John Moran Auctioneers is pleased to present the James M. Cole Collection, featuring more than 300 lots of Native American art and artifacts. As well as an important collection of California baskets, the auction will also include other American Indian objects including Western-style jewelry, numerous stone implements and flints, and a variety of interesting decorative items such as an Umatilla Indian hide doll and cradleboard, Plains Indian beadwork, Northwest Coast wood carvings, Inuit soapstone carvings, and Fine Art offerings including works by John Steele. A varied selection of Cole’s large library of books that supported his connoisseurship will also be offered.

A fourth generation Californian, James Cole (June 15, 1930- November 13, 2020) developed an early fascination for the state’s Native American history and material culture. Jim and his two brothers were raised in Whittier, where they enjoyed roaming the hills and citrus groves. While out exploring, Jim occasionally happened across arrowheads, which he would dutifully gather. Frank, a close cousin to Jim, recalls that even as a child, he was a collector by nature: “Jim started with rocks and coins and things like that, and he just took off from there!”

An Umatilla Indian hide doll and cradleboard $2,000-3,000

An Umatilla Indian hide doll and cradleboard $2,000-3,000

Another significant impetus for the remarkable collection Jim later assembled was a handwoven figurative California Mission basket gifted by his grandmother. As an adolescent, Jim found the artistry and cultural associations of the object enthralling, ultimately inspiring the acquisition of more than 150 baskets. Jim’s position teaching psychology at College of the Sequoias allowed him the means to pursue his passion for collecting over the duration of many decades.

The primary focus of the sale is Cole’s extensive collection of Native American baskets. With over 150 lots on offer, there is an exciting array of regions, distinctive styles, sizes, and materials represented, mainly from various regions in California, but also from the Southwest and Northwest United States.

The large number of Yokuts baskets featured reflect the strong interest Cole had in collecting items from his local area, around Visalia, in Central California. The Yokuts tribe of Native Americans had been renamed Tulare Indians by the Spanish meaning “people of the tules.” Tule was a type of plant that grew in the marshes, shallow lakes and wetlands of traditional Yokuts territory. These lowland marches of the Sierra Nevada foothills and San Joaquin Valley produced the various materials used in the construction of the now highly prized and coveted baskets, including broken fern, sedge, and redbud.

The striking designs of the Yokuts baskets feature many different stylized motifs, including figurative animals and people. A Yokuts “Friendship” basket estimate at $2,000-$3,000, depicts two lively bands of figures holding hands. Another Yokuts basket also has striking figures encircling the bottleneck bowl, with distinctive clothing shapes for men and women, and one figure with what appears to be a transparent dress. Interesting figurative details can also be seen on yet another Yokuts pictorial basket, where one of five stylized male figures displays an opening in the chest.

While figurative and pictorial motifs are plentiful, Yokuts baskets also exhibit a variety of geometric designs, often influenced by or representing characters from the surrounding environment. For example, many of Cole’s Yokuts baskets display patterns representing the diamond shapes of snakeskin, such as this large cooking basket, estimated at $2,000-$4,000. Anyone wandering the landscape of California will not be surprised to come across a snake or two. While exciting, only the California Rattlesnake is poisonous and potentially lethal to humans.  The Yokuts people of Central California were keenly aware of their dangerous neighbors and created folklore surrounding their appearance.  Snake bite insurance in the way of the Yokuts Rattlesnake Dance was performed yearly to help guarantee a snake bite-free year and to overcome the supernatural forces of their power.  Other native characters played into the warding off of snakes, including ants, whose ability to bite and sting a snake made them a worthy adversary to the rattler.

“In Yokuts mythology, quail is the champion of fair play. The ant, for its size, is noted for dealing out the most punishment. Water skater is a mythological messenger, or winatun and can travel both on land and water.  The Yokuts story is that once a bad rattlesnake sent to Tihpiknits the names of some good people with the result that they died. Quail learned what had been done. They told the water skaters who carried the word to the ants, and the ants stung the rattlesnake to death and ate him. Placed on rattlesnake baskets, these characters are a subtle warning to all rattlesnakes and particularly to the snakes nested in these baskets” (Handbook of Yokuts Indians, Frank F. Latta, 1977, p.650)

Rattlesnakes were not the only snakes to be represented on Yokuts baskets. Gopher, King, Garter, and water snake motifs all play out in the imagery of Yokuts basket makers. The woven materials of baskets so closely mirror the scaled skin of the snake that the serpentine reference is noticeable even to the untrained eye. This Yokuts basket displays the gopher snake scale pattern as well as geometric ‘flies’ around the rim.

California Mission baskets also feature marvelous animal designs, including this coiled round tray depicting a coiled rattlesnake in dark stitches, with a second, fainter snake continuing to coil and flow off the edge. With an estimate of $5,000-$7,000, this stunning basket is certainly a treasure for a dedicated collector.

