KEITH REEVES PURSUES AMERICAN INDIAN ART WITH INTELLECTUAL VIGOR, BUILDING A MUSEUM-QUALITY COLLECTION IN THE PROCESS
By David Seideman
Heritage Auctions recently sent packers to the home of I.S.K. “Keith” Reeves V and Sara W. Reeves in Winter Park, Fla., to pick up about 300 American Indian objects for an auction on May 29. The towering glass cases throughout the house, from floor to ceiling, were filled with rare artworks Keith Reeves had acquired from across the country over half a century. “It was sad to see it all go,” he says. “These are family friends. By the second day, it eased off and it was a catharsis knowing that we are not responsible for this anymore.”
Reeves’ loss is the collecting world’s gain.
“Webster’s defines a ‘connoisseur’ as a person with knowledgeable and sophisticated discrimination, especially in the field of the art or in matters of taste,” Frank Holt, executive director at Mennello Museum of American Art, wrote in a 2014 catalog for an exhibit, one of five that various museums have held to showcase Reeves’ collection. “Having known Keith and Sara for more than 25 years, I would put them in this category. They have read, looked, discussed and immersed themselves in the field of Native American art. They have bought and traded objects, always with the goal of increasing the quality of their collection.”
Over the years, I’ve interviewed many passionate collectors. None has pursued his prized possessions, from Alaskan Eskimo to Florida Seminole art, with quite the intellectual vigor that Reeves has. He presents papers at conferences and talks to tribal members about their pieces. “To make an object come alive, you’re honoring the heritage and the person who made it,” he explains. “You have the responsibility to care for it with the respect it demands.”
Take a marquee piece in the Heritage auction: a Bear Warrior Society shirt from the Blackfoot Tribe dating from the first half of the 1800s. “In warrior societies, one warrior considered the most audacious was allowed to wear their bear shirt,” he says. “This shirt is an exceedingly important, early piece.”
Reeves says the shirt was a gift in the 1940s to the acclaimed Western artist Bernard Thomas (1918-1992) from the Crow, who brought him significant gifts and artifacts because they admired his accurate depiction of them. The artist also gave destitute tribe members food and money and asked for nothing in return. The Crow presented the shirt to Thomas in a bonnet case used for a head dress and wrapped it inside with a red linen shirt from the late 19th century.
The upcoming auction of items from the Reeves collection also features three Navajo Germantown weavings. They are named “eyedazzlers” because the overall design quality literally dazzles the eye with a spark of motion unique to Navajo textiles. The finely and tightly woven pre-dyed wool was prepared in Germantown, Pa., and supplied to Navajo by traders on or near the reservation.
One of the most outstanding rugs (circa 1880-1890) in the auction is made of four-ply commercial yarns of white, green, red, blue, dark blue and orange-brown against a red background with crosses and terraced elements, and finished with wool fringe. “Germantown eyedazzlers are incredibly colored,” Reeves says. “And they are really well woven, a tour de force, to show off the weaver’s artistic talent. It was one of their few ways to make money.”
This rug came in a group of three from a woman in Mount Dora, Fla., coincidentally just an hour’s drive from Reeves. At first, Reeves ignored her phone calls for six months. He still kicks himself for not taking her seriously, but the story has a happy ending.
When he finally met her and made an offer, she asked if the price was for all three. No, he responded to her delight. For each one. His only regret is that he did not take the linen bags the rugs were rolled in because they would have represented part of the heritage as well.
Reeves’ tale offers two cautionary lessons for collectors. First, always keep the original packaging; it enhances the history and value. Second, jump on every lead.
Reeves, a renowned architect whose projects dot the country, has traveled extensively, often to visit other collectors and to reservations with his wife. (Sara Reeves, a fellow lover of the same art and artifacts and weaver herself, was adopted by the Hopi tribe in an elaborate ceremony, a high honor.) Keith also scours the internet and bids in auctions. As an architect, he prides himself on his “visual acuity.”
Delia E. Sullivan, senior specialist and consignment director at Heritage’s Ethnographic Art department, adds that Reeves’ collection has been “meticulously curated. Mr. Reeves has a file and a collection tag for each item,” she says. “The material being offered at auction will be sold with those tags, indicating it is from the I.S.K. Reeves V and Sara W. Reeves Collection.”
Reeves developed the collecting bug from his parents. While growing up, his parents owned a big antique store in Winter Park, Fla., and were collectors themselves. Every time a new piece came into the store, they gave him the complete provenance. He later studied anthropology at the University of Florida and served in the Peace Corps in Tunisia, where he learned to appreciate objects from indigenous cultures. Besides being a prominent fixture at conferences, he has served as president of the Central Florida Anthropological Society.
How does one sustain a collecting interest for 50 years?
Simple. “The hunt is everything!” he declares. “Where is the next treasure and how am I going to find it?”
Among his favorite finds was a shaman’s mask of an Eskimo from the 19th century. “It was all hand carved, not sanded, and simply painted,” he says. “And very, very thin. Plus, it’s one of the few artifacts from that culture.” The mask was used in healing ceremonies, worn by the shaman as he or she wielded the power to heal a sick patient.
Acquiring the mask was pure luck for Reeves. One day, while strolling the aisles of an annual antique market in central Florida, he happened upon the mask on a table and bought it for a nominal amount. Two years later, the woman dealer at the same show – obviously now aware of the mask’s importance – exclaimed to him, “I should never have sold it to you!”
Another magnificent piece in the Heritage auction also led to seller’s remorse. It is a ledger drawing by Howling Wolf, a Cheyenne warrior, leader of raids and an exceptional artist. Starting in the 1860s, Plains warriors illustrated their battle exploits in ledger books and on ledger book paper acquired through trade and gift. Plains artists frequently represented warfare between tribes.
Howling Wolf’s dramatic work captures a warrior society gathering with leaders on horseback. Their feathered laces, with a distinctive bent feature, represent those carried by the Cheyenne’s Bowstring Society.
Reeves was outbid for it in a Sotheby’s auction. Fortunately, the winner was a good friend, so he was able to buy it from him for a slight premium. His friend has regretted that sale ever since. Over the years, he has phoned him five times in a futile effort to recover it. They are still friends and Reeves stresses the importance of maintaining such relationships to buy, sell and trade.
STILL ACQUIRING MATERIAL
The decision to auction off his collection resulted from a heart-to-heart talk with his two sons, who accompanied him on archeological digs as boys: “They said ‘Dad, it’s not our interest and it’s worth a lot more if you can tell the story.’” Reeves has four grandchildren and their college educations to consider, as well.
When I spoke to Reeves, 79, he was thrilled with purchases that had just arrived and were sitting on his desk: early Florida Seminole photographs and baskets. He is still actively adding Seminole material to his collection, considered to be the largest of its kind in the world held in private hands. He is now busy contemplating which institution to donate it to.
In the meantime, Reeves is excited about another moment in the sun at a preview and reception for his collection scheduled for May 19 at Heritage’s Park Avenue location in New York. Guests will enjoy the opportunity to personally ask the connoisseur about the importance of his objects. “This is a special auction preview event,” says Heritage’s Sullivan. “Mr. Reeves can speak about the pieces better than anyone.”
DAVID SEIDEMAN writes about collectibles as a senior contributor to Forbes. His work has also appeared in Time and Sports Illustrated.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2020 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.