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Frequently asked questions about Inuit Art

  1. What should I look for in a piece of sculpture?
  2. What factors affect the price?
  3. How are they made?
  4. What is it made out of?
  5. Does the Stone or Style vary from region to region?
  6. What is Nunavut?
  7. How do I know if the sculpture is "authentic?"
  8. Are the artists being "ripped off?"
  9. Will Inuit Art appreciate in Value?
  10. What are the regulations regarding exportation of whalebone & ivory?
  11. How much is my piece worth? Can you do appraisals on Inuit Art?
  12. How do I sell an older piece of Inuit Art?

1. What should I look for in a piece of sculpture?

When choosing a piece of sculpture, one should take several things into consideration:

A. Overall Composition

      Look at the sculpture from every angle. First of all, are the proportions right -- be especially critical with bears and people; seals, walrus & birds are less likely to be out of proportion as they are much simpler subject matter to carve.

      Next, look at the overall shape and determine whether you find it appealing. Sensuous rounded curves should flow and be very tactile. Conversely, if the piece is intentionally angular, it should be boldly so.

      Finally, stand back and look at the sculpture; does it have "movement" in form? Neither people nor mammals should be rigid or static. This shows a lack of skill or creativity by the artist. The exception, of course, is inanimate objects such as inukshuks. In a composition piece, all subjects must work together to strengthen the sculpture. You must see a relationship between the subjects and understand how each adds to the work of art. With composition pieces, it is especially important that you view it "in the round" as it, no doubt, will be seen from several perspectives.

B. How does the stone look? Is it interesting? Do you like the colour(s)?

     The colour does not affect the value -- colour is a matter of personal choice. While "fault" lines are found on all sculpture (natural veining from when the stone was formed millions of years ago), it is preferable that they not appear on the face of a human sculpture or through the features of a mammal as they are distracting.

      Hard carving stones such as serpentine and basalt are much preferred by collectors and are more valuable than the softer soapstone found in Quebec or in imported alabaster. The softer the stone, the easier it is to carve, and the more the artist (and community) tends to produce. Therefore, a large bear from Arctic Quebec may be worth less than a smaller, exquisitely carved polar bear from Iqaluit. A mistake frequently made by novices is to buy/compare by size alone. NOTE: See more detailed explanation about the stones under FAQ #4. What is it made out of?

Click on the map to enlarge

C. Which community is it from?

      Basically, Canada's Arctic can be divided into 6 areas in terms of sculpture -- each with its own type of stone and distinctive style: Baffin Island, The Keewatin, Western Arctic, Belcher Islands, Arctic Quebec and Northern Labrador. See FAQ 5. Does the Stone or Style vary from region to region?

      Certain areas, especially those with softer carving stone [i.e. soapstone] are extremely prolific, often to the detriment of creativity and originality. Overall, the best works come from lower Baffin Island, although there are several very well-known artists in the Keewatin (namely Baker Lake & Gjoa Haven/Spence Bay).

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2. What factors affect the price?

A. Who is the Artist?

      This is the most important factor. Like any other art form, and Inuit art is no exception, some artists are better known than others. With Inuit Art, some of the artists have gained international recognition. You do not, however, need to choose works by famous artists to get a good quality sculpture -- there are many promising younger artists, and others who are fairly well known. There is, of course, a direct correlation between the price and how well the artist is known.

B. Size

      Size determines the price to a certain extent, although it is common to see a smaller carving that is considerably more expensive than a larger one, particularly if the larger one was a simpler subject (such as a seal or walrus), or made out of a softer stone. If the same carver makes two similar carvings, the larger one, obviously, will cost more.

C. Detail

      Detail, to a certain extent. Walrus and seals are relatively simple to carve, whereas bears and people take a lot more skill. If there are negative spaces, these take the artist time to create and to file, sand and polish. Composition pieces are often the most expensive and create the greatest challenge for the artist. Not only do multiple subjects have to be in proportion and have movement, but there has to be a relationship between them.

