Title: Potlatch Copper
Date: 19th century
Culture: Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl)
Medium: copper with pigment
43 3/4 x 30 x 1 3/4 in. (111.1 x 76.2 x 4.4 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Morton D. May
Object Number: 268:1982
Place made: British Columbia, Canada
Current Location: On View, Gallery 326
In Kwakiutl culture, a copper was a disc or shield-shaped piece of beaten copper, which was often painted or engraved. This copper's front is painted with a stylized view of the Northwest Coast hero Raven and a prominent crest emblem. The lines and ovoid shapes incised on the copper and painted in black demarcate Raven's eyes, beak, claws, and four tail feathers. Two pairs of eyes are incised below. On the back is a profile of Raven painted in a bolder red and looser style than what is seen on the front.

Created from mill-rolled trade metal, this copper is one of the largest in existence. Coppers were the personal property of powerful and wealthy chiefs who displayed them prominently during potlatches and memorial feasts. A copper could be transferred to another lineage in exchange for the right to a village site or fishing station. Each time a copper changed hands and appeared at ritual events, its value increased. There are records from the turn of the twentieth century indicating that an individual copper could be worth as much as sixteen thousand blankets.

Private Collection, Fort Rupert, British Columbia, Canada

- 1967
Lucy Brown, Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada [1]

1967 - 1982
Morton D. May, St. Louis, MO, USA, purchased from Lucy Brown, through agent James Economos [2]

1982 -
Saint Louis Art Museum, given by Morton D. May [3]

[1] An invoice dated June 23, 1967 notes payment to Lucy Brown at Alert Bay, BC. The invoice describes the object as "one large copper shield / Kwakiutl ca. 1800", and includes the note that "The copper shield painted on both sides once belong [sic] to a family in Fort Rupert and is reputed to be over one hundred and fifty years old" [SLAM document files].

[2] The June 23, 1967 invoice records the purchase. In an email dated July 26, 2008, James Economos writes: "Though I recall the copper I'm not sure whether it came from Lucy Brown...If the Lucy Brown receipt shows the copper then I collected it at the same time as the mask [269:1982]" [SLAM document files].

[3] A letter dated November 29, 1982 from Morton D. May to James D. Burke, director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, includes the offer of this object as part of a larger donation [Director's Office, Donor Files, Archives, Saint Louis Art Museum]. Minutes of the Acquisitions and Loans Committee of the Board of Trustees, Saint Louis Art Museum, December 17, 1982.
Publication History
Title: The Coppers of the Northwest Coast Indians: Their Origin, Development, and Possible Antecedents
Periodical Title: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series
Author: Carol F. Jopling
Title: Pacific Northwest Native American Art in Museums and Private Collections
Author: Robin Wright
Author: Bill Holm
Title: The Saint Louis Art Museum Handbook of the Collections
Editor: Mary Ann Steiner
Publisher: Saint Louis Art Museum
Title: Native North American Art
Periodical Title: The Saint Louis Art Museum Bulletin
Author: Janet Catherine Berlo
Author: John W. Nunley
Publisher: Saint Louis Art Museum
Title: Saint Louis Art Museum: Handbook of the Collection
Editor: Mary Ann Steiner
Publisher: Saint Louis Art Museum
Title: Tsimshian Peoples: Southern Tsimshian, Coast Tsimshian, Nishga, and Gitskan
Periodical Title: Handbook of North American Indians: Northwest Coast
Author: Marjorie M. Halpin
Author: Margaret Seguin
Editor: Wayne Suttles
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