Are all Replicas Identical?

The plains and woodland indian replica markets are quite disorganized nowadays. There are quite a lot of makers, but their skill levels vary widely. This can be confusing for most customers and hard to evaluate, as there are no agreed standards for how fine replicas should be made, much less how they might be fairly priced.

Very often paradoxes occur, when a fine replica sells for a low price, as nobody has standards by which to judge it’s quality. On the other hand, many poorly made replicas are overpriced, because many customers automatically equate higher prices with higher quality.

This article is written for those who care to dig deeper into this problem. Here are some things to consider.

Plains Indians War Bonnets comparsion.
Plains Indians War Bonnets comparsion.

Period and tribal authenticity

All period indian artifacts were following limited period and tribal patterns. Each tribe developed it’s specific fashion over the course of time. It depended on tribal easthetics, external cultural influences and the availability of material sources. For example, seed beads were not availale prior to 1840 on the Plains and bone hairpipes not until 1870, and so on…

With existing originals it is quite easy to determine, based on its attributes, during which period they were made, as well as their tribal origin.

Cheyenne two piece moccasins with distinctive pattern, cca 1870. BBHC.
Cheyenne two piece moccasins with distinctive pattern, cca 1870. BBHC.
Blackfeet warshirt, cca 1870. NMNH.
Blackfeet warshirt, cca 1870. NMNH.

Fine replica makers are aware of those patterns, knowing, respecting and following them. Usualy they own extensive databases of original artifacts, as well as pictures from museums and private collections and thus can work with them efficiently. It’s not always necessary to copy originals, a maker may create their own designs, but they must always fit those appropriate tribal and period patterns.

Ufortunately there are few such makers. The majority do not know those patterns sufficiently, nor understand and follow them. They mix various tribal styles with diverse periods, often engaging their own fantasy. As a result they produce artefacts that make no historical, ethnological or artistical sense.

Crow/Plateau transmontane otter fur quiver. NMAI.
Distinctive transmonane design, typical for Crow/Plateau people. Crow/Plateau quiver, cca 1870, NMAI
Cheyenne cradle with typical pattern. Each design element has it's own meaning. Heritage auctions.
Cheyenne cradle with typical pattern. Each design element has it's own meaning. Heritage auctions.

Material authenticity

Poor tribal period and pattern awareness goes hand in hand with the use of non authentic materials. Average replica makers use rather cheap substitutes, either to save money or because they fail to understand much about material authenticity

Good makers try to get as close as possible to the original materials used by both plains and woodland indians during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Hides

Many makers already learned to use brain-tanned hides and only a few still use commercially tanned hides. However few people know that there are distinctions even among braintanned hides. Not only in quality, but in processing method as well, which will be noticeable in its texture. This is all important and will affect the final product.

Beads

It is very difficult to get beads nowadays that are close to their 19th century originals. Most makers use modern beads, that are either too rounded or their color does not replicate the old, period shades. Bead authenticity reveals whether or not it is a good replica.

Historic beadwork authenticity comparsion.

Quills

It is not easy to dye quills to match those of the 19th century. One must have an good eye and observation talent, examine lots of originals and experiment with dyes to achieve the proper shades. Average quillworkers accept almost any shades, but they are usualy far too radiant when compared to the originals.

Comparsion of old, 19th century and contemporary quillwork.
Comparsion of old, 19th century and contemporary quillwork.

Trade-cloth

Ordinary makers get any fabric that can be easily found. Good enough, if it is blue or red. Fine makers go to any effort to get vintage cloth that that is close to the warp, weight and dimension of period originals. They dye them by hand and then, to further achieve period shades. Dying cloth with white, undyed salvage is somewhat of an of art in itself.

Red tradecloth with white saved and undyed list edge. Comparsion of an original and reproduction.
Red tradecloth with white saved and undyed list edge. Comparsion of an original and reproduction.