D. Stone

     As explained under question 1B, serpentine and basalt are the hardest stones, and not only do they take the artist longer to make a carving but also require more skill to work with. Soapstone is the softest stone (and easiest to damage -- a fingernail or ring on a finger can easily scratch it) and worth the least. It is generally soapstone which is found in gift stores. See more information under FAQ # 5. Does the Stone or Style vary from region to region?

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3. How are they made?

      First of all, the Inuit artists have to get their stone. This is no easy task. The mine sites are not located in town, but several days trip by boat (in the summer) or by skidoo (in the winter).

      Once they get there, the stone is hand cut with grinders and picks, then hauled out, piece by piece. Dynamite cannot be used because it fractures the stone. Although several artists get together to mine stone, it is still arduous physical labour. It takes several days at the mine site before they have loaded enough stone to head back to town. Often, they will return a week or so later for more stone, as there is a very short time period when the mine site is accessible and not completely covered by snow. Once winter sets in, the ground is completely frozen, and they cannot get any more stone until it thaws - 8 or 10 months later.

      Once back home, in their own carving shed, the Inuit artist chooses a piece of stone, and studies it from all angles. The artist "sees" a figure within the stone, and uses his ax to chip away the stone so that the animal or human figure can be "freed".

      Once the rough image is hacked out, the artist goes over the entire piece removing the axe marks with a large file and. Next, the entire piece is filed again with a medium file, eventually working down to smaller files for finer details. To smooth the carving, the carving is set in a tub of water, and is sanded in entirety with 180 grit waterproof sandpaper. Next, the entire carving is sanded with 240 grit paper, then 400 grit, then 600 grit. If the artist prefers a brilliant finish, the final sanding will be with 1200 or 1500 grit sandpaper. This final stage varies according to the personal preference of the artist. It does not affect the value in any way.

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4. What is it made out of?

A. Stone

      The artists work with natural materials found on the land; stone being the most common raw material. Occasionally, an artist will combine the different media of stone, whalebone, baleen, sealskin, caribou antler, ivory and muskox horn. Preference for one medium over another often depends on the availability of the locally found raw material.

      The term "soapstone" is often used to describe carvings from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Pieces carved out of stone are NOT all made of soapstone! In actuality, there are very few soapstone deposits in the NWT. Soapstone is made of talc steatite and is very, very soft (a 1-2 on the hardness scale).

      Serpentine, the usual stone found in the Arctic, is a different, much harder class of mineral, does not scratch with your thumbnail and comes in a variety of colours, from yellow to green to brown to black. Other stone found in the Arctic and used in carvings are siltstone, argillite, dolomite, quartzite, marble and basalt. See FAQ #5. Does the Stone or Style vary from region to region?

      When you see a carving made out of alabaster, be aware that this is not indigenous rock, but something imported from an entirely different area, often outside of Canada, such as Italy, Brazil, or Arizona (USA). Although some galleries will tell you this does not affect the value (many don't even advise you of the origin), this simply is not true. First of all, alabaster is an extremely soft stone to work with. Secondly, the whole attraction of Inuit art is that it is made of indigenous material by hand of indigenous peoples.

B. Whalebone

      Weathered bone is found at sites once occupied by the ancient Thule people who followed the great bowhead whales along the coast into the central and eastern Arctic. Whale ribs were used as roofs for their half-buried sod houses. Today, Inuit carvers find a different inspiration in the curving shapes and pitted textures of the whalebone. Fresh whalebone cannot be used as it is oily (not to mention smelly) and splinters if the artist attempts to carve it. The older the whalebone, the better it is for carving.

