Southeast Alaska cultural group buys Chilkat robe that showed up on eBay

A retired artist in Texas has sold a very old Chilkat robe to Alaska's Sealaska Heritage Institute at a significant discount and a significant sacrifice to himself. George Blucker, who has owned the robe since the 1980s, told Alaska Dispatch News he was motivated to let the Southeast Alaska cultural group buy the piece at a reduced price "out of respect for Native American traditions and religion."

Blucker, who studied art in Chicago and has a master's degree in the fine arts, said he spotted the robe spread on top of a Volkswagen Microbus at an open-air flea market in southern Illinois.

"I knew what it was," he said. "I had studied tribal art. But I thought it must be some sort of a reproduction." On closer examination, however, he realized it was authentic. "I almost dropped my teeth," he said.

The dealer told him he had got it from a "picker" who acquired it at an estate sale. "It was up in the attic. Apparently either the grandfather or the great-grandfather had gone to the Klondike. He didn't find any gold, but he did come back with this."

"It was damaged up along the back," Blucker said. "Missing some pieces. But certainly restorable if you had a Native weaver who knew what they were doing." He suspected the robe was probably damaged at the time the gold-seeker acquired it, which would suggest it predated the Gold Rush by many years. His rough estimate is that it dates from the middle of the 19th century.

"I talked to the dealer and he gave me a price that was nothing like what it's worth today," Blucker said. "I could barely afford it, but I bought it right away."

The robe languished out of sight after that. "I didn't want to just hang it," Blucker said. "I didn't want to stress the fibers or cause any more damage. I always intended to display it, but the cost of restoration was out of my range. I kept thinking, maybe next year."

This month Blucker reluctantly decided to part with the robe "to make ends meet." He posted 10 pictures of it on the Internet auction site, eBay. He'd used the site before but this was the most expensive item he'd ever put up for bid. In very good condition it might have fetched $50,000 or more, he said. In a press release, SHI noted that similar robes, also known as "blankets," have sold for $30,000. Blucker posted it with a reserve price of half that much, $14,500.

Heritage institute personnel spotted the eBay listing on Monday, and quickly took action. From the frayed edges they deduced it could have been a funerary object, attached to a plank set above a grave site. So in addition to being a work of art, it also had spiritual significance. The institute's press release described it as "sacred."

The institute raised the money from donors to meet the reserve price of $14,500 and contacted Blucker, imploring him to immediately end the auction. By that point the bids had reached $10,000. One had come in at $20,000 but was withdrawn. On eBay, however, top offers often come in seconds before the auction closes. It seemed likely to all parties that the ultimate bid would be substantially more.

After hearing from the institute, Blucker agreed to sell it for the reserve price and closed down the auction two days earlier than scheduled. People prepared to pay a lot more at the last minute were furious and shot off angry emails to him. "The (Sealaska Heritage Institute) press release used the word 'peeved,'" he said. "But I can tell you, they were really pissed off."

SHI described the 5-foot-wide robe as a Tlingit raven design, not clearly associated with a particular clan or community. The term "Chilkat blanket" stems from the number of fine weavings done in the area of Klukwan, near Haines, though the style was copied throughout the Pacific Northwest. They were typically worn on important occasions or used to cover objects, not as bedding.

The robe is expected to arrive in Juneau next week and will be placed in storage at the Walter Soboleff Cultural Center. The new building, which opened in May, is equipped with high-tech climate controlled spaces that will help preserve the material.

"They'll put it in storage laying flat and won't do anything to it for a while," Blucker said. But it will get close inspection by conservators and Tlingit weavers, ironically made possible because of the damage.

"The fraying has made the weft and warp visible, which will allow artists to examine the materials and technique the weaver used," said the institute, which plans to convene a group of weavers to study the robe.

Providing a look at the inner base weaving is important for understanding how the robes were made, Blucker said. "I'm a fan of Native American weaving, but most of it is a flat weave. (Chilkat robes) are complex and use a lot of material. They're fantastic, a tour de force of the weaver's art."

Blucker now resides near San Antonio, Texas, living on Social Security and a small pension earned by his late wife. He could have used the extra money that a higher bid would have brought, but was moved by the SHI's plea and the care its personnel intended to give the piece once they had it in hand. "I've been interested in Pacific Northwest Native art all my adult life," he said. "I just thought I should put it where it should go."

SHI President Rosita Worl called Blucker's decision, "a noble act of kindness."

"This is unheard of," she said in the press release. "It is remarkable that a seller would take a loss to do the right thing."

Blucker, who made a living doing mostly murals and decorative art, has never been to Alaska. He sounded comfortable with the choice he'd made, despite what it's cost him. "I'd rather see it go where it's going than into another collection somewhere," he said.