Mike Overby, an organizer of the annual Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, said the shirt that sold in Reno is considered to be one of the most important Native American artifacts to ever come to auction. It had been expected to bring from $800,000 to $1.2 million at auction, he said.
“Anything associated with Chief Joseph is highly desirable, and that’s a pretty special shirt,” he told The Associated Press.
Chief Joseph wore the shirt in 1877 in the earliest known photo of him, and again while posing for a portrait by Cyrenius Hall in 1878. That painting, which was used for a U.S. postage stamp, hangs in the Smithsonian.
The poncho-style war shirt was made of two soft skins, likely deerskin. It features beadwork with bold geometric designs and bright colors. Warriors kept such prestigious garments clean in a saddle bag on their horse or carefully stored while in camp, to be worn only on special occasions, American Indian scholar Theodore Brasser noted.
The shirt surfaced at an Indian relic show in the 1990s and was sold without any knowledge of its link to the photo and portrait. It changed hands again before the connection was discovered.
Its quality makes it desirable for collectors, but it’s the “surprising discovery of the shirt’s role in history that reveals its true importance,” said Brasser, a former curator of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands, and at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.
The photo and portrait showing the war shirt were made shortly after Chief Joseph led 750 Nez Perce tribal members on an epic 1,700-mile journey from Oregon to Montana in an unsuccessful bid to reach Canada and avoid being confined to a reservation. They were forced to surrender in 1877 after U.S. troops stopped them about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.
In a famous speech made after the surrender, Chief Joseph said: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
The shirt’s sale involved private collectors. “It was a wild-card piece. We’re real happy where it ended up,” Overby said.
Despite its price, it was not the top-selling piece at the auction. The painting “Scout’s Report,” by Howard Terpning, went for $994,500, followed by $965,250 for “Cowboys Roping the Bear” by Frank Tenny Johnson.
Some 400 bidders took part in what’s billed as the world’s largest Western art sale. About 300 works were sold for a total of $17.2 million, up from $16.9 million last year and $9.2 million the year before.