Update: The Youngblood Sanchez vase sold for $16,000.
What you see: A vase by contemporary Native American ceramic artists Nancy Youngblood and Russell Sanchez, co-created in 2008. Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery & Auction estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.
The expert: Mark Sublette, founder of the eponymous gallery and auction house in Tucson, Arizona.
Let’s start by introducing each contemporary Native American ceramic artist. Who is Nancy Youngblood? She is a Santa Clara potter. She began as a young girl, and she comes from a great lineage of pottery-making.
And who is Russell Sanchez? He’s one of the great Pueblo potters from San Ildefonso, a different pueblo from Youngblood, but close to where she grew up. He and Youngblood are considered masters of the Pueblo pottery world. They’re two of the most decorated living Pueblo potters. She has won Best of Show at SWAIA [the Southwest Associaton for Indian Arts, which hosts the Santa Fe Indian Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico every August], and he has won Best Of his division.
Where were Youngblood and Sanchez in their careers in 2008, when they collaborated on this vase? They were at the top of their game, as they are now.
Do we know how the Youngblood Sanchez vase collaboration came about? I don’t, but dealer Charles King has represented both of them. My guess is he thought, “Let’s put two of the best potters together and see what comes up.” What they are is in the same league, which is the best. [Laughs]
So it was a contemporary Native American art dealer, and not the artists, who probably came up with the idea to collaborate? I’m sure it was, and I’m sure it was an easy pitch. It’s a natural. Potters have, historically, worked together. Usually it’s family members working together. This vase is a little different, because the artists are from two different tribes.
Is this Youngblood Sanchez vase part of a series of works they did together, or is it a one-off? My guess is this is the only one. I’ve never heard of another. Both are masters of the trade. They don’t need to work with anybody. They did this to see what would happen. It’s beautiful. That’s why it’s at auction.
Native American pottery seems to be female-dominated. The few pots I’ve seen that represent the joint efforts of a woman and a man have been the work of a wife-and-husband team. Does that fact make the Youngblood Sanchez vase unusual? Yes. I would say it’s very unusual. The only other pairing I know of is Tammy Garcia [a Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor and ceramic artist] and Preston Singletary [a Native American glass artist from the Tlingit community in the Pacific Northwest]. Those two are at the top of their field, too. Aside from that pairing and this one, I’ve never seen another.
Do we know how this Youngblood Sanchez vase was made? We can look at the pot and tell who did what. Nancy would have done the ribs on the pot. Russell is known for sgraffito, the etchings on the pot. I don’t know who fired it, but they probably did it together, outdoors, over a fire. My guess is each polished the part they did, with Nancy doing the ribs and Russell doing the neck.
I see two thin parallel lines of material on the lower neck of the Youngblood Sanchez vase. What, exactly, do I see, and who would have been responsible for that contribution? Those are heishi beads, from Russell. Heishi are generally shell beads.
How do the two artists’ styles complement each other in this vase? Both are known for working black-on-black. Nancy usually only works in black or red. Russell is more attuned to using lots of different slip colors. [A slip is a mixture of water and clay that can be used like paint.]
Is there a narrative or traditional theme expressed on this Youngblood Sanchez vase? The jar itself is a water jar. The two pueblos of the artists have long histories of making water jars. Then they’ve taken the elements of what they’re known for–Russell with his sgraffito and heishi, Nancy with her ribs, and the scalloping at the very top of the jar. They’ve worked from the basis of history and tradition, though they are from two different pueblos.
Both Youngblood and Sanchez signed the vase on the bottom of its interior. She used letters, and he used graphics. Do we know why? Russell changes his script every so often, when he feels like it. Sometimes he’s a rafter. He was a world-class white-water rafter. That’s what that is. He’ll sign his name too. It just depends on where he is in his life.
What is the Youngblood Sanchez vase like in person? One of the hardest things to appreciate is how finely polished it is. You look at it and you don’t see any flaws at all. If you like the black-on-black sheen in the picture, you will love it in person.
How does each artist approach the polishing of their ceramic pieces? Do they rely on assistants for that part of the process? They’re the only ones who can do the polishing. I’m sure he did the upper third, and she did the lower two-thirds. To get into those little grooves, she’s using little rocks that have been handed down through the generations.
Why does she use rocks to polish her ceramics? First, it comes from tradition. They’ve [her pueblo] been doing it that way for a thousand years. The rocks–if you’re not absolutely perfect with the pressure on the wet clay, you’ll leave little grooves. This looks perfect. You can’t see how perfect the finish is.
I imagine doing things the old-fashioned way places a natural limit on how many pieces Youngblood and Sanchez could make together. Yes. Polishing slows down the process, that’s for sure.
What is it like to hold the Youngblood Sanchez vase? Any Native American pot, not just that pot, has the sense of a continuation of the culture–watching your mom or your aunt, and helping them. You can tell how much effort is required to get to this point. When you hold the pot, you hold tradition, culture, and personal effort all at once.
This Youngblood Sanchez vase appears to be unique. How did you set the estimate? Did you look at auction prices for Youngblood and Sanchez and average them? Yes, exactly right. Russell Sanchez works have sold in the $40,000 range, and the same is true for Nancy. Both artists are highly desirable. When they do the Indian Market [the Santa Fe fair mentioned above], they sell out in a few hours.
Who do you think will win the vase–a Youngblood collector, or a Sanchez collector? Is there a great deal of overlap between the two? Yes and yes. If you’re a Nancy Youngblood fan, it’s hard to believe you’re not a fan of Russell Sanchez as well. This vase is going to be on your hit parade for sure. It’s hard to come by.
As we speak on September 28, the Youngblood Sanchez vase has received enough bids to meet its $8,000 reserve, well ahead of the October 11 auction. Does that matter? I think it does. It means people are watching. If you want something of this rarity, you need to be aggressive and on top of this. If it sets a record, that wouldn’t surprise me.
The Youngblood Sanchez vase will automatically set an auction record for a collaboration by both artists, but could it set new auction records for each artist as well? It’s possible. In auctions, you occasionally have one shot at a rare piece in your collecting career. This may be that piece if you’re a contemporary Native American pot collector.
Why will this Youngblood Sanchez vase stick in your memory? I’m a fan of both, and I’ve known both artists for 30 years. I considered taking this piece home and putting it in my own collection. It’s definitely selling. And it’s the rarity–having something this rare and unique and beautifully made.
How to bid: The Nancy Youngblood Russell Sanchez vase is lot 0292 in the Rare Early Native, Western Art, Photography sale taking place at Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery & Auction on October 11, 2020.
Images are courtesy of Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery & Auction.
Earlier in 2020, Sublette interviewed Russell Sanchez for episode 115 of his video podcast, Art Dealer Diaries.
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