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Trash or Treasure: Native American pottery broke with tradition

The provenance doesn’t get any better. “My wife’s uncle worked for the government and traveled the country working with different Native American tribes,” Nils Johansson explained to Brian Thomczek during a recent Trash or Treasure event held at the Michigan Design Center. “When he died we ended up with all of this.”

Included in the impressive grouping of Native American pottery he brought in are works by sought-after potter Maria Martinez, who worked with her painter husband, Julian. According to the Smithsonian ( “Maria formed and polished the elegant vessels and Julian applied the painted decoration. Although they occasionally created vessels with colored designs, the couple gained an international reputation for their work with matte black decorations on polished black surfaces. In part, the national popularity of their pottery can be attributed to the ease with which the smooth, geometric shapes matched the art deco style of design of the 1930s and 1940s, or as Maria simply put it: ​'Black goes with everything.'”

The site also explained a bit of the potter’s background. “Maria Montoya Martinez, a Tewa Indian of San Ildefonso Pueblo, learned to make pottery as a young girl.” When local potters were encouraged to re-create the shapes of ancient pots excavated near the pueblo in the early 20th century, “Maria and her husband, Julian, began a decade of experimentation that led to their first black-on-black pieces in 1918. Maria made the pots by the ancient method of hand coiling clay; Julian, a skillful self-taught painter, decorated them. Increasingly, they worked in the new burnished blackware, turning away from the traditional, polychrome pottery of San Ildefonso.”  The couple’s work is credited with revitalizing the area’s pottery tradition. Julian died in 1943; Maria went on to train three younger generations of the Martinez family before she died  in 1980.

Johansson’s pieces are signed “Marie.” Thomczek says they are “very desirable,” and said that he had “no doubt” about their authenticity. “They’re definitely her,” he said, adding that the signatures changed through the years and can help appraisers date them. He added that the surface scratches wouldn’t affect the values, which he placed at $300 to $400 for the bowl and $600 to $800 for the vase. Taller wedding vases can bring as much as $1,200, he added. Johansson thinks the works were purchased from the artist on the reservation somewhere around the 1960s/1970s. Thomczek said that would track with what he would estimate the ages of the pieces. “These are a little later in her work,” he agreed, adding, “the earlier stuff brings even more.”

Johansson also brought a piece of Santa Clara Pottery, a small bowl marked “Clara,” which Thomczek says was also in good condition overall. “It’s a little imperfect, but that wouldn’t hurt the value,” he said, adding that “it’s from a different era, but also desirable,”  appraising it at $300 to $350, and up.

“These pieces all remain highly collectible even though pottery is down overall,” he told Johansson, adding, “People are always looking for this stuff.”

About this item

Item: Native American Pottery

Owned by: Nils Johansson

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value: $300 and up each