C. Ivory

      In the Arctic, ivory is obtained from several sources: walrus tusks and teeth, teeth of sperm and killer whales, and narwhal tusks. Incising carved objects with thin lines, a traditional practice from Arctic prehistory, gave rise to scrimshaw, the ornamentation of shells, ivory and bone by engraving. The peak years of scrimshaw art coincided with the whaling period [c 1830-1850]. Complex scenes were incised on ivory with fine, sharp tools. Filling the lines with soot, charcoal or India ink brought out the detail. The completed engraving was then polished with whale oil.

D. Muskox Horn

      Muskox horn carvings have a soft, rippled texture, shading from cream to warm brown, with the ends often black. The shape of the horn itself is often not recognizable as artists freely use their imagination to evoke the animal and human subjects the material suggests to them. Canada geese are a favourite subject matter made from muskox horn, often mounted on a piece of caribou antler for stability.

E. Caribou Antler

      Often mistaken for Ivory by the untrained eye, caribou antler is a very strong and hard material, enabling the artist to carve fine detail and intricate designs. Because of the shape, people are often a favourite subject matter. The sprawled ends of the caribou antler are used frequently for the bases of dioramas (little scenes), or just as a base for the caribou figure itself. Caribou antler is often used for jewellery

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5. Does the Stone or Style vary from region to region?

      Although Inuit Sculpture may appear to be homogenous to the untrained eye, the stone as well as the style varies greatly from region to region. The total Inuit population of over 30,000 is widely distributed across Canada's Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut. Each of the communities which produce art has developed its own favourite subject matter and sculptural style, which is partly determined by the stone with which the artists have to work with. Briefly, these areas are described below.

Map of Arctic Communities

Baffin Island

      This includes the communities which are most famous for Inuit Art: Cape Dorset, Lake Harbour, and Iqaluit [formerly Frobisher Bay]. The hard stone from the lower part of this region is known as serpentine and has a composition similar to jade. It ranges in colour from light green to brown to black, often with gold veining, depending on the mineral content.

      Overall, the most promising and imaginative artists tend to live in the lower Baffin Island. Their sculptural style is strongly stylized, often with dramatic, flamboyant flair and intricate detailing. There is often a certain heroic realism in animal and human subjects, the artists working in large scale in portrayals of dramatic and emotionally charged shamanic or mythological images. Animals, particularly bears, caribou and muskoxen, are depicted realistically, but often in unusual and heroic poses or with great exaggeration. A sense of humour and whimsy results in images such as dancing walruses or bears. Sculptures have soft, undulating outlines and are brilliantly polished

Keewatin Region

      In this area, Baker Lake is the most famous community for Inuit Art. It is also the only inland community in the Arctic. This area region northwest of the Hudson Bay is filled with a very hard and dense grey or black volcanic stone, known as basalt (prior to the glacier age this area was mountainous).

      Sculptural styles range from crude, primitive and simple stylization with few details to strict naturalism. Additionally, the stone is not highly polished -- the artist preferring a dull and rough effect. Predominant subject themes are family/maternal scenes, muskoxen, and spiritual themes, especially that of transformation.

Central Arctic

      This area is very similar in style to the Keewatin region, with a heavy preference towards shamanic themes and legends. Often, the artists of the Central Arctic will do inlay work on their pieces, such as inlaid teeth and eyes. Exaggerated facial expressions are common as are contorted bodies, representing possession of the body by a spirit. Whalebone is also frequently used as it is plentiful in these areas. Like the Keewatin, sculpture is not highly polished. Here, the stone is black, sometimes with the inclusion of green olivine spots, or quartzite patches.

Western Arctic

      Artwork from these areas is usually smaller scale than the other areas of the arctic. Little scenes with many pieces attached are quite popular. Some artists work with ivory miniatures, which were originally encouraged by the local missionaries. The scenes that are most frequently carved are that of traditional life, such as an igloo scene, or dog sled, hunting scenes or camping scenes. The works from Coppermine will frequently have little pieces of copper attached to them.

