Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Who’s buying Native American artifacts at a Minnesota auction? May 7, 2012

Native American artifacts and Civil War items are auctioned off Saturday in Faribault by Helbling Auctioneers. Here two of auctioneer Bob Helbling Jr.’s sons assist with the sale.

HIS WIFE IS HALF INDIAN, he says, and a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin.

I ask if she owns any Ho-Chunk artifacts.

“It’s funny,” he says. “Indians don’t have anything.”

I take that as a “no.”

So this western Wisconsin resident is here on this Saturday afternoon at the Elks Lodge in Faribault, looking to add to his small collection. He’s managed to successfully bid on some arrowheads, among the 3,000-plus High Plains artifacts from a private collector being auctioned off by Helbling Auctioneers of Kindred, N.D.

Boxed collections of artifacts , like the arrowheads in the foreground, are in line to be sold.

Orderly rows of stone tools line a table.

Primarily Catlinite pipes fill a boxed collection.

As I peruse the merchandise—everything from arrowheads to stone tools, beads, pipes and more—I wonder about the mostly male bidders who have come here from Minnesota and neighboring states to bid on the artifacts found on private land in North Dakota and Minnesota from 1940 – 1965.

I engage several in conversation, like the Wisconsinite and the man from Gibbon who purchased a stone tool used for grinding grain. He tells me initially that he’s from New Ulm, a community which 150 years ago was at the center of the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. I tell him my mom’s family, the Bodes, are from nearby Courtland, Turns out his grandma was a Bode.

We share a common interest in the U.S. – Dakota War. The Bode family history includes the story of my farmer forefathers who fled to the safety of nearby St. Peter during the war.

Postcard photos of Native Americans

Then I meet a man from the Twin Cities area who, with a degree in Native American history, could likely talk for hours on the subject of injustices heaped upon Native Americans. He tells me something so unbelievable, so inflammatory, that I feel my mouth drop open.

“Most people are so blind to things about Native Americans,” he says as I probe, asking why I should believe what he’s just shared. He has friends on the reservation, he explains, friends who have told him of this awful, horrible thing I cannot write about here because I cannot verify the information.

His interest in Native Americans traces back to his mother, who grew up near the Mandan Indian Village in North Dakota. He’s here, this man who regularly takes donations of clothing