To sell or not? A Seattle art dealer’s decade of obsession ends in bitterness and in court.

Anchorage Daily News ArchiveJuly 15, 2013 

Michael Johnson was a Seattle teenager with a passion for Northwest Coast art when he first saw photographs of the Whale House artifacts. The youngster was intrigued by the magical carvings that could be seen only in the pages of art books.

Twenty years later he was a dealer of Indian art. His business brought him to the southeast Alaska village of Klukwan, home of the Whale House and some of the most valuable Native art on the coast.

He didn't see the Whale House objects on his first trip. It was during a later visit that he paid caretaker Victor Hotch to take him inside. Johnson recalls that he gazed at the totems with their powerful images and vivid colors, the intricate Rain Wall screen and the fragile woodworm dish and pulled out a piece of paper.

“I wrote out the figure $100,000. A huge amount in those days. Boom, I did it out of instinct, “ he said. “I didn't say anything, I just wrote this out on a little piece of paper and put it in front of him. And I just knew instinctively, because there was no precedent for that kind of money at all.”

Hotch took the paper, but made no commitment.

That was the beginning of Johnson’s long quest to acquire the Whale House treasures. Over the years he would offer more and more money, often to competing factions, never giving up until the carvings were out of Klukwan. His crusade would eventually make him an enemy of the village.

It would also turn him away from the art that had been his obsession since childhood.

Johnson and his wife, Sharon, both 55, now live outside Santa Fe. He paints Southwest landscapes that sell in an upscale gallery in the center of town. She sells real estate. Their ranch home is decorated with Mission-style furniture and Southwest Indian pottery.

There are few remnants of their former passion. The most notable stands outside the front door a Haida-style totem that Johnson himself carved in the 1960s. He joked bitterly that it was fresh out of the Whale House. Inside are a few works by modern artists in the Northwest Coast style, like a bentwood box by a Seattle man.

But the couple said they can’t stand the sight of the storied old pieces they once coveted.

“I don’t care if I ever see another Indian artifact as long as I live, “ Sharon Johnson said. “It’s really sad, for something we loved so much to have become such a turnoff.”

LAST OF A LINE

The Johnson's’ attempts to take the Whale House carvings out of Klukwan were ultimately foiled by a village feud that was too powerful and deep for even the most adept operator. It had its roots in a turn-of-the-century skirmish that ended with the leadership of the Whale House wrested from one family and given to another.

George Shotridge, the family chief whose Tlingit name was Yeilgooxu (“Yel-goo-hu”), built a new Whale House and held a great potlatch about 1900, but his leadership was slipping. Through a truce, the small artifacts from the house passed to the Raven House, according to anthropologist Chuck Smythe.

When Shotridge died, the role of caretaker, or hitsaati, passed not to his brother but to Yeilxaak (“Yel-hawk”), leader of the Raven House. Yeilxaak died in the 1920s and little is known of the nephew appointed to succeed him. By all accounts, the once-great Whale House languished in those years, with no leadership and no building in which to hold potlatches and show respect to the elders.

Despite the furor created when early dealers tried to buy them, the magnificent totems and Rain Wall screen of the Whale House were left outdoors, under a tarp, unused for the ceremonies at which they once they had commanded such respect. A few adults recall that as children they climbed on the posts during recess at the nearby government school.

For 25 years, the treasures had no home. Then, in 1937, George Shotridge’s sister made plans to build a new house and erect the totems. Millie Shotridge DeHaven had moved to Haines and married a white man, showing little interest in Tlingit traditions. But when leaders of other houses in the Ganaxteidi clan met to talk about building a house for the artifacts, she took the lead. She, her daughter, and her brother, Edward, were the last of the true Whale House line.

Members of other Ganaxteidi houses, like the Raven House and the Valley House, contributed materials and labor. A clan member in Juneau sent the concrete for the floor and walls. Victor Hotch, a leading clan member, contributed roofing materials and took time off from the summer fishing season to help with the building. People from the opposite tribal side, the Eagles, helped, too, as required by Tlingit custom.