Hawk bells, brass tacks, shells and other materials

There is a similar situation with other materials, such as hawk bells, brass tacks, shells, and others. While good makers/artists invest vast amounts of effort to obtain as authentic materials as possible, the average makers opt for goods that are easily accessible, usualy for a low price and entirely non-authentic.

Square shank brass tacks comparsion. Originals are on the left and contemporary reproductions on the right.
Square shank brass tacks comparsion. Originals are on the left and contemporary reproductions on the right.

Proportions

Period indian artifacts have distinctive proportions, often rather slim, narrow and long, rather than thick and short. It is in the nature of the native aesthetic feeling. Not many makers have a good sense for these proportions. Poor replicas are recognizable at first glance based on heavyset outlines, inaccurate dimensions or incorrect aspect ratios.

For example: a large portion of plains pipebags taper visibly upwards, but most of the replica makers opt to make them rectangular, as they lack enough expertise to be aware of this design element.

Arapaho pipebag. British museum.
Original Arapaho pipebag, British museum, London. Notice the tapering.

Design

Design itself is very important. Even if the replica is period and historicaly correct and produced with authentic materials, its design can be weak or imbalanced. Or conversely, the design can be too expressive and fussy. Even among indian originals, there are items with excellent, average and poor designs.

The ideal replica is not only authentic, but also exhibits a well ballanced design. This depends primarily upon aesthetic understanding of its maker.

Crow war bonnet made of real golden eagle feathers reproduction made by author.
Crow war bonnet made of real golden eagle feathers reproduction made by author.
Crow/Plateau transmontane knife sheath reproduction made by author.
Crow/Plateau transmontane knife sheath reproduction made by author.

Look and touch

Some replicas can be quite authentic, with a good design, but they still look somehow sterile, as if they were produced by a machine. Authentic period indian artifacts never look sterile. They always have a distinctively natural human touch (certain design and technical irregularities).

For poor and average replica makers, technical and strerile attitude is commonplace. Non authentic replicas are usualy always sterile, but the sterile touch can be found even among those makers, who try to create authentic replications. The natural look and touch is the mark of an excellent artist.

Crow holster reproduction detail by author.
Crow holster reproduction detail by author.

Patina

It is always proper to patinate a new replica to give it the feel and traces of use and age, so it does not stand out by its novelty. Nevertheless it is a necessary to apply this patina to the least extent possible. Many replica makers apply too much dirt to their products, as a cover for its sterillity and lack of authenticity. Fine artists use patina with the lightest touch, so that replica appears absolutely natural.

Patina comparsion.
Patina comparsion.

Summary

Average maker Fine maker
Period and tribal authenticity Does not know or respect period and tribal patterns, mixes various inappropriate styles and engages in his own fantasy. Knows and follows periods and tribal styles and his own invention fully respects those styles.
Materials Uses non-authentic materials. Knows and uses only authentic materials.
Hides Cannot distinguish between various types of brain-tanned hides (wetscraped, dryscraped, etc.) or may even use commercially tanned hides. Distinguishes between these various kinds of brain-tanned hides and, for certain projects, uses only authentic kinds of hides.
Thread Uses artificial sinew or thread. Works with genuine sinew, uses linen thread only where it was originally used (such as tacking thread for example).
Beads Uses modern, non authentic beads or poor replicas, inauthentic colors, too rounded and even bead shapes. Uses mostly antique or vintage beads, or their accurate reproductions.
Quill May use bright, shiny, non authentic colors Replicates old, 'faded‘ colors for quills.
Other materials Uses any cheap materials he can find easily and quickly. Uses the best materials available, considering every detail.
Proportions May incorporate incorrect dimensions and aspect ratios, heavyset outlines and fail to respect the original proportions. Assures dimensions and aspect ratios, slim outlines and accurately respects the original proportions.
Design May produce a dull or undistinctive design, with poor aesthetic qualities. Always produce a well ballanced, fine and authentic design.
Look and touch His works look sterile and technical, rough or slippery to the touch. Aims for the most natural look and touch.
Patina Either errs foro patina at all, or too heavily applied patina. Opts for the slight and artistically applied aging.