The Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands, nestled off the coast of northern British Columbia, are the only ones allowed by law to quarry argillite, which has played a prominent role in Haida life and commerce for about 200 years. Today, museums are filled with priceless pieces providing a tour of Haida history, while some modern sculptors can command five-figure prices for top-of-the-line artwork.
Securing the stone is part of argillite's mystique. "The artists hike the six miles up the mountain and they quarry the stone out with sledgehammers," explains Sarah Hillis, a gallery owner in Old Masset, a village that lies on the northern part of Graham Island, the most populous of the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Artists use hand saws to cut the argillite into pieces "light enough to pack down the mountain on pack boards," says Hillis, who occasionally accompanied her husband, the late carver Claude Davidson, to get the stone. "The mountain trail is steep with lots of loose slate," says Hillis. The trail is punctuated with bogs, in which people can sink up to their knees while weighed down with argillite.
Although there are argillite deposits in other parts of North America, this stone is unique, says Martha Black, curator of ethnology of the
Royal B.C. Museum, in Victoria, British Columbia. "It has properties that allow it to be carved with ease," she explains. Sculptors can use ordinary woodworking tools, "although it is a painstaking job that demands skill."
Haida artists turn the stone into pendants, miniature totem poles and other items representing Haida cultural themes. A simple, small pendant by a young artist can sell for a few hundred dollars. An elaborate design -- perhaps one with inlays of gold or ivory -- by an experienced carver can sell for $20,000 or more.
Argillite sculpture is expensive due to consistent demand for high-end pieces and a small supply of full-time carvers. Fewer than 50 Haida artists focus on this stone, says Hillis, who is co-author of a book about argillite sculptors that will be published in May 2008.
"There are only a handful of artists working only in argillite," adds Gary Wyatt, co-director of the
Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia and curator of Northwest Coast art for the gallery. "But they command very high values."
Wyatt caters to an international clientele, and even from her small gallery, Sarah's Haida Arts and Jewelry, Hillis sells sculptures to visitors from as far away as Japan and Australia.
Canada and the U.S. are the biggest markets for modern sculpture. Historical objects are found in many in Canada, in the U.S. from Seattle, Wash., to Gainesville, Fla., and in major European cities.
Argillite has achieved international acclaim because the Queen Charlotte Islands aren't as remote as their location would suggest. Argillite played an important role in seafaring commerce, especially during the boom in maritime fur trading in the early 19th century. The Haida often sold their carvings to the crew and officers of European ships.
Argillite has always been an object of trade and tourism. The Haida traveled frequently to coast cities such as Victoria "to live and trade, and these places were markets for argillite carvings as well," Black says.
Anthropologists say the earliest examples of argillite sculpture in trade are pipes, which originally were made of recycled gun parts. As trade increased, the artwork expanded to statues of European sea captains, miniature totem poles, bowls and utensils.
The pipes took on a new life, morphing into objects with baroque designs depicting portraits of humans and mythical creatures. "Today, a panel pipe is a rare sight as it is very time-consuming for the artist, but a worthwhile item to have in your collection," says Laura Dutheil, owner of
Crystal Cabin Gallery in the village of Tlell. A quick Internet check of a few galleries reveals panel pipes ranging from $4,500 to $24,000.
Tips for Collecting
Collecting argillite requires attention to detail. "It is the best and worst investment you can make," says Gary Wyatt. "The best works must be ripped out of the hands of someone who does not want to part with it, and this can make certain pieces expensive quickly. Some artists are more constant, and reasonable investment values are earned over about 10 years."
New collectors need to learn about individual artists "and look for consistency, detail and commitment," Wyatt says. "Understanding the art form allows for fewer mistakes early in the collection."
Walter Stolting, owner of
Spirits of the West Coast Native Art Gallery, in Courtenay, British Columbia, says prices for argillite and other types of Haida art have tailed off from their peak in the 1990s. "But we are seeing the beginning of a strong comeback," he says. New artists, an improved national economy and marketing activities pegged to the 2010 Winter Olympics in the Vancouver area offer encouragement for a reviving art market, Stolting says.
Novice collectors must beware of fakes, which have been on the market "for several decades and are widely available," says museum curator Martha Black. "Cast in resin or plastic, some of these reproductions are hard to distinguish from carved argillite."
In addition to buying from a reputable dealer, experts say there are several ways to guard against fakes. Hillis says one test is to hold a match next to sculptures. Argillite won't be affected; the plastic will melt. (This might not be such a good idea when shopping in a gallery gift shop.)
Hillis notes that argillite is usually cool to the touch unless exposed to direct sunlight. She explains that argillite is fragile and will chip if struck by something harder than it. Don't place argillite bowls or sculptures in water because water could exacerbate even small cracks in the stone. On the plus side, because natural skin oils make argillite shiny, she says, "the stone loves to be handled."