The Whale House was dedicated with a potlatch in 1938. The house posts and screen were placed inside the single room of poured concrete. It was not meant to be a dwelling and there was none of the character of the original long house, or even the tall, wood-frame clan houses elsewhere in Klukwan. But the artifacts would be safe from the fires that had devastated other houses.

It is generally believed that Millie DeHaven held the key and the position of caretaker of the Whale House until her death in 1944. Some accounts also refer to Ed Shotridge as caretaker before his death in 1943. Millie’s only child, Estelle DeHaven Johnson, left the village and Alaska at the age of 17.

A NEW CARETAKER IS CHOSEN

After her death, Millie’s body lay in state in the cement house as Ganaxteidi leaders gathered to select a new keeper, or hitsaati. They chose Victor Hotch.

He would lead the Whale House for the next 40 years, until his death. But today his house membership is disputed. His wife and son and other villagers say that Victor Hotch and his siblings were from Valley House, a less important Ganaxteidi House. But Victor’s brother and sister and her children and grandchildren maintained through the years they were from the Whale House.

Questions about hereditary membership in the Whale House would plague the clan for years and are still not resolved. When Michael Johnson began his campaign for the artifacts, he found that nothing was clear-cut.

Johnson first became fascinated with Native American art as a Boy Scout in Seattle. He met Bill Holm, the foremost authority on Northwest Coast Indian art, and they grew to be close friends. Johnson danced with Indian troupes in Washington state and received an Indian name.

At the University of Washington, he studied Northwest Coast art under Holm and Erna Gunther, another expert. In 1968, he and wife Sharon opened the Michael R. Johnson Gallery on South Main Street in Seattle. They began traveling to British Columbia and southeast Alaska in search of artifacts.

“Apparently I was the first dealer to go up there in many, many years and offer real high prices for things, “ he said. “I never pulled any punches about going up and paying what I felt was a fair price for material.”

Court records and Johnson’s own letters show that from the early ‘70s until 1984 he kept pressure on various Ganaxteidi elders to sell the Whale House carvings for large sums of money. Johnson said he was misled by people who falsely claimed ownership. But some villagers called him a hyena who identified the weakest clan members for his sales pitch.

His letters to the village paint a portrait of a man obsessed, who would make almost any claim or offer to secure the great carvings.

“This is an incredible long story you could start this 100 years ago of everybody acting in their own self-interest, “ he said in a December interview.

“I’m willing to admit that, because we were dealers, we were out there. I mean, we knew we had to be careful with what we did with this material. We weren’t going to find the biggest Japanese buyer we could find and move this stuff to Tokyo. We knew that was wrong. We knew the heritage situation and all that. We had a conscience. But of course we were out there to make money. That is what we were in business for.”

SALES MADE, SALES BROKEN

When Victor Hotch let him into the Whale House that first time, back in the early 1970s, Johnson recalled, the caretaker told him, “Don’t tell my son about this. Joe made me promise a long time ago that I won’t sell it.”

Joe Hotch remembers meeting Johnson at his father’s house once. Johnson wanted his father to sign an agreement to sell the Whale House objects. Hotch said he spoke to his father in Tlingit and urged him not to sign.

Under pressure from sister Mildred Sparks and Johnson on one side, and son Joe on the other, Victor Hotch would waver again and again over the years. He signed agreements to sell to Johnson, then signed a statement denouncing any sale. He accepted checks, then returned them.

Johnson swore in an affidavit that Victor Hotch sold him several ceremonial items, including a carved dance staff, blankets and dance costumes. A 19th-century beaded dance shirt that Hotch sold to Johnson now hangs in the Seattle Art Museum. At his Haines home, Hotch’s great-nephew has Victor’s dance staff or rather a replica, carved and signed by Michael Johnson.

The most eager to sell the Whale House treasures was Mildred Sparks, Victor’s sister. She told the Johnsons she wanted to preserve the artifacts, to see them in a great museum. And she told her family she didn't want other villagers to get their hands on them.

