Art doll

Inside the collection of Katsina doll expert Alan Kessler


By Christina Rees

October 14, 2022
Delia Sullivan
[email protected]

In 1997, the hammer fell to $265,000 at a New York auction for a Hopi kachina doll, by far the highest price paid for this type of traditional hand-carved figurine. Until then, the highest auction price for a kachina (or katsina) doll was $20,000.

The man who consigned this precious doll was Alan Kessler, and it would be fair to say that with this sale the veteran collector made the bargain for kachina figurines.

The 1997 auction was the first time Kessler brought a notable portion of his collection to market. But Kessler never stopped collecting and selling, and his name is associated the world over with great expertise and appreciation for Native American art.

Kessler will, for the third time, offer extraordinary pieces from his collection at auction, this time at Heritage Auctions’ Alan Kessler Collection Ethnographic Art Auction on October 14. The katsinam market has exploded in recent years, and the Kessler at Heritage collection offers a unique collecting opportunity for enthusiasts of the katsina carving tradition.

“This is a unique auction of a single owner’s collection,” says Delia Sullivan, Native American art specialist at Heritage Auctions. “Kessler’s keen and discerning eye has enabled him to bring together some of the most important and rare works to feature at an auction of Native American art in recent years. We expect these works to enter very special collections, both established and newer.

Katsina dolls and figurines have been carved and gifted among the tribes of the southwestern Pueblo region for centuries (there is evidence of katsinam in New Mexico petroglyphs dating back hundreds of years), but our modern appreciation of figurines emerged around the turn of the last century. This coincided with the first commercial examples of katsinam offered to the public. Soon after, American and European museums, as well as established artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, recognized the importance of these figures and began collecting them as they lived much of their life as a painter. post-war in the Americas. During these years, European Surrealists and Cubists were particularly fond of katsinam, and later influential artists such as Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keeffe were collectors and fans of the form.

It was a 1970 exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that launched traditional Pueblo carvings into “the realm of art” as we understand it today. It almost goes without saying that if artists pay such close attention to a traditional form and draw inspiration from it for their own work, there is a transcendent quality to this art. The Katsina tradition has held a special place in the hearts of working artists for over a century. Kessler himself, who is based in Santa Fe, is an established artist with a long history of exhibiting in New York and beyond.

Many of Kessler’s offerings to Heritage would be considered pre-commercial, and also quite early, and therefore very valuable examples of the figures. One of the most extraordinary pieces is an ancient Hopi polychrome wooden dancing figure, circa 1890, facing a coiled rattlesnake. It is the only known example of a serpent dance figure with a separate serpent. The figure wears a fringed buffalo skin belt adorned with a snake; his stylized head sports naturalistic features and “profane” eyes. The snake looks up at the dancer’s face, mesmerized by the dancer’s gaze.

Another big deal is an extremely rare Zia wooden figurine; very few carvings come from this Pueblo. This secular-eyed beauty flaunts a toothy smile and holds a pottery canteen, and she wears an intricately tied twine belt. Kessler said it is the only known sculpture of this type from the Pueblo.

In this auction, the Zia figurine keeps company with a number of polychrome and katsinam figurines from Zuni and Hopi Pueblos, as well as Navajo, many of which date back to the turn of the last century and the late 1800s. the dolls feature representations of warriors, butterfly maidens, infants, clowns and grandmothers, as well as Hopi dolls sculpted by the famous Wilson Tawaquaptewa in the late 1800s. There is even a katsina puppet to charming and boldly striped horns – a Hano Clown, or Koshare – attributed to Jimmy Kootz and dating from 1903.

CHRISTINE REES is an editor at Smart Collector.