Strictly personal: A major collector’s love affair with American Indian art.

“Living with American Indian Art” by  Alan Hirschfield and Terry Winchell, with a foreword by Gaylord Torrens.  

Photography by W Garth Dowling.  

Gibbs Smith 2012,  Hard cover with dust jacket, 279 pages.

$40 – $50 at

Most private tribal collectors who publish books on their collections seek to make them resemble an official museum publication or exhibition catalogue as closely possible. One thinks of John Friede’s meticulously researched two volumes on the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art he donated  to the De Young, or Mark Blackburn’s epic “Polynesia” with text by Adrienne Kaeppler of the Smithsonian.

Alan Hirschfield’s book is not like that. Instead he has chosen to present and describe his  collection in a way that is personal.  So personal , it even includes an eight  page preface which is an overview of Hirschfield’s Hollywood career, which included the top jobs at 20th Century Fox and Columbia.

For an ex- Hollywood power broker, Hirschfield comes across as a nice guy.  He affectionately acknowledges the support of his wife Berte, who shares his enthusiasm (and their home) with this  collection, and he  graciously thanks the many curators and dealers who have contributed to his education – including Gaylord Torrens of the Nelson Atkins Art Museum who wrote the foreword,  and  veteran dealer Terry Winchell ,who is credited as co-author. He’s even donating the proceeds of the book to an education  fund for Native American children.

“Living with Native American Art” presents and describes 160 objects from the Hirschfield  Collection, of which  around 70% are beaded, the balance being made up of painted shirts, baskets and pottery. Alan and Berte Hirschfield love beads, particularly those of the Plains and Canada, and they are everywhere in this book.  And while  there are many other fine publications featuring Native American beadwork, there are two things make this one stand out.

The first is the impressive photographic skill of W. Garth Dowling. The pictures glow on the page with amazing detail, and many objects are also photographed in close up, or shot front and rear.

The second is the range of  personal insights  and memories that accompany many objects.  There’s a great depth of  knowledge  in this book, but it  is presented in an intimate and informal way.   We learn exactly how the Hirschfield’s love affair with American Indian art started – with baskets, which led to an almost accidental discovery of beadwork. We share the stories of how and why many of the pieces were acquired and what makes them special.  Hirschfield even tells us about his nervousness and self doubt at a major auction where he purchased a beaded bag  for an amount  that even a Hollywood executive had to think twice about.  (He still loves the piece and does not regret a cent he spent  on it   – and  who of us who are collectors  and hopeful bidders  could not recall similar moments of auction angst).

The Hirschfields go where their hearts take them and they like to collect objects in depth. They own many painted shirts, beaded octopus bags, pipe bags, beaded dresses  and  cradleboards. They are also particularly fascinated by figural beadwork that depicts horses, warriors, deer and buffalo, and they own several pieces made by the great  19th century Sioux artist,  Nellie Two Bears Gates.

On the other hand, because this collection was shaped by the personal whims and interests of its owners, there are some  common objects you will not find in this book.  There is one pair of leggings and one pair of riding boots, but not a single beaded moccasin for example. And while you will see many beaded horses, you will find vary little beaded horse tack. Clearly, unlike many private collectors, who seek at least one great example of everything, the Hirschfields have to like it before they buy it, and then they tend to  buy more than one example.

Finally, one does not usually mention the publisher’s contribution in a book review, but I think that Gibbs Smith have delivered design and production values of such quality, that I would not be surprised if this book were to win a design award at some upcoming bookfest. My only negative is the lack of an index, which does not make it easy to use as a reference work.

This book is currently available at Amazon for between $40 and $50. Buy yourself a copy as a Christmas gift before it goes out of print.

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