“The striking designs of the Yokuts baskets feature many different stylized motifs, including figurative animals and people.
A polychrome Yokuts ‘Friendship basket $2,000-3,000

A polychrome Yokuts ‘Friendship basket $2,000-3,000

One of the most iconic types of baskets found in the Cole Collection is the hat basket of the Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk tribes of Northern California. These baskets, while small, throw a mighty punch and certainly illustrate the complexity and skill required to achieve such small wonders. Highly desirable, and very finely woven in a twining technique, the motifs, or marks, also evoke characters from the natural environment of the area. The design names for marks such as Snake’s Nose, Frog’s Hand, Grizzly Bear’s Paw, Centipede, and Crab Claw, can differ from tribe, village, family, and from past to present. According to Lila M. O’Neale, author of Yurok Karuk Basket Weavers (1932), even though the designs have symbolic names, there is not always a symbolic meaning or significance to the designs. The designs are considered a part of the basket, not merely on the surface. “A cap even today represents a choice possession, and a weaver’s ability to make a choice one will give her a widespread reputation as an expert… Caps have always had a sales value among the Indians themselves above that of any other type of basket. Into them, everyone knew, went the most carefully selected materials and the best workmanship,” (O’Neale, 1932-43).

Cole kept extensive records of his inventory, including the name of the weaver, (if known), the acquisition price, who sold it, and where, with many items having interesting and unusual provenances. A Mono Lake Paiute pictorial basket, estimated at $6,000-$8,000, is a good example. The small, coiled bowl depicts finely executed insect and frog motifs, and was woven by Emma Murphy in the early 1900s. From Cole’s notes, including a letter from a former curator of the Yosemite Museum, we learn that Emma Murphy was well respected and considered a top weaver. She favored the use of realistic animal patterns, and of the example in Cole’s collection, the curator stated: “Your basket is a fine example of the weaving of the Yosemite Mono Lake region, and a rare example of the work of a weaver who died [in 1925] at the height of her creativity.”
A Northwest Coast Tlingit, an openwork tray basket, also has an interesting story. While the delicate design and colorful imbricated bands of geometric designs are purely decorative for this particular basket, according to Cole, the design reflects the intended use of the original shape: a berry-washing basket! The spruce root baskets were used, dried, packed away and refreshed again. Cole notes: “This is a Tlingit basketry tray from Alaska that was used for washing berries. After washing berries in a stream, they would fold these up and put them away, then soak until soft and use them again….”

Another exciting feature of the Cole collection is the more than 40 lots of stone implements of all kinds, including points, flints, pipes, and others, of all sizes and shapes, with some prehistoric stone items as well. Among the ax heads, mortar/pestles, banner stones, carved stone figures, pipe heads, spoons, and bird stones, are an important selection of Chumash steatite carvings. Dating from mid-19th Century California, one group includes a carved stone abalone shell, whale and frog fetishes, and an arrow straightener, while another lot, a Chumash carved stone pipe is considered to be pre-historic or later.

A framed collection of Tussinger eccentric flints is also considered to be pre-historic or later and consists of sixty elaborately shaped points of various shapes and sizes. With an estimate of $3,000-$5,000, the flints are thought to have been excavated in Delaware County, Oklahoma in 1921 by M. Tussinger. Speculation abounds as to whether the complex flints represent Mayan influence reaching far into North America. Cole’s notes include research and correspondence with experts regarding the origin story of the flints.

Jim was a fantastic storyteller and he enjoyed presenting his friends and family with tales of his latest finds: “It lit him up,” shared Elizabeth Brooks, his niece. His favorite aspects of his collection were the baskets and Native American jewelry he spent weekends driving around California, and occasionally beyond, to acquire. Jim was happy to discuss his collection but could be rather private about its extent. Elizabeth recalls: “From the outside of the house, you would have no idea what to expect when you opened the front door!” As his collection grew in size and significance, much to Jim’s honor, Elizabeth remembers at least one museum borrowing objects for exhibition.
Ultimately, his family and friends concur: “The collection is the summation of a life well lived and a peek behind the curtain. Jim wanted people to see it and he knew one day he would sell it,” says Elizabeth. When John Moran Auctioneers presents the collection for sale next month, these exceptional pieces will certainly be a testament to his legacy. Frank adds: “It was important to him and it in many ways, it was who he was. He enjoyed it for many years. This was no passing fancy or fad. It was the definition of him”

– Maranda Moran, Noelle Valentino, Sally Andrew, John Moran Auctioneers

A framed collection of Tussinger eccentric flints $3,000-5,000

Upcoming Auctions


John Moran Auctioneers will be rolling through spring into summer with a dozen auctions presenting a selection of items to pique every interest, ranging from modern and contemporary fine art, Mid-Century Modern design, Arts & Crafts furniture, decorative home furnishings and more!

Made in Mexico: Tuesday, February 15th | 10:00 am PST
Modern & Contemporary Fine Art Online: Wednesday, February 16 | 12:00 pm PST
Winter Modern & Contemporary: Tuesday, March 1st | 12:00 pm PST
ReDesigned: Tuesday, March 22nd | 12:00 pm PST
California Living: Tuesday, April 5th | 12:00 pm PST

For upcoming highlights, online catalogues, and more information on these sales, visit Moran’s website: Bidding is now available online via Moran’s new mobile app, Moran Mobile, available on both iOS and Android operating systems. Live bidding on a desktop is available through our website; bidding is also supported by telephone or absentee.
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