The first time Wayne Carlick saw the 140-year-old Tlingit robe, labelled Lot 201 on an online auction site, he had only one thought.
“It has to come home,” said the master carver from the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, located in the northwestern corner of British Columbia.
But there was a five-figure catch. By the time he saw it, on Nov. 29, bids had already topped $15,000. And because the seller was listed as an anonymous private collection, there was no way of appealing to have the robe repatriated.
“I had no idea how we were going to come up with the money,” Mr. Carlick said.
It wasn’t just any robe. The garment illuminating his screen was a Chilkat blanket dating back to at least 1880. Made of complex weaves of mountain goat wool and yellow cedar bark, Chilkat robes took upwards of one year to complete and were reserved for high-ranking Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida, along with dignitaries from other Indigenous groups in what is now northern B.C., Yukon and Alaska.
The elaborate robes became so coveted by museums and collectors that few historical examples remain in the communities where they originated.
Though the name of the weaver wasn’t listed online, Mr. Carlick thought there was a good chance the robe had been made by Anisalaga, or Mary Ebbets Hunt, a Tlingit woman considered to be the finest of all Chilkat weavers.
“It looked incredibly intact,” he said. “In general the weave looked really tight. People who know were saying it was a masterpiece.”
He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to reclaim a piece of cultural property. Peter Wright, a heli-skiing company owner and gold miner who is from the nearby community of Atlin, offered to bid and pay the auction price as long as the First Nation paid him back. With the nation in agreement, Mr. Wright began submitting bids. By Dec. 2, the price had doubled.
Mr. Carlick didn’t worry about the money. The robe meant too much. “This blanket would have performed ancestral ceremonies during its life,” he said. “Through ceremonies, it would have the spirit of our ancestors in it. I had a belief inside of me that this was a special robe and it should come home.”
For decades, museums and public art collections have been under pressure to repatriate Indigenous artifacts. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on Canadian museums to comply with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which requires countries to provide redress for stolen cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property.
But the high-priced trade in cultural items from private collections has escaped the same level of scrutiny.
“We are constantly being outbid,” said Jisgang Nika Collison, executive director and curator at the Haida Gwaii Museum and co-author of the Indigenous Repatriation Handbook. “And we shouldn’t really have to buy our things back.”
Ms. Collison said the museum has fostered close ties with private donors who can buy items at auction. But she said she would like to see the federal and provincial governments help address issues related to private artifact sales. “Why are we having to deal with that?” she said. “Canada could be figuring this out.”
The auctioneer, Waddington’s, said it strives to supply all available provenance information to potential buyers. In this case, the robe was being sold as part of a private estate based in Ontario. Waddington’s had inquiries from several buyers interested in buying the robe to donate it to unspecified groups. It’s unclear if any of those buyers were among the ones driving up the robe’s price.
Waddington’s president Duncan McLean said that during the auction the company was unaware of the robe’s connection to the Taku River Tlingit Nation. He noted that there were at least eight Chilkat weavings sold at auction in 2022.
Incomplete provenance is common among Indigenous works, said Ben Louter, a heritage archaeologist working for the Taku River Tlingit. Elders have told him stories of deceitful fur traders and gold-seekers who turned up after waves of smallpox and other epidemics to offer alcohol in return for priceless regalia. They would sell the items to dealers in bulk, withholding the provenance, making the goods tough to trace and even tougher to have returned.
“This is an international reconciliation issue for sure, and it is absurd that a tiny and remote nation like Taku River Tlingit should be forced to pay art collector prices for something that was almost certainly collected with a colonial trade advantage,” Mr. Louter said.
By the time the virtual auction hammer dropped on Lot 201, the final cost had hit $46,500, more than double estimates.
The winning buyer: Mr. Wright. He financed the purchase in part with gold – a nod to his Atlin gold-mining roots.
On Dec. 8, in a downtown Vancouver Holiday Inn, Mr. Carlick finally had a chance to lay eyes on the Chilkat robe. It was everything he had hoped for.
He still doesn’t know where all the money to pay back Mr. Wright will come from. A fundraiser organized by Mr. Louter on the online platform GoFundMe has generated almost $6,000.
Mr. Carlick is eager to get the robe home, where it will be welcomed with dances, songs and ceremonies. But he wishes it could have taken a different route.
“It hurts us to see precious artifacts from First Nation families being auctioned off,” he said.