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Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction
The Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction
Once each month, Navajo weavers from all over the Southwest converge on a small rural New Mexico town to sell their decorative rugs by way of an auction. It is an opportunity for buyers from all over the country to purchase directly from the Navajo weavers. The auction is run by the weavers themselves in the form of the Crownpoint Rug Weavers Association and it is the primary rug auction for contemporary Navajo rugs. An extraordinary experience to attend, the world famous Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction is the premier venue for the purchasing of authentic contemporary Navajo rugs at auction.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with Navajo rugs, they are flatwoven rugs made somewhat like Mideastern (Oriental) Kilims but are woven on an upright loom using weft faced tapestry weave. One unique characteristic about a Navajo rug is that the foundation warp thread turns back at the top and bottom continuously so the exact length of the rug is therefore predetermined. The weaver needs to have great skill for her design to be finished when she reaches end of the rug. In the entire world there are no other weavings made in such a way. Most rugs are rectangular in shape and can range in size from 12 by 18 inches to 12 by 18 feet. The rugs offered at the Crownpoint auction are typically 3’ x 5’ to 5’ x 8’ although there can, on occasion, be some as large as 9’ x 12’. Many of the rugs are created as artwork to be hung on walls but there are many large rugs that are made to be used as floor covering. The variety and combination of designs and coloring is truly awe-inspiring and shows that the art of rug weaving is thriving. As auction manager Christina Ellsworth says, “Some people say that weaving is a dying art but I don’t think so. There are a lot of young girls and teenagers taking up weaving to pay for school expenses. We get a lot of rugs in the fall before school starts.” All the beautiful, high quality rugs at the Crownpoint Rug Auction demonstrate that there is a bright future for the art of Navajo rug weaving.
According to Ms. Ellsworth, the Crownpoint Rug Auction was started in 1968 (possibly 1965) by a local Indian trader named Lavonne Palmer who operated Palmer Merchantile Company along with her husband, Bill. Mrs. Palmer recognized the problem of an oversupply rugs for her market and was concerned that the weavers were not finding enough buyers. She devised a plan to auction the rugs directly from the weaver to the buyer. In order to get things going, she donated many rugs to the cause. The first auction was a mild success with subsequent auctions gaining in notoriety and popularity. Within two years, auctions were being held once a month.
The rug auction is held in the elementary school in Crownpoint, New Mexico, a rural community situated in the northeastern quadrant of McKinley County, 43 miles geographically northeast of Gallup (about 57 miles by car). Crownpoint has a population of about 3,000 and is the location of the administrative seat of the Nation’s Eastern Agency. It derives its name from the striking mountain rock formations nearby. The town is located in a large region known as the “Checkerboard” where there are at least eight land ownership categories due to the various land exchanges, assignments, allotments and purchases by the Navajo tribe and by individual tribal members and others. Although occupied almost exclusively by Navajo people, it is not technically part of the Navajo reservation but it still falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A nicely paved north-south State Highway 371 connects Crownpoint with Thoreau, about 24 miles to the south at Interstate 40.
Held in the school gymnasium usually on the second Friday of each month, the auction can best be described as energetic. Rug viewing begins at 4:00 PM and ends at 6:30 PM allowing the many prospective buyers to examine the rugs prior to the auction at 7:00 PM. The time in between is for the staff to organize and arrange the rugs before the auction begins. During the viewing, potential bidders can meet and talk with the actual weavers of the rugs. Navajo weavers come from all over the reservation to auction their rugs at Crownpoint. It is typical for rug weavers to come from Teec Nos Pos, Gallup, Pinon, Round Rock, Chinle, Window Rock and even as far away as Coal Mine Mesa or Tuba City.
For those prospective buyers traveling north from I-40 at Thoreau, take Route 371 North and make a left turn at the sign for Crownpoint. Turn right at the second four-way stop and you will find the Elementary School on the right-hand (east) side of the street. There are few street signs but Crownpoint is a small town so if you get lost, just drive around and you will find the school.
Due to necessary stops at Two Grey Hills and Crystal, New Mexico, our recent journey to the Crownpoint auction was from the north on highway 666 (really!) to highway BIA-9 east to Crownpoint. We hoped to arrive before six o’clock but neglected the time difference from our home state of Arizona to New Mexico time and arrived just in time for the start of the auction. There appeared to be about 250 non-Indian spectators seated in folding chairs on the gym floor. Because most in the audience were couples, some with older children, there were only 98 actual bidding numbers issued. A show of hands at the beginning of the auction indicated that almost all bidders were there for the first time. There did not appear to be any “Indian Arts dealers.” Crowding the back of the basketball court and out the back door, the Navajo weavers who created the rugs follow the auction intently. This night there were 331 lots offered which is about 1/3 more that usual. One can do the math to speculate that there were to be quite a number of unsold rugs.
