Indian Relic Treasure All Around You

By Larry Hothem
From page 37 of the November, 1975 issue of Lost Treasure
Copyright © November, 1975 Lost Treasure, Inc. all rights reserved

With a blur of words, the auctioneer covered the fast bidding, "Six hundred. Eight hundred. Eight and a quarter. Half? Right, nine it is." If he was surprised at the offers for the object he held, he was cool enough not to show it. But many of his listeners were astounded.

At $1,000 only a few bidders continued. At $1,500 just two were left. Then a beaming lady topped her rival with a bid of $1,700. She had just bought an Indian pipe!

The auction was a public sale of general household goods and antiques. Along with other relics, the Indian pipe had been in the family for several generations. Admittedly it was something special, made of hard black stone and shaped like a bear's head. It was from an early Indian culture from the Ohio Valley region and was estimated by experts to be around 2,000-years-old. The lucky man who found it, a farmer, had picked it up in his field.

While $1,700 is quite a hunk of money, the new owner may well have received a bargain. If the pipe is sold again a few years from now it could bring two or three times that. Like most other art objects, Indian relics, especially the rare ones, gain value steadily.

Indian relics are found in virtually all areas of the country, and are today's sleeper investment. The market for them has been rising and is expected to keep doing so. Plenty of relics are worth from $5 to $100 or more if a collector or dealer is really interested.

By knowing where to go and what to look for, you can quickly develop an interest in this fine bobby and show some profit besides. There are no requirements other than the time and effort needed to hunt your own relics, or a supply of cash if you want to buy relics.

Relic collecting is not a come-and-go fad. Though the trade is fairly slow, there has never been a drop in relic prices. The market is always there and it's a good one.

One thing is certain - with a limited number of relics available and several thousand new collectors entering the field each year, the price of artifacts inches upward constantly. Fifteen years ago good points were five for $1. Today the average is three for the same amount. Percentage-wise, that's quite an increase.

Prehistoric Indians probably came from Asia via the Bering Strait 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. They made millions of flint points, a basic tool for hunting and defense. Many of these were used for spear and lance heads, for the bow and arrow came to America considerably later. Generally only small light points three inches long and under ever headed an arrow.

Most authorities believe white bounty hunters acquired the custom of scalping from early Iroquois Indians and spread it through the frontier tribes. Of course the western Indians adopted horses indirectly from the Europeans. Their plains ponies were descendants of escaped stock brought over by Spaniards in the sixteenth century.

One interesting relic of the Plains Indians is the iron trade pipe. Some were built into a tomahawk or hand axe, with the handle serving as a pipe stem. What better combination to promise both war and peace? If your neighbor's brand of tobacco didn't suit your taste you had a handy weapon. Or if he refused to smoke the peace pipe, you could always bury the hatchet in his head.

Incidentally,, a genuine pipe-tomahawk can't be bought for less than $75, more if it is associated with a famous chieftain.

Two general classes of artifacts that command the best prices are the ceremonials and the paleo-points. They have in common excellent workmanship and scarcity. Ceremonials supposedly had a religious or social status reason for being. They were often made of quartz, slate, hematite (an iron ore) or any hard rock. Most are of relatively recent origin, that is, less than 3,000-years-old. Ceremonials are subgrouped into a variety of classes like pendants, birdstones, boatstones, plumb bobs, banner-stones and others.

Paleo-point is the name given to very ancient flint projectile heads found in much of Canada and in every state but Hawaii. It is a rather perplexing fact that the very earl-iest flint makers actually did better work than those who followed thousands of years later.

Ancient campsites which are found fairly often yield paleo-points, and occasional surface finds are also made. These points bring from $15 to $100 or more each. Most common collections have one or two found at random. They were made between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago.

During Depression years, western homesteaders searched windswept blowouts (fields where their crops used to be) and sold thousands of relics to collectors. There's scarcely a farmer who doesn't find relics in his fields, and some of them are worth a lot of money. But you don't need to buy a farm to pick up valuable relics.

In Florida and neighboring states, coastal shell heaps contain items of bone, shell and stone. Skin and scuba divers bring up pottery and axes from inland rivers, especially in limestone pothole areas. No one really knows how the relics got there.