“Mildred once said to me, ‘If we felt like it we could take it and dump it in the Chilkat River and nobody could do a thing about it, ‘ “ Sharon Johnson said.

Mildred Sparks had left Klukwan for Haines, but remained active in village politics and clan activities. She served on the village council until it voted to exclude nonresidents from village membership. Relatives said she remained bitter about that for the rest of her life.

Before her death in 1984, she told her family that she did not want to be honored by the traditional funeral potlatches in the village. She was buried with a Western-style funeral in Haines.

“She put it that she would rather be buried by her white-man friends than her Indian enemies, “ her grandson, Bill Thomas, said in a deposition.

Sparks is credited with helping to launch the Chilkat Dancers, a group that performed widely and came to symbolize a renaissance in Tlingit culture. She was honored as Alaska Mother of the Year and served as a page for a Republican National Convention. The Juneau Empire ran a photograph of her with one of the Alaska delegates, future governor Wally Hickel.

Michael and Sharon Johnson became close friends with Mildred and her second husband, Bill Sparks. The couple frequently visited the Johnsons in Seattle, sometimes staying in their home. They shared an important goal: removing the artifacts from the Whale House.

PRESERVING FOR ALL TO SEE

“Mildred was a renaissance woman if I ever met one, “ Sharon Johnson said. “She wanted it to be appreciated by all people at all times. Mildred and Victor got frightened because the bottom of the (woodworm) dish rotted out. Mildred told me she waited 13 years for the state of Alaska to build a place for them. She said, ‘They won’t appreciate them unless we sell them.’ “

Another clan member, a Raven House leader named Martha Willard, also made a claim to the Whale House objects. For a while, the Johnsons included her in their negotiations.

By 1975, the Johnsons were starting to annoy some villagers. On May 27, Joe Hotch wrote to them to complain.

“I find it imperative to present my objection to your technique and tremendous dollar offers you present to gain possession of our tribal artifacts here in Klukwan.” He said that unscrupulous dealers offering cash had taken advantage of drunken Natives in the past.

“A thlinget (sic) selling It’s tribal artifacts is degrading It’s entire clan, much more the thlinget nation.”

In a letter dated only a day later, Michael Johnson wrote to the village, apparently attempting to cool a controversy that was brewing after his offers on the Whale House.

“It is time to discuss with you my activities concerning the Whale House at Klukwan, “ he began. On a previous visit to Klukwan, Victor Hotch and Mildred Sparks agreed to an offer “if all others concerned would approve, “ he wrote. “At no time did Victor Hotch or Mildred Sparks offer to sell to me the Whale House Carvings privately. All people involved in this know the Whale House is clan material.”

Victor had told him he wanted the carvings replaced, and others in the village privately agreed that artifacts should be preserved, he wrote.

“We are simply trying to collect the old things for future generations.”

He concluded by saying he would raise his offer on the Whale House.

Johnson, who later turned his letters over to village lawyers in the Whale House litigation, also wrote directly to Joe Hotch, explaining that his main interest was preservation and that many artifacts were in danger. In July, he made another offer to Victor “and the clan members at Klukwan.”

A REAL FAMILY CLAIM?

In a series of letters to Martha Willard through the end of that year, he offered her $500,000 for the Whale House artifacts and another $100,000 for objects he had seen in her home. The offers always included duplicate carvings of everything.

He wrote in September, offering $40,000 for a carved ceremonial hat called the “How-How, “ or dog helmet, which is seen in photos of the old Whale House. She eventually sold it to him and it is now in a private collection.

In his letters there is mention of flowers he sent for a grandson’s funeral and a holiday turkey. There is ongoing discussion of taking the woodworm dish to Seattle to be repaired by Bill Holm, the Northwest artist and scholar. Johnson offered $20,000 plus a new dish.

“I now know that you are the true and rightful person to claim the Whale House and that you have a will to prove it, “ Johnson told Willard in one letter. “I will make no more offers to Mildred Sparks.”