Belcher Islands

      The one and only community on these islands, Sanikiluaq, was named after the legendary Inuit hunter who could outrun a wolf or fox. These islands are located in the lower part of Hudson Bay [which was formed by a meteor] and cover an area of 2000 square miles. The terrain of these islands is barren, rocky and wind-swept, adding to the island's isolation.

      The stone used for carving is a sedimentary rock known as limestone or argillite, and ranges from light green to almost a charcoal black, with a distinctive striped grain within the stone. The layering is prominent in most of the works, enhanced by the polishing.

      From this community, we see representations of Arctic wildlife; birds and marine mammals being the predominant subject matter, especially since they were dependent upon them for their survival. Here, the artists take a very naturalistic approach to their carvings -- what they see, they carve, although the artist may also add a certain amount of stylization such as using angular shapes. It is important to the Sanikiluaq artists to depict the carvings realistically in exact minute detail, often with etchings in the stone for the eyes, seal skin markings, parka detail, or feathers. Their respect for the natural world around them is revealed in the intensity and life-like realism of their carving.

Arctic Quebec

      There are a variety of styles from the Arctic Quebec communities, although all share the softer soapstone, which limits somewhat what they are able to do. The pieces, therefore, tend to be rounded and compact, with no protruding appendages. The soapstone is a grey colour, but most artists blacken the stone and then polish it (often using shoe polish).

      The most common subject matter is that of people and family-oriented themes, including mother and child. Since the softer stone is easier to work with, some artists, unfortunately, mass produce their works. Because of this, the value of the sculpture from this area is diminished. Soapstone damages quite easily; it can be scratched with a fingernail or even by a ring when holding a carving, and must be handled carefully.

Labrador (Newfoundland)

      Many Inuit communities are situated along the north-easterly coast of Labrador, and tend to be overlooked when considering Inuit Art. The family themes are prevalent here, as well as traditional life scenes. The Inuit of Labrador frequently do lovely inlay work on their sculpture, for example, having a face inlay of a different coloured stone or even a different material such as caribou antler or ivory.

      The serpentine from this area is a rich moss-green colour, although different colours are also available.

      Map of Arctic Communities

      Reference: Canadian Inuit Sculpture, Indian & Northern Affairs Canada publication,
ISBN 0-662-59936-5

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6. What is Nunavut?

April 1st, 1999 was a date of historical importance to all of Canada, but to the Inuit in particular. It is the first time in North America that aboriginal peoples have formed their own Territory and created their own elected government with law-making powers similar to those of the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

      On this date, the largest land claim ever was settled in North America when the Northwest Territories was divided into two parts. The western part remained the "Northwest Territories" and the central and eastern parts were renamed Nunavut, meaning "our land" in Inuktitut; the language of the Inuit. This was the first change to Canada's map since Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949.

      Nunavut covers almost 2 million square kilometers; over one fifth of Canada's land mass, and includes 7 of Canada's 12 largest islands and two thirds of the country's coastline. The population of over 25,000 is comprised of 85% Inuit; 56 percent of whom are under 25 years of age. Nunavut was a long-term dream for the Inuit of Canada, not only enabling them their rightful place in Canada's federation but also to take charge of their own destiny.

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7. How do I know if the sculpture is "authentic?"

      This is a very, very important question to ask since there are A LOT of imitations on the market. Given the fact that Inuit sculpture is valuable not only as a souvenir but as an art object, it is inevitable that mass-produced reproductions and imitations have proliferated.

      Many of these imitations are made from plastic molds in Asia, but since they are mixed with ground up soapstone before being poured, they are deceptively heavy -- like the real thing. However, these are mass produced and there are hundreds, if not thousands of copies of the same "carving".

      Other imitations are much harder to distinguish as they are made out of real stone -- in many cases hand-carved in workshops (in Asia, Mexico and North America), where hundreds of copies of an original carving are made (without the Inuit artist's permission), and even signed in syllabics (the Inuit written language) on the bottom. Although this is illegal, unfortunately, counterfeiting and misrepresenting art is practiced widely in both Alaska and Canada. Unsuspecting consumers are often tempted by lower prices of these carvings.

