style and contemporary are vast, but many collectors enjoy acquiring from both styles, and even some artists work in both styles. “When the recession was ongoing, and there wasn’t as much money being spent on these items, we started to see some of our contemporary artists carving in the Old Style simply because collectors were purchasing lessexpensive art. And Old Style is more affordable than contemporary, which often sell for $6,000, $8,000 and $10,000,” Barajas says. “It was exciting because once the recession ended, some of those artists kept painting Old Style. Now you see many of them who work in both styles.”
When it comes to displaying the works, there are no special instructions, although Barajas says that many artists recommend not keeping them in glass cases. “They don’t breathe well,” he says. “It keeps dust off of them, but it also closes them off.” He adds that there is nothing wrong with showing dolls from different styles or tribes together. “You can have a dog katsina and cat katsina together and they don’t get into trouble,” he says, adding that some collectors like to arrange their dolls by ceremonies. While most Old Style dolls have feet and can be displayed standing, many collectors and artists display them by hanging them from the wall. The contemporary dolls, which almost always have bases, usually have to go on a shelf. When it comes to cleaning and maintaining them, a quick blast with a canned air is usually enough to eliminate dust.
One thing that is nearly universal among dolls, but is still worth asking by collectors, is the material of the piece. Katsina dolls are almost always carved from cottonwood root, which has no discernible grain and allows artists to carve elaborate shapes both horizontally and vertically into the wood without fear of the wood splitting. This aspect leads to another area of katsina carving: the one-piece katsina doll, which is a doll that has been carved from a single piece of cottonwood root. Barajas says that the term is kind of a myth, a holdover from the 1980s when carvings were often sold as “one-piece dolls” and the term captivated buyers. “Most of the time the term was used erroneously, not necessarily deceptively,” he says. “Most artists are adding a carved feather, a bell, ears or noses to their works and there’s nothing wrong with adding those features. The rest of the piece—particularly the head, torso, legs and arms—are often carved from one piece of cottonwood.” Barrajas is quick to point out that although the term “one-piece” is often used mistakenly, there are some artists who are carving every single element from one uncut and unbroken piece of cottonwood. Some of those artists are Michael Dean Jenkins, Arthur Holmes Jr., Stetson Honyumptewa and Aaron Fredericks, to name a few.
Another important aspect of the dolls is their prices. Most Old Style dolls start anywhere from $150 to $350, and then larger works or works by respected carvers tend to add significantly to that price point. Contemporary dolls usually start at $1,200 and then fluctuate wildly upward depending on how elaborate the work is. These prices, particularly those of Old Style dolls, are especially attractive to first-time collectors. Another market altogether is historic dolls by deceased or unknown artists. Barajas reiterates how important it is to buy from respectable collectors in large part because of older dolls often have eagle feathers, which are illegal to sell and own, particularly by non-native people.
Barajas says that dolls are a rich medium within Native American art, and that collecting them is a rewarding experience. “The neat thing about it is with hundreds of different kinds of katsinam it can be fun and fascinating,” he says. “There are just so many great stories out there to explore once you get into this.”
Contemporary katsina dolls of all varieties at the Heard Museum Shop.
Hopi dolls representing a range of katsina figures.
A katsina doll by Susie Long (Hopi) among other dolls at the Heard Museum Shop in Phoenix.
James Barajas, assistant shop manager and buyer at the Heard Museum Shop, in front of Old Style dolls.