“Standing Male Figure, Ca. 1875” by an Unidentified Tlingit Artist

By: Palmer Jarvis

Lot 112 – Unidentified Tlingit Artist, Sheet’-ká X’áat’l (Baranof Island). STANDING MALE FIGURE, CA. 1875, wood, natural pigments; inscribed on base: “20738 / Sitka / Alaska / Swan”. 15 x 5.25 x 5.25 in — 38.1 x 13.3 x 13.3 cm. Estimate $7,000-$9,000

A number of male and female figures similar to dolls but exhibiting shamanistic characteristics were made by Tlingit in the 19th century. Contextual and stylistic elements of the figures suggest that they may have been the tools of Ixt’ (shaman), although some sources suggest they may have been dolls made to acquaint children with the appearance of Ixt’ so that they might be avoided. (1)

The present sculpture is one of a suite of eight Tlingit figures exhibiting shamanitic imagery collected on and around Sheet’-ká X’áat’l (Baranof Island) by James Gilchrist Swan (1818-1900) in 1875. Swan’s acquisitions of that year were made on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, for display the following year at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and to revert to the collection of the Smithsonian upon the close of the exhibition. (2) The present figure was deaccessioned in 1905 in an exchange with Baron L. Ambrozy of Vienna. The remaining seven figures continue to be held in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. (3)

Of the figures remaining in the Smithsonian, one figure, accession number NMNH 20737, appears to be carved by the same hand as the present sculpture. Nearly identical in scale and closely related in design, it depicts a female counterpart to the present male figure. Notably NMNH 20737 is portrayed grasping a land otter, a mythological creature closely associated with the otherworldly power of the Ixt’.

Objects with shamanistic imagery were both the subject of taboo, as well as commercial enterprise in the 19th century on the Northwest Coast. The comparative brightness, lack of oxidation, and wear on the figures held in the Smithsonian suggest that the present example might have been manufactured at the time of Swan’s 1875 acquisition. Swan’s well-documented preference for newly-made goods often resulted in objects being commissioned in the communities in which he collected. (4)


Held online from May 24-29, 2024, Waddington’s is pleased to present our major spring auction of exceptional Inuit & First Nations Art. Important artworks this season include works of sculpture and graphics by Karoo Ashevak, Jessie Oonark, Kiakshuk, John Pangnark, Pauta Saila, Aisa Qupirualu Alasua, Parr, Osuitok Ipeelee, Kiugak Ashoona, Joe Talirunili, John Kavik, Kenojuak Ashevak, Johnny Inukpuk, Thomas Ugjuk, Ennutsiak, Davidialuk Alasua Amittu, Beau Dick, Charlie James, David Ruben Piqtoukun, Abraham Apakark Anghik, Manasie Akpaliapik, Judas Ullulaq, Barnabus Arnasungaaq, and John Tiktak.

Previews will be available at our Toronto gallery, located at 275 King Street East, Second Floor, Toronto:

Thursday, May 23 from 10 am to 5 pm
Friday, May 24 from 10 am to 5 pm
Saturday, May 25 from 12 pm to 4 pm
Sunday, May 26 from 12 pm to 4 pm
Monday, May 27 from 10 am to 5 pm
Tuesday, May 28 from 10 am to 5 pm
Or by appointment.

Please contact us for more information

(1) Allen Wardwell, Tangible Visions: Northwest Coast Indian Shamanism and its Art (New York: Monacelli Press, 2009), 309.
(2) Douglas Cole, Captured Heritage, The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artefacts (Washington: University of Washington Press, 1985), 21.
(3) Smithsonian Institution, “Catalogue Numbers 20726-20750”, Vol. 5A (unpublished ledger), 37.
(4) Cole, Captured Heritage, 32.

Related Works:
National Museum of Natural History, Cat. No. NMNH 20737. http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/397c288be-21d3-4203-b0ee-3db8d581479f
National Museum of Natural History, Cat. No. NMNH 20735. http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/3ec644d61-0882-40c3-b8e6-3acab475219d
National Museum of Natural History, Cat. No. NMNH 20736. http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/39cf36dd2-8d1c-4ac7-a8c3-906fdd7008a0
National Museum of Natural History, Cat. No. NMNH 20739. http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/388c448c9-697c-4230-9442-a84790ad6baa
National Museum of Natural History, Cat. No. NMNH 20740. http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/3617f4223-2940-40c8-a423-5394a732c1b2
National Museum of Natural History, Cat. No. NMNH 20741. http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/327d4cae5-59dd-47dd-beab-c6f18d47a8f9
National Museum of Natural History, Cat. No. NMNH 20742. http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/3afae6acc-5c5e-4fd1-8e2b-15d62033a18e

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