The Mississippi and Ohio Valleys both developed advanced Stone Age civilizations, terminating with the forest-lodge and mound-building Indians. Both cultures declined just before the Europeans arrived. All of these shifting Indian populations, including those on the West Coast and all points in between, produced millions of artifacts that still await discovery.

Not a month passes in my part of the country (central Ohio) without new finds reported to the newspapers. Indian cemeteries, rock-shelter burials, deposits of flint blades, mounds, paleo-points and other relics are often uncovered. House excavations and road construction seem to account for most accidental discoveries. However, the Ohio State Museum and the state university have digs all summer, and are never short of rich sites.

Fine pottery turns up from the southwestern city-states and cliff dwellings. The eastern regions support hunters who ranged the hardwood forests far into Canada. The Pacific Northwest tribes left behind small points of gem-like quality so tiny that it's hard to imagine adults making them. These are only a few of the rich relic hunting areas.

All these items and more are being eagerly sought by people willing to pay top prices. The setup is ready-made for treasure hunters. You don't spend all your time merely hunting; you also do a lot of finding.

How do you break in? There are several ways. If you're in a good area and have some free time you can find relics yourself. This may produce memories of barefooted kids scuffling through cornfields, but those kids might have collections worth a nice little pile by now.

On an average afternoon, I've found about a dozen perfect (meaning not broken or chipped) projectile points, plus enough broken ones (discards) to fill my pockets. Once, a garden by a small stream in Kentucky gave me nine perfect points in a half hour. I still wonder why the owner kept ignoring them.

A good way to find hunting sites is to stop when you see a likely field. Find out who owns the land, then just ask permission to hunt. Out of the several hundred times I've done that, I've only gotten two or three refusals.

A friend of mine hunts every weekend. He's got a secret field that gives him some of the best large points I've ever seen, the kind you can't buy for less than $3 each. Though he's my friend, he won't tell me where the field is. Collectors are like that. I have my own best areas, too.

You should visit farm sales listed in daily or weekly newspapers. Often a small collection of relics will be sold. Generally it will include a few dozen points, a couple of hand axes (called celts) and perhaps a ceremonial piece or two. For some reason they always seem to be stored in cigar boxes, mixed in with old buttons, bottle tops and the like. Some of the best relics come from these unlikely sources.

Now and again you'll come across something that makes even an experienced collector break out in a cold sweat - a perfect ceremonial piece or paleo-point. One collector friend has his own method for uncovering these. He drives around the countryside, stopping at farmhouses. He asks about relics and often hits paydirt. Most of the relics he uses are trading material, while the best go into his own collection. The cost, including car expenses, never runs over 30 percent of the relic's retail value. If he ever sells, he'll show a 300 percent profit.

Last sumxer he bought several dozen points for $3 or $4. Most were common notched points. One was a blunt, or a rounded point possibly used for small game. Another was a tiny birdpoint less than a half-inch long.

But one four-inch beauty almost shook me out of my tree. A variety of the Folsom point, it had the curved base, high shoulders and tapered sides of a genuine paleo-point. "I'd have paid $30 for this one," my friend said seriously, "and still come out ahead."

A lot of competition develops between local collectors over the best hunting sites. One guy bragged a lot about the nice stuff he was finding and made a big thing about not saying where he went. Inevitably, several other collectors followed his car. Now he shares his field with a half-dozen others. Of course he is now absolutely paranoid about a couple of other favorite places.

This illustrates something else. The fierce desire to own more and better relics is a big factor in pushing the value of good pieces higher. As you become known as a relic fancier, word gets around. In time kids and others will bring relics by for your appraisal and maybe a sale. A reasonable payment, approximately half of actual market value, will keep them coming back.

Everyone is concerned about inflation. Build up a nice collection and you'll have value that doesn't fade. Keep your material in a safe place, because thieves now know that something besides coins, furs and guns are worth a midnight raid.

