American-Indian stone tools are cherished by collectors, some for their potential monetary value, while others love the evocative thrill of holding an object made and used in daily life hundreds or even thousands of years earlier. Collectors, must be mindful, however, to avoid potential pitfalls. Even tools as small as stone arrowheads can vary wildly in price, from less than $10 for common, low-quality specimens to more than $1,000 for rarities. To be sure you are paying an appropriate price for a piece, you need to know where to shop and when to turn to expert advice.
How Indian Artifacts Are Graded
The value of an Indian rock tool depends on a number of factors, including its rarity, the current popularity of that type of tool among collectors and its overall quality. Collectors and dealers in American-Indian artifacts use an established 12-point grading scale to assess the quality of pieces: pieces of grade 10+ are exemplary, museum-quality pieces; those of grades 1 to 3 are below-average in quality with visible damage. Most pieces targeted by private collectors fall between grades 4 and 8. But even broken pieces – which fall below grade 1 on the official scale – can be valuable if sufficiently rare.
In general, the more valuable an artifact is, the more likely it is to escalate in value over time. In other words, low-value pieces are unlikely to demand significantly higher prices later, regardless of the condition of the market for American-Indian pieces overall. Mid-range pieces are likely to increase steadily in value, but values may rise more slowly in difficult economic climates. High-range pieces, especially rare ones, will always increase in value regardless of the market: as the availability of such pieces decreases, prices will increase.
Ensuring Value and Authenticity
Enticing and intriguing as American-Indian rock tools may be, there are significant risks to collecting them. Unless you are an expert, you run the risk of paying too much for a low-quality piece, or worse, a stolen piece or a forgery. To protect yourself, buy only from reputable dealers, have your pieces independently appraised and authenticated, and ask the seller for a money-back guarantee of authenticity and stated quality. Report any fraud to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board of the U.S. Department of Interior at 1-888-ART-FAKE. If you are interested in hunting for native artifacts yourself, be aware that taking them from federal land is a federal offense, and many local jurisdictions also prohibit it.
Assembling a Quality Collection
If you are interested in shaping your collection for maximum potential resale value, make sure your holdings are varied. Many collectors tend to collect pieces that are similar to one another in provenance, shape or general quality. Kevin Dowdy at ArtifactsGuide.com notes that the top 20 percent of pieces in a typical collection will represent 80 percent of the collection’s value. Also avoid loading your collection with low-end pieces. If you collect only for your own pleasure, however, such factors need not concern you: a valuable collection can be anything you want it to be.
- “Official Overstreet Indian Arrowheads Identification and Price Guide”; Robert M. Overstreet; 2009
- “Facts for Consumers: How to Buy Genuine American Indian Arts and Crafts”; Federal Trade Commission; February 2006
- “Buying and Selling Native Artifacts”; Dennis Gaffney; 2004
- “Safely Collecting Indian Artifacts”; Dennis Gaffney; 2003
Felicia Lee is a freelance writer/editor and published author with over 15 years of experience. Her work has appeared in publications including the "Los Angeles Times" and on Salon.com. Felicia holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in English from Stanford and a Doctor of Philosophy in linguistics from University of California, Los Angeles.