Auction of Indian tribe carvings nets $703,000 for Lynden museum

LYNDEN - When a collector offered to pay the Lynden Pioneer Museum $200,000 for two bowls and a frontlet carved by Northwest Coast Indian tribes, Troy Luginbill figured that if the man was like most collectors, his offer was on the low side.

The museum's director was right about the offer for the pieces in its collection. When they were sold Dec. 14 as part of a larger auction of Native American Art in San Francisco, the three items went for $582,000.

They were among the 54 items from the Berthusen Native American Collection the museum board put up for auction.

Forty-two sold, netting a total of $703,000 for the museum - and providing a temporary reprieve from cuts in museum hours and layoffs that likely would have occurred at the end of the first quarter, Luginbill said.

Bids for the other 12 items were below the asking price so the San Francisco auction house, Bonhams & Butterfields, will put them up for sale again this summer. Luginbill hopes they'll sell for $27,000.

The December auction's proceeds, the last payment of which came to the museum this week, will be used to shore up reserves set aside to cover operating expenses.

Those reserves had been dwindling in the past eight years, going from $40,000 to just under $2,000, according to Luginbill.

The money will be used to build the reserve back up to $10,000 or $12,000.

The rest will go toward the goal of building a $3 million endowment fund, with the interest eventually providing half of the $150,000 annual operating expenses for the museum, Luginbill said.

"It does give us breathing room, only if people continue to support us. We can't lose the existing support that we have," he said.

The museum still must rely on its membership, Luginbill said, adding it also must raise $40,000 this year to meet the remainder of its budget.

"We continue to need help, even though we've got this money coming in," he said.

The items that the museum put up for auction make up about one-third of the Berthsuen collection, Luginbill said.

Olive Berthusen created the collection, and when she died in 1937 her property and the collection was left to the city of Lynden.

When the museum opened in 1976, the city donated the items.

"The museum has had them ever since," Luginbill said, adding that older residents of the city were likely familiar with the collection from its many years on display at the Lynden Library.

Museum officials put the pieces up for auction after having their value assessed, asking for community input about selling the objects, and considering their historical significance to Lynden.

For example, the items came from tribes in British Columbia, such as Haida, and Alaska, such as Tlingit, that Olive Berthusen may have gathered during her travels there. Or they came from native tribes in Iceland, Greenland or Nova Scotia that may have been picked up by her biological father on his trips there.

But other than being collected by a former Lynden resident, the items didn't have direct historical significance to the city, Luginbill said.

Before putting the pieces up for sale, he said the museum asked scholars to determine whether they could have come from graves. The museum would have returned them if they had, Luginbill said.

"These are all items that would have been daily-life goods," he said, adding that some were created for trade.

Those included the three items that generated excitement at the auction. Two were described as grease bowls, which were used to hold edible oil, that the Haida or Tlingit used circa 1750-1850.

The "eagle bowl," which is a foot-long oval container decorated with a stylized eagle's head and tail. It was carved from Sitka spruce. It was the most expensive item in the auction at its sale price of $230,000.

A 10-inch-long bowl carved in the likeness of a seal with head, tail and flippers that may have been carved from alder or maple. It sold for $206,000.

The Haida frontlet, which is seven inches tall and six inches wide. The head ornament shows a seated figure with raised hands and abalone insets for eyes and teeth. It sold for $146,000.


The Lynden Pioneer Museum is at 217 Front St.

Its hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. In March the hours will change to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Admission is $7 for adults; $4 for seniors and students; free for children 6 years old and younger.

Details: 354-3675 and lyndenpioneermuseum.com.