Santa Fe, N.M.
The coat was lambskin. Buttery soft and supple with haute-couture styling. But the price, $1,250, made it too extravagant for my budget. I continued to browse.
On display were a concho belt for $26,500, sculptures priced at more than $20,000, a beadwork doll for nearly $35,000. All were beautiful, but they were meant to grace a home other than mine. It didn't matter. Other things did fit my budget.
It was mid-August 2006, and I was visiting the Santa Fe Indian Market, an amazing weekend of commerce, when the nation's great Native American artists display work worth thousands and sit side by side with novice craftsmen selling $10 Christmas ornaments.
The event is held annually in August, with this year's market getting underway this week. There's a preview show Friday night, which will be followed by the market on Saturday and Sunday. Nearly 80,000 collectors, artists and tourists are expected to attend. Craftsmen and artists say it's the place where Indian art meets the world.
The show is a colorful bazaar that turns Santa Fe's Plaza and downtown streets into a tent city of 700 booths overnight. The market, established in 1922, has more than 1,100 Indian artists representing 100 tribes. There are Northern Plains Indians, Seminoles from Florida, Chugach Aleuts from Alaska, and Pueblo, Hopi and Navajo craftsmen from throughout the Southwest. It's the oldest and largest juried native art show in the world.
Avid collectors know it's the early visitor who scores the best work. I was interested in the whimsical pottery of Kathleen Wall, a Jemez Pueblo Indian. So my first stop was at 8:30 a.m. at Wall's booth.
"You're too late," she said, standing next to one of her smiling jester figures. Its price tag was marked $4,500. "I was nearly sold out by 8 a.m. this morning."
The market, which is free, officially begins at 7 a.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. Sunday, but some visitors arrive before 6 a.m. -- while participants are just setting up their booths -- to buy prize-winning art before it sells out. The show ends at 5 p.m. both days.
Artists work all year preparing for the Santa Fe show. Many participants say one-third to one-half of their annual income is derived from it, according to Stacy Golar of the Southwest Assn. for Indian Arts, which sponsors the event.
"A lot of our artists also show in galleries and museums, but the market provides a way for them to have their work viewed by more people in two days than they could in a year," she said.
"Nonnative artists may think it's unconventional to sell your work at a market, but native artists don't feel that way, particularly those who are doing unconventional work. They like having thousands of people see their work in just a couple of days and being able to talk to them about it."
Last year's show was dogged by rain, which put a damper on sales. Golar said she hopes for good weather this year.
Sunny skies also will bode well for an unofficial happening on the streets of Santa Fe, the annual Western wear fashion show.
The market has evolved into a prime venue for visitors and Santa Fe residents to strut their stuff: Southwestern jewelry, leather and other trappings and gewgaws. Men sport Stetsons, cowboy boots, turquoise jewelry and more. Women wear painted and beaded leather dresses or skirts and more turquoise jewelry.
Watching the crowd is nearly as interesting as seeing the art.