140-year-old Chilkat blanket bought at auction to return to Atlin, BC

For the auction house, it is a « masterpiece of technical and aesthetic achievement ».

For Wayne Carlick of the Taku River Tlingit, it’s « part of a puzzle to help us heal » — and bringing him back to Atlin, BC, was key.

The elaborate, braided Chilkat blanket, estimated to date from the 1880s, was sold by prestigious auction house Waddington’s on Friday. And after a bidding war over the wire, Carlick had reason to celebrate.

The cover would go to Atlin – for $38,000.

« [It] gives our culture a much-needed boost,” said Carlick, a renowned carver and cultural coordinator for the Atlin-based Taku River Tlingit First Nation.

The cover had been kept in an unknown private collection in Ontario before being put up for auction. It could have easily been sold before anyone in Atlin knew about it, had it not been for Peter Wright.

Wright was born and raised in Atlin, BC, and now splits his time between the Yukon and BC. He is an avid collector of Ted Harrison art from the Yukon, so he regularly monitors bids from some of the top auction houses.

« That’s why I found this – I was looking for Ted Harrison! » says Wright.

When he saw the cover listed a few weeks ago, he immediately contacted Carlick who was « ecstatic » about the discovery. They started discussing how to buy it and get it to Atlin.

Waddington’s, the auction house, estimated a price of around $15,000 to $20,000.

Some fabrics added to the blanket date to the early 20th century, according to Waddington. The cover is in « good overall condition », according to the auction house. (from Waddington)

Wright agreed to broker the sale, and they set to work raising money. An online fundraiser raised nearly $2,000. The Taku River Tlingit also participated.

By Thursday — a day before the auction closed — bidding had topped $24,000. A day later it was over $30,000 and Wright found himself in a tense bidding war with someone else.

Wright said it was « super stressful » to take deals from afar with her phone.

« You press the bid button and there are two seconds left, you know. You don’t know if this guy is going to press it, you don’t know if your internet is fast enough. »

At the last minute, the price rose from $30,000 to $38,000 after a back and forth of offers and counter-offers, then – sold! To Peter Wright, for $38,000.

Wright doesn’t know who he’s bidding against in the end. He thinks it could be an art dealer or maybe another Tlingit First Nation.

Intricate weaving tradition

Chilkat Blankets (Naaxein in Tlingit) are « products of one of the most complex weaving traditions developed by people in the world », according to Waddington.

They are made with braided mountain goat wool and cedar bark, and dyes, with elaborate patterns. They were traditionally used in ceremonies, dances, “or draped in a display of wealth and prestige,” the auction house said.

Carlick described it as an important ceremonial piece that offers a direct connection to the spirit of his Tlingit ancestors.

« When people were in mourning and so on, they would take them out and put them on tables and so on and show them. And people remember these amazing works of art, » Carlick said.

taku kwaan dance leader wayne carlick
« I think a cover like this would do wonders for our people in so many different ways, » said Wayne Carlick, seen here in 2018 with the Taku Kwaan dancers. (Submitted by Wayne Carlick)

It is not known how this blanket ended up in a private collection in Ontario. But Wright is glad it’s gone.

« I’m pretty confident this thing is in Ontario and it’s a private collection that’s never been shown to the world, » he said.

« Now we’re bringing it back…that’s pretty cool. »

Carlick couldn’t be happier either. He said fundraising would continue, to help cover the cost of the purchase, as well as other expenses – auction fees, shipping, insurance and storage once in Atlin.

It is not yet clear where or how the blanket will be kept or displayed once it arrives. But Carlick is convinced he should be important in his community. It is another step in his community’s effort to recover and revive cultural traditions.

Traditional insignia, he says, are as vital to culture as language.

« They go to museums, the museum makes money from them, etc. But many or most of our people have never seen these pieces. They never come home, » he said.

« I think a blanket like this would do wonders for our people, in so many different ways. To just be able to take her home, hold the repatriation ceremony, call our ancestors and express the joy of having one of our rooms at home.”


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