John Moran Auctioneers is pleased to present the James M. Cole Collection of American Indian Art on March 15, 2022, featuring more than 300 lots of Native American basketry and decorative objects, western-style jewelry, and other important examples of Native American art and artifacts. A fifth-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 Redlands, 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!”
Another impetus for the remarkable collection Jim later assembled was a handwoven California basket he was 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 the College of the Sequoias allowed him the means to pursue his passion for collecting over the duration of many decades.
In recent years, Elizabeth Brooks, his niece, recalls joining her uncle at the American Indian Show in San Rafael. With more than 100 dealers, it is one of the most important venues for historical examples of Native American art: “He loved the hunt and the art of the find. When I’d go to the show with him, I knew it was going to be a really long albeit fascinating day!”
As a fixture of the fair for more than 30 years, Jim built relationships with many of the dealers and collectors. His knowledge and connoisseurship were widely admired and appreciated within this close-knit community of fellow enthusiasts. Elizabeth remembers walking through the show and “feeling like I had my own special encyclopedia. Even the dealers would ask him questions.” Jim was difficult to miss, as he liked to don an impressive bolo tie and an eye-catching western-style belt buckle. “He seemed to enjoy the attention!”
“Jim had a photographic memory. Everything in his house was amazing. He could walk around and tell you where he got something, what he paid for it, the condition he found it in, where it came from, and who made it… His level of interest was awe-inspiring!”
While these trips to the American Indian Show were an annual highlight for Jim, day in and day out he relished being home, surrounded by his collection. Jim took pleasure in meticulously cataloguing each of his objects, and yet, according to Elizabeth, he seldom had reason to refer to his notes. “Jim had a photographic memory. Everything in his house was amazing. He could walk around and tell you where he got something, what he paid for it, the condition he found it in, where it came from, and who made it…His level of interest and knowledge was awe-inspiring!”
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. 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 they would” 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, and that, is the most awe-inspiring of all”