How to Spot Authentic Native American Crafts

We consulted three Santa Fe galleries for advice on buying like a pro

The Southwest is rich with venues selling Native American handiwork. But identifying reproductions or sussing out inferior materials can be challenging. We talked to three Santa Fe galleries in high standing with the nonprofit Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, which polices authenticity in the sale of Indian goods, about how to buy like a pro. Or entrust yourself to the more than 1,000 vendors at Santa Fe Indian Market, the world’s largest tribal art show, held in Santa Fe on August 20 and 21.

Because turquoise is notoriously soft, it’s now an accepted practice to stabilize the stone with resins. But the reconstituted forms, in which it has been ground up and mixed with other materials, are not considered genuine. Also widespread is fake turquoise, often the mineral howlite that’s been dyed blue. A 1940s Navajo turquoise cluster bracelet ($2,500 at Shiprock Santa Fe) is emblematic of the trading post period, in which artisans stepped up their production of decorative items for outsiders.

Craftsmanship is everything in baskets, which are prized for a tight and consistent weave. Older baskets ideally possess smooth as opposed to rough surfaces, which indicates use. The patina should also be mellow, even dusty, but good condition is paramount. In the western Apache basket from 1900 ($9,000 at Morning Star Gallery in Santa Fe), willow forms a light backdrop for the dark triangular pattern, made with devil’s claw.

Navajos learned to weave in the 1800s, using the soft wool from Spain’s Churro sheep and emphasizing bold horizontal patterns. By the early 1900s, large diamond motifs, which can also be a sign of a reproduction from Mexico, were becoming the norm. This transitional textile from 1890 ($5,800 at Shiprock Santa Fe) is notable for its variety of colors made possible by the introduction of aniline dyes in the mid-19th century.

While other decorative items became influenced by market forces, beadwork was dictated by personal taste through the 1800s. By the late 1700s, most tribes had embraced glass beads from Europe over the stones, bones, and shells that had been the materials of choice before whites arrived. Watch for beadwork made to look old when it’s not, detectable by overly uniform stitching. These Cheyenne moccasins from 1875 ($11,500 at Morning Star Gallery) illustrate why the Plains tribes are considered bead masters.

Authentic Pueblo pottery is produced by the coil method, in which clay is added layer upon layer, the pot molded by hand. Too even a surface indicates that a mold has been used. Value is also enhanced by the rarity of a shape—common items such as an olla, or water jar, are less desirable. The migration pattern on this 1970s seed pot by Hopi artist Fannie Nampeyo ($8,500 at Adobe Gallery in Santa Fe) likely represents a bird’s wing.