Aside from the summer thunderstorms eliminating the outside food stands and the high temperature and humidity within the gymnasium, the night started out well with the first lot starting at $800 and selling at $1700.00. As the night went on, many of the rugs were not selling. Sometimes the weaver had placed a minimum reserve on the rug that may have been too high or sometimes no buyer was in attendance that would have been attracted to a particular rug. With more rugs than buyers, some rugs would have to go unsold. As it turned out, 97 of the 331 rugs did not sell and that is not a great success rate.
If a rug does not sell, oftentimes the weaver will show it to traders and Indian Arts dealers in Gallup the next day. It is important for the rug to sell because the money it generates can be extremely important to the financial welfare of the weaver’s family. What a Navajo weaver earns from the sale of her rug may have to support her family for long time.
The Navajo weaver pays a 15% fee upon the successful sale of her rug at the auction. The fee pays for the auctioneer and helpers and leaves an amount for the Association to keep operating. While this commission may seem to be a reasonable amount to charge the weavers, it should be noted that the Association's costs are very low because it spends nothing on marketing. The fee charged is on par with conventional auction companies that provide more benefits to the sellers. The Crownpoint Auction does not pay for advertising or produce a catalog as other auctions might. A weaver that produces a thousand dollar rug only receives $850.00. There are no other fees and there is no buyers’ premium charged. Crownpoint is not on the reservation but is located in the Checkerboard area so the Navajo Nation does not charge sales tax. The State of New Mexico seems to have overlooked charging sales tax as well so, as of this writing, no sales tax is charged to the high bidder. On one hand it is nice to avoid feeding the ever-voracious taxing authorities but, on the other hand, everyone else has to pay sales tax so why shouldn't the auction?
It appears to be clean auction in that there are no shills, or trickery from the auctioneer and no bidding pools. The arrangement is good for both buyer and seller. Because of the minimal costs of marketing and selling, a buyer is sometimes able to purchase a rug at a substantial savings, perhaps even an amount close to what a dealer might ordinarily pay. It should be kept in mind however that, while the Crownpoint auction is unique in some ways, it is much like any other auction. It is an auction, after all, and the rug you bought is yours even if it is imperfect, defective, ugly or you later decide that you do not want it. Just like any other auction, one should bid wisely. The advantage for the weaver is that, if the rug sells, she may get more money than she would by traveling to the various Indian arts stores (many not so reputable) and getting her price beat down by desperation.
The Crownpoint Auction has its negatives however… The auction is usually (not always) run on the third Friday of each month. To say the least, Friday is an inconvenient night to hold an auction that is 113 miles from the closest major city, Albuquerque. It would be nearly impossible for someone working until 4:00 or 5:00 pm to drive the required distance and make it to the auction in any reasonable time. Someone living in Phoenix, 309 miles away, can’t make it at all. Only people that can take the afternoon or day off or are on vacation can attend the auction. When asked why Friday, Ms. Ellsworth said, “It has always been that way.”
Another problem is that there simply is not enough room in the elementary school for the bidders. The stuffed gym has reached its capacity and cannot hold many more customers, particularly when some seats are occupied by the sellers. In the hot summer, the lack of adequate air conditioning certainly makes buying a lot less pleasant. On top of all that, there are no lodging accommodations in Crownpoint. The closest hotels are in Grants or Gallup, about 60 miles either way. If a buyer stays for that last rug at the auction’s end, it can be midnight before reaching the hotel. All of these things work to the detriment of the auction and the weavers.
These issues may play a factor in that there have been challenges from competing rug auctions. The Gallup Inter-tribal Ceremonial organization attempted monthly auctions and the Hubbell Trading Post holds Indian arts auctions as well. While these efforts may be good for the future of the art, it may not be beneficial for the main Crownpoint auction. Obviously the Crownpoint Rug Weavers Association cannot solve the lodging problem itself but it could move the auction to Saturday night and perhaps hold it at the high school when there are no other events scheduled. The larger venue could accommodate increased numbers of bidders that may arrive from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Flagstaff, Phoenix and even Tucson who cannot attend now because of the Friday night scheduling.
While the 36 year old Crownpoint Auction may have its imperfections, the advantages it offers cannot be denied. The fact that it is a clean, honest auction and that the most of the money goes directly to the artisan weavers is compelling enough. The long-standing tradition makes it the foremost auction of contemporary Navajo rugs in the country. It is clear that the Crownpoint Rug Auction is an inviting destination for anyone interested in purchasing beautiful new Navajo rugs at auction.
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