Monday, December 20, 2010

The Darker Side of a Holiday Sale

I recently Google-searched for art museums in Nagaland to see if I could dig up more information about the three that we know about: The Nagaland State Museum in Kohima, the gallery of items in Mopungchuket, and the recently inaugurated WWII Museum in Kisema.
Rather than finding the museums I was looking for (only two of which have Internet presence at all), I found a slew of American, European, and Australian galleries that are selling Naga art. The prices? At the MB Abram Galleries, this pair of Naga bracelets, circa 19th century or before, were originally $6,600 but have been reduced to $4,950 for the holiday season.

This rare example of a late 19th century Naga headhunter shield, made by the Konyaks from Mithun hide, is on holiday special for $3,800 from its original price of $5,000. The gallery owner himself introduces the sale. He says the items have been vetted by independent experts and carry an unconditional guarantee of authenticity. He doesn't, however, note how the objects were obtained in the first place. Only, "We are confident that any of these art pieces would make a great Holiday gift."

These early 20th century (possibly earlier) coiled armlets, also from the Konyak tribe, are on sale for $700. Ironically, the gallery writes, "These were treasured signs of wealth and prestige amongst the Naga" as part of his sales pitch. I am doubtful that the Konyaks are receiving any portion of the sale. Something seems wrong when the vast majority of Naga people do not have the purchasing power to buy their own art back. The per capita annual income in 2008 for those living in Nagaland was 20,417 rupees. The price of these armlets is 31, 739.4 in Indian rupees and the price for the first set of bracelets is 223, 231, over ten times the annual income of the average Naga person living in that region.

This next Naga hunter Blow Dart Case, complete with bamboo tube, attached wicker basket, carrying strap, and a pair of wristlets were originally $2600 but marked down to $2000 for the holiday sale. "Payment may be made through Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, U.S. Check, Bank Transfer, Google Check-Out, or Paypal." After visiting such an incredibly beautiful and culturally rich region of the world, it is difficult to see such essential parts of Naga history being separated and shipped off to the walls of living rooms several continents away.

Perhaps this gallery owner is working with the support of the Naga people, though I'd be surprised. Even in the case that each of the pieces has been been imported fairly and legally and ethically and the gallery owner has good intentions and is just doing his best to make the rent, it is still sad to see so many sold stickers underneath the objects that could be part of Nagaland's own museums. I am certainly not against the sale of antiques in general. In this particular case, however, when the Naga people have had such a disadvantage in protecting their heritage and, in this specific time period, when they are making such efforts to recall and document it, it only seems natural that we should be helping and not hindering the process.

This is why, on the ride home from the Hornbill Festival, I had an uneasy feeling when I thought of the two necklaces that I had bought for our own living room wall. I bought many holiday gifts for friends and family, but they were all undoubtedly contemporary pieces made by living Naga people for the non-sentimental purpose of sale. The ones that I bought for myself, however, describe the slippery slope:

While I am certainly not a historian or an expert in determining the age or authenticity of artifacts, I have 131% confidence that the first necklace (seen above) is a recent reproduction of the headhunting necklaces that men used to wear as a trophy for each head they brought home (one brass head per real head). The rope is new; the beads are clean and unscratched; the metal is shiny; it was one of many similar (though delightfully never the same) necklaces spread over a handful of stalls. Since I only spoke one phrase in Nagamese ("How are you?") and Mele was back at the Morung eating pork Anishi and drinking rice beer with Brian, I payed exactly what the woman told me to pay without a question asked.

I then saw this next necklace later in the day and immediately loved it. The beads were uneven, the rope was worn to shreds, the head showed the horned earrings that Angh was wearing when we met him (see previous post on the Hornbill Festival). The stall was unlike the others in that there were no piles of anything at all. Mele told us to disappear so that he could dispute the price in Nagamese without the seller knowing that he was buying it for a foreigner (side note: there aren't any foreigners--at least western foreigners despite what the website says). Mele came back without the necklace, saying that the woman wouldn't budge on the price so he didn't get it.

We asked him if he would go back to the stall again and buy it even if the seller didn't lower the price. He left us, but he didn't come back. When Brian went to see what had happened, Mele was searching through surrounding stalls for newer, less expensive ones. In the end, Mele reluctantly bought it for us at the exact price that the woman first named. She explained that the necklace is over 80 years old and that it's an original. When we asked Mele about the provenance of the object and if it he thought that it was problematic that we bought it, he flatly said no. The fact that Vikhor, a young Naga artist and now friend, bought an item, too, was reassuring through a convenient albeit entirely flawed line of logic.

In the case that this necklace is worth more (in monetary or cultural terms) than we had considered at the time, should I accuse myself in the same way that I accuse the gallery owner? Does it make a difference that we bought it in 2010, when the movement to preserve their culture is strong rather than in 1850 or even 1980, when the Naga people may have been less prepared for global intrusion? Does it make a difference that we bought the necklace at the price the woman asked for in the context of a kiosk at the Hornbill Festival? Does it make a difference that we did not buy it for resale? Does it make a difference that we were actually there?

I just Googled "Headhunter necklace" to look for new information regarding the history of the particular necklaces that I am writing about. The first thing that popped up was "Shopping results for headhunter necklace". The second hit said, "Nagaland Headhunter's Necklace with Three Heads (item #919284)". Ugh. I hope that Mele is right.


  1. Dear Heather, now addressing you Naga-style by your first name although I am a stranger, I appreciate your concerns about Naga art objects being separated from them and sold as collectors' items or holiday gifts across the world. I am deeply pained to realize that it is happening. I have heard faint voices from my own people about being robbed of our heritage. I am sure collectors are not doing it behind our back, stealthily. But what they do is equally wrong; they exploit poor ignorant villagers to part with these art objects and historical artifacts for measly sum of money, all because such measly sum means a lot to those villagers living as they do in extreme economic deprivation. As for your experience during the Hornbill festival, I am glad that you got your gift items for a good price. You bought from places where they are kept for sale, under the gaze of Nagas themselves. That makes a lot of difference. Loved seeing your blog.

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