In March 1976, Victor signed an agreement to give the Johnsons the first option to buy the Whale House artifacts. The document was witnessed by two of his sons, Steve and Dick Hotch. Michael Johnson wrote him a check for $1,000, which Victor later sent back.

Johnson then replied: “I am returning the $1,000 check to you because this agreement only means that if we can ever get Martha Willard to sign a contract, then you will offer the Whale House to me first.

“The children of the future will know your name and thank you for your decision to save the Whale House. If Martha will not sign, the children of the future can blame her if the Whale House is lost.”

He wrote to Martha the same day, telling her that Victor, Mildred and their brother, Clarence, had agreed to the sale, but they wouldn't do anything without her signature because “they know your family claim is real.”

Then something happened that thwarted Johnson’s dealings. Members of another Ganaxteidi house group, the Frog House, sold their house posts, screen and some smaller artifacts to a Canadian dealer who quickly spirited them over the border. Not all of the Frog House members agreed to the sale and they promptly sued the sellers.

THE VILLAGE STEPS IN

Village leaders were moved to action. At a meeting on April 26, 1976, the villagers voted “never to sell our artifacts and to protect those within our possession, “ according to a telegram Joe Hotch, village council president, sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Meanwhile, the Johnsons learned from Martha Willard of the existence of yet another possible owner: Estelle DeHaven Johnson, the woman who left Alaska at 17. Mildred Sparks had never mentioned her to the Johnsons, although Sparks and Estelle Johnson had stayed in touch.

“We didn't understand how these relationships worked up there, “ Michael Johnson said. “Now we know that basically what happened was, this family did not consider (Estelle) to be part of the (Whale) House because she did not contribute to the upkeep.”

Sharon Johnson traveled to Arizona where Estelle was living. Estelle explained that she was the only child of Millie Shotridge and believed she was the heir to the Whale House. The Johnsons flew her and her husband to Seattle to meet with their attorney and she signed an agreement to sell the artifacts.

After the Frog House sale, the village hired Linn Asper, a former Alaska District Court judge with a law practice in Haines, to get back the artifacts. A week or so later, Asper was scheduled to obtain an affidavit from the trucker who had removed the Frog House objects.

“I called him, “ Asper testified recently. “He said, ‘I’d love to talk to you but I have to go to Klukwan. I’m taking another load of artifacts out.’

“I called Joe Hotch, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Forewarned that the Whale House artifacts were in jeopardy, villagers felled trees to block both entrances to Klukwan, and someone parked the village dump truck in the road. A group of youths started a fire to keep warm. The fire spread to the truck, which exploded and injured several of them. However, they succeeded in turning back the moving van, which had been hired by Michael Johnson.

That was May 11, 1976. According to a document the Johnsons recently produced, Victor Hotch signed an agreement to sell the Whale House artifacts to them on May 12. At 1 p.m. that day, the village council met to ratify the village vote of the previous month and formally adopt an ordinance to prevent the removal of artifacts. It is recorded in crude, handwritten minutes.

“Motion by Smith Katzeek to adopt village ordinance|resolution made retractive (sic) April 26, 1976.

“Second: Charles King

“remarks question

“motion carried.”

Later that year, Estelle sued Joe Hotch, Martha Willard and the village in federal court for interfering with her attempts to sell the artifacts. Michael Johnson financed the litigation.

“I wanted to sell them, yes, “ Estelle Johnson said in a recent interview at her home in Puyallup, Wash. “What good are they up there?”

SIRENS AND WACKENHUT

In 1977, one year after the first attempt, Michael Johnson again sent a truck to the village. A tiny woman who will turn 87 in May, Estelle recalled the second attempt to take the totems and wall screen out of the Whale House.

“Sharon and Mike paid me and my husband’s way up, “ she said. Mildred was supportive but stayed in Haines while Estelle went to Klukwan. She arrived with the movers early in the morning. They cut the lock on the Whale House and began to carry the totems out. But someone saw them and rang the village fire siren.

“They came down all the Indians in town, “ she recalled. “Gosh, they raised a dickens.”

The villagers succeeded in blocking the removal. Estelle returned to Haines empty-handed.

