The Royal Alberta Museum outbid collectors from around the world yesterday to bring dozens of pieces of Western Canadian aboriginal history home from Scotland where they had languished in a castle for almost 150 years.
The Edmonton museum spent about $1.1-million to capture 29 of the 39 lots -- including $497,600 (U.S.) for a prized beaded hide dress -- owned by James Carnegie, the ninth Earl of Southesk, whose descendants put them on the auction block at Sotheby's in New York.
"At the end of the day, it's not about money," said museum director Bruce McGillivray. "People will marvel that these are not examples of, these are the real thing. That is what's so exciting."
"Euphoric" and "exhilarating" is also how museum staff described the institution's venture into high-pressured bidding for items they have had their eyes on for years. The Canadian Museum of Civilization had even warned officials that they may end up with nothing, based on a past experience that institution had at auction.
"Our curators are walking on air right about now," said museum spokesman Todd Crawshaw.
The Sotheby's sale, which brought in more than $4.5-million, higher than the $2.9-million to $3.9-million the venerable auction house expected through the sale of more than 200 items, is described as "the most historically significant group of American Indian art ever to be offered at auction."
Items connected to the earl's visit to Canada in 1859, were among the most highly valued and in many cases fetched more than double their estimated worth. The beaded dress of a Blood Indian acquired by the museum was initially thought to be worth $225,000.
The museum also acquired a knife and beaded hide sheath of Assiniboine origin and from Fort Edmonton, which was thought to be worth $40,000, but instead went for $78,000. The institution also grabbed a colourful beaded Cree cloth "octopus bag" that had a pre-auction value of $12,000, but instead sold for $69,000.
It spent another $3,900 on a fringed moose leather rifle case, which is believed to be the same item Mr. Carnegie is holding in the famous photograph from his journey through the Canadian Prairies and Rocky Mountains.
The Royal Alberta Museum, which embarked on an ambitious fundraising campaign when it learned of the auction less than two weeks ago, hoped to buy the earl's entire collection, but winced at the prices of some items.
The man's quilled and beaded hide shirt of Blackfoot origin had an estimated value of $550,000, but went for $800,000 becoming the most expensive item on the auction block. The $800,000 set a record for an "American Indian" art object sold at auction and was acquired by an unnamed private collector.
"We kind of assumed that that piece would go for an astronomical amount of money and it did. Had we pursued that, we couldn't have acquired many of the others," said Mr. McGillivray.
The Royal Alberta Museum, which cobbled together the cash from its own budget as well as from Ottawa and the province, had worried the items would be dispersed among collectors and institutions.
That also concerned the Minneapolis-based American Indian Movement, which had described the Sotheby's sale of native artifacts as similar to the Nazi theft of property from Jewish families during the Holocaust. It hoped to block the auction, but will now look at its options for preventing future sales and at how to bring artifacts stolen or acquired at cut-rate prices back to the first nations, according to Vernon Bellecourt, director of the group's council on foreign affairs.
"These private collections, they bring in a lot of money. It's a multibillion-dollar trade that goes on worldwide in so-called Indian artifacts," Mr. Bellecourt said.
Mr. Carnegie travelled across the Prairies and the Rockies after his wife had died and to prop up his own failing health. He collected gifts and made purchases of native art and clothing, and kept a detailed journal of his experiences, which was later published with the title Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains.
The Royal Alberta Museum had the support of aboriginal and Métis leaders from across Canada in making its bids.