You can easily display relics in homemade frames or showcases. I recently purchased an antique dentist's cabinet. Its many small drawers show off flint points to good advantage. I also refinished and re-glued an old map chest that once held blueprints in a courthouse. Larger, bulkier relics are right at home there. A long time ago I found a candy case from a country store. Some of my better pieces are there, under lock and key. I suggest that if you frame relics and do not cover them with glass, make sure you use a good, strong glue.

One of the true pleasures of relic collecting is actually finding a lance point or arrowhead yourself. Chances are the last human to handle it was an Indian who lived 300 to 10,000 years ago.

To me there are violent and mysterious feelings associated with tools and weapons. How many heads were split by that axe in some forest ambush? Was a home defended by that long, thin flint blade? The round stone mortar may have ground acorns or maize for a dozen generations of Indian children. The narrow, barbed fish gig might have kept a primitive family alive during some harsh winter long ago. This feeling of association with the past is hard to explain. You'll just have to experience it yourself.

I started collecting Indian relics about 15 years ago. Today my collection includes 3,000 projectile points, dozens of celts and axes and about 100 ceremonial pieces. While I have only three paleo-points, I did find two of them myself. It's quite an exciting feeling to pick up a piece of flint from a cornfield and know it's worth about three days' wages.

How do you go about turning your collection into cash, should you decide to sell? As with most collector fields, some ways are better than others. For quick cash take the relics to an antique dealer. You'll get about one-third their actual value if the owner is in a good mood, but at least you walk in with the relics and walk out with the money. It's best to sell in the summer, when tourists give the store a high turnover and profit.

Like selling stocks, if you take more time you'll make more money. Find out what collectors clubs are in your area, then send an itemized list to the president or drop a card to each member. You'll get a good deal, since you're dealing with collectors. They want the object itself, not necessarily a profit.

You can often place relics for sale on consignment at a gift, import or antique shop near you. This means you are paid when and if the relic is sold. The dealer deducts a commission, usually about 25 or 30 percent. One advantage is you need not invest additional time and money to sell the relic, and someone else does the work. Or, you can place an advertisement in a newspaper. It will invariably attract quite a few interested buyers.

I recently bought several hundred points from a man who decided to sell a lifetime collection. His small ad came out in the Sunday morning paper and I was ringing his doorbell at 10 a.m. the same day. Three collectors had been there before me, but I still got what I wanted.

The hobbyist was negotiating long-distance over the phone with a man who wanted to buy the entire collection. His asking price was a little over $2,000 and, from what I could see, it was worth it.

Thus, you can market your collection almost anytime and in a variety of ways. You need not worry about getting something that is worthwhile only to you. I estimate there are around 50,000 collectors of one sort or another in the United States today, and the number grows yearly.

However, a warning is in order. You must watch for fakes. A few sly fellows try to duplicate genuine and rare originals. The pieces most often faked are paleo-points, ceremonials, pipes, extra-long spear points and drills. If in doubt about a relic ask an experienced collector. If you are really suspicious don't make the trade or purchase.

Anything you pick up yourself will be genuine. In a field two years ago I found an effigy of a human face chipped from black flint. If I had seen it on a dealer's shelf I would have laughed it off as a fake. Such finds are quite unusual, so I recorded the date and location of mine. The effigy now has an honored place in my collection.

All things considered, I've only spent about $400 on my collection. Right now it's worth all of $2,000. I found half the relics myself, and you can do as good or better.

Excellent relic sites you should search include caves, rock shelters and all high places near water. Often leather and fabric relics are preserved in dry cave dust. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky produced a mummified Indian several thousand-years-old. It was found a mile from the main entrance. Other midwestern caves have yielded preserved sandals, fishnets, bone flutes, awls and needles.

You also find relics in unexpected places. Once, while exploring an abandoned homesite in southern Indiana, I opened the rusty tool box of an old horsedrawn corn planter. There were nearly 50 fine points inside. The side of a gravel pit in Ohio's Walhonding River Valley yielded three granite skinning blades of a type I've never found before or since.

Yes, there's treasure all around you. It's beneath the ground, in caves, on the surface, and stored in boxes, in fact almost everywhere. Those rare Indian artifacts wait for the man who knows real value. The man who finds them could well be you.