“I didn't talk to any of them, “ she said. “I just left town.”

Asper said he was amazed at Michael Johnson’s audacity.

“He was in federal court and at the same time he was trying to steal the Whale House artifacts.”

Victor Hotch, after his waverings, denounced the sale and had the artifacts returned to their places in the Whale House. He called for a potlatch there to celebrate.

Estelle’s lawsuit was dismissed in 1978 by U.S. District Court Judge James von der Heydt, who ruled that under established federal Indian law the village was a sovereign entity and could not be sued. He also recommended that the village establish a tribal court where future ownership disputes could be resolved.

Still, Michael Johnson didn't give up. He wrote to Estelle in July 1979 and said he had decided to spend no more time or money on the Whale House after September. He told her it was now up to her family to decide whether to go after the artifacts and “deliver them to us according to the terms of our contract.”

He hinted that he planned another raid on the Whale House, this time with hired Wackenhut guards.

“I regret that Wachenhut (sic) refused to cooperate and the plans had to be abandoned, “ Johnson wrote. “Their position, and ours as well, is that they cannot go after the artifacts or even enter the village if they have no rights there and do not have any ownership claims.”

Only a few days earlier he had written to lawyer Asper offering a settlement in which the Whale House artifacts would go into a village museum. But Asper complained that Johnson had scuttled a settlement by contacting the state and claiming he had a deal to buy the artifacts. His claims reached Klukwan and villagers were outraged.

Victor Hotch died in the summer of 1981. He was laid in state in the Whale House. As was customary, his valuables went to his brother, Clarence, and Mildred’s sons and grandsons. His wife, Annie, gathered the relatives in the cement house to distribute his belongings. Great-nephew Bill Thomas got his rifle, another nephew got his dance shirt. Victor had willed his 100 shares in Klukwan Inc., the village corporation, to brother Clarence.

JUST BUSINESS

Michael Johnson wasted no time in writing to the new hitsaati.

“The future of the Whale House is now in your hands, “ he told Clarence. “I know that you want to save the great old carvings so that future generations will be able to appreciate them, and so that your names will be remembered for saving them.”

He offered Clarence and Mildred $500,000 and a set of new carvings.

“Victor told me many times that he believed the old carvings should be saved. He knew what had to be done, but was not strong enough to do it, “ Johnson wrote.

The Johnsons still maintain that their activities in Klukwan were just business, no different from a real estate deal.

“I’ll be the first to say that I worked these people hard. I wanted to see this stuff out of there, “ Michael Johnson said.

“There were lots of other Native families from Alaska we were in contact with over the years, and five years later they would decide to sell something. . . . It was part of our business to be aggressive and go after material. If we didn't do that we wouldn't be in business.”

With the Whale House sale unconsummated, the Johnsons decided to wrap up their business and move to the Southwest. The supply of artifacts on the Northwest Coast was dwindling and the remaining objects were more closely held.

“I simply saw the end of dealing in early artifacts the way we used to deal in them museum-quality artifacts, “ Michael Johnson said. He also wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a painter, he said. They left Seattle in the fall of ‘83, moving first to Scottsdale, Ariz., and later to Santa Fe.

The Whale House, however, was not forgotten. Johnson had stayed in contact with the family, urging them to sell and reminding them that they had a contract with him, said Bill Thomas, a family spokesman. With Mildred’s health failing, the talks resumed. Some time in 1983, Mildred’s children, grandchildren and Clarence met and agreed to take the artifacts out of Klukwan. Their goal was preservation and fulfilling Mildred’s wishes, Thomas said.

On March 14, 1984, Michael Johnson wrote to Thomas and uncle Clarence Hotch. “Thanks, Bill, for your phone call last night, “ he began.

“I expect to come to Haines to meet with everyone April 23 or 24. We can discuss the contracts we already have as well as how to handle this thing in the future.

“If you decide to take the artifacts out before then, call me . . . and I will come right up.

“Be assured that I will get you the best price for it. We have always had that understanding.”


Original Print Run Date: 4/7/1993

 

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