      Many imitations come with a "tag" containing deceptive wording. [For example, "influenced by the native Eskimo way of life..."] simulating the Canadian Government issued Igloo Tags that come with authentic Inuit sculpture.

      These imitations have absolutely no investment nor aesthetic value whatsoever, and in no way are endorsed by the Canadian Government nor native people. In fact, they tend to lower the image, value and sales of genuine Inuit sculpture, thus depriving Inuit artists of income. To avoid accidentally buying any such works, buy only from well established, reputable galleries, and avoid souvenir - type shops for purchasing quality artwork.

      To protect the consumer and Inuit carvers, the Canadian Government has registered the symbol of the igloo as a trademark. Our gallery carries only original Inuit (Eskimo) carvings made by native Inuit Artists. All of our works come with an "Igloo Tag" and are certified by the Government of Canada as being handmade by a Canadian Eskimo / Inuit artist.

      WARNING RE INTERNET: As a reputable gallery, our intention in creating this website was to reach our customers in a way that we have been unable to before. We have been in business since 1981 and have an extensive international client list. (Some of our famous clients include: Alex Trebek, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Michael Andretti, Mario Andretti, Paul McCartney, Richard Marx, Al Unser Jr., Bobby Rahal, Yoko Ono, David Bowie, Elton John, Sir Ralph Fiennes, and Prince Phillip).

      With our site, our clients will now be able to revisit our gallery at the click of their mouse. Unfortunately, the internet makes it easy for anyone, including unscrupulous fly-by night operators to create a webpage and set up shop out of their basement or garage. We strongly recommend that you deal ONLY with a well-known, reputable gallery for your own protection. We cannot tell you how many times customers have brought carvings into our gallery for appraisal and have been devastated, and sometimes angry, when they are told their "work of art" is a worthless imitation.

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8. Are the artists being "ripped off?"

      A very fair question to ask, considering that when southerners first became interested in Inuit sculpture, the carvers were not paid much for their work at all. Notwithstanding, however, Inuit Art was not recognized as an art form at that time. As a matter of fact, the Inuit were rather amused that they were being paid for their trinkets. It did, however, enable them to buy goods such as flour, sugar and tea. As the sculpture became more sought after, prices began to rise in the south, but unfortunately, the Inuit were not paid more for their sculpture for many, many years.

      This exploitation continued until the Canadian Government stepped in and set up a way of certifying and registering their sculpture, and determined how much they should be paid for their Art. With the opening of the Inuit-owned co-operatives, a market value was established for the artwork

      Today, artists frequently travel to the south and see their works in the galleries -- often attending the openings of their own shows. They are very much aware of the value of their artwork. In many cases, the artist actually determines the price of the sculpture. Factored into the price must be the exorbitant cost of the shipping itself. The only way to get the carvings to the south is by air freight, and nothing is more expensive (because of the weight) than shipping rocks! Many of the artists today are making a very good living from their art.



      If you have any questions concerning any aspect of Inuit sculpture, please contact:

The Inuit Art Centre
Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0H4

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9. Will Inuit Art appreciate in Value?

      If you are collecting for investment, rest assured that Inuit Art overall is an excellent investment since interest in Inuit Art is growing internationally, whereas the number of carvers is actually declining. Furthermore, the best carvers are hunters (obviously because they are out on the land and see the animals first-hand) and unfortunately, many of the younger people no longer hunt for food since it is readily available at the co-op.

      The other major factor which will affect the value of Inuit art, no doubt, is the creation of Nunavut, Canada's third official Territory, described above. The creation of Nunavut means affirmative hiring practices are in place - all new jobs, and all government jobs must be filled by Inuit.

      More job openings mean more opportunities for young Inuit people, and less chance that they will turn to carving as a means to make a living, particularly since carving is physically demanding in many ways.

      First of all, the mine sites are located quite far from the communities, which means a trip of several days by boat or by skidoo, depending on the season. A nine-to-five job Monday to Friday would make this task impossible.

      Secondly, the job of hand mining the stone is very grueling labour. Grinders, picks and axes are the tools used by the artist to get the stone. Not only is it physically demanding but also dangerous. Not so very long ago, Nuna Parr's son, Joe, was killed when the mine collapsed on a group of young artists getting their stone.

      Thirdly, it goes without saying, Arctic weather can be adverse. Needless to say, a high-paying indoor government job with all the benefits (paid holidays, pension plan, etc.) is obviously quite appealing to many of the youth.

      In summary, the future of Inuit Art is a growing concern with galleries and collectors alike. The relationship between supply and demand is obvious: prices will go up as there are fewer and fewer quality pieces to choose from.

      We, as a gallery, can only hope that the young artists with talent will be encouraged to develop their art. In short, if you like a sculpture and it moves you emotionally, buy it! Most assuredly, it will not come down in value, and you may never have the opportunity again. Many times we've patiently listened to clients tell us they have searched for years for something they saw that they liked, hesitated, and lost, and now look in vain for an identical piece -- which we know they will not find.

      Finally, we need artwork aesthetically in our lives and derive pleasure from it, both intrinsically and extrinsically. Our surroundings are an extension of who we are -- in other words, our self-concept. When we create an atmosphere which we find appealing through our choice of furnishings, colours and artwork, we help create balance and harmony in our life and reinforce our self-esteem. This is invaluable.

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10. What are the regulations regarding the export of whalebone & ivory?

      In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed by the United States Congress and later modified in 1981. The purpose of the act was to reduce harvesting of marine animals. Sec. 101 excludes Alaskan natives so that they still have the ability to hunt marine mammals for food and to use the raw materials of such animals for the creation of arts and crafts. Since Alaska is part of the United States, there are no restrictions on purchases of ivory & whalebone by U.S. citizens.

      In Canada, it is illegal to export or import from the USA any art or artifact created from a marine mammal, including whalebone, walrus tusks (ivory) and narwhal tusks (also ivory). Caribou antler does not fall into this category and has no restrictions.

      In terms of exporting ivory and whalebone internationally, each country has its own specific regulations. Be sure to check with your customs officials beforehand because the fines and penalties for importing and exporting illegal objects can be severe (even if driving into the USA with ivory or whalebone, your car can be seized!). On international purchases of ivory and whalebone, our gallery will obtain written export clearance prior to shipping to avoid any problems with customs.

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11. How much is my piece worth? Can you do appraisals on Inuit Art?

      Yes, we can do appraisals. There is a fee for doing this because it is a very time-consuming process if it is to be done accurately. We change by the hour and there is a minimum charge -- on multiple objects we would give a discount. The carving must also be brought to our gallery as we do not do it via pictures or through the internet -- we need to read the signature (the finer details, such as Inuit syllabics, do not come across well in pictures) and we have to take measurements. Contact us via e-mail for a quotation if you are interested in paying for an appraisal.

      An important question to ask is why you need the appraisal. If it is for insurance purposes, keep in mind that insurance companies, if there is a loss at a later point, will only accept appraisals from certain galleries, so be sure that the gallery doing your appraisal is qualified. Also, if the gallery doing the appraisal is not reputable, they may severely undervalue a work of art in the hopes of being able to purchase it from you at a lower price. Deal only with the older, established galleries for your own protection.

      It is our experience, however, that most people who want appraisals do so because they are considering selling their artwork. If this is the case, it is better for you to search the internet until you find something similar to your work, and that will give you a "ballpark" figure to work with. Of course, the older your piece is and/or the more famous the artist, the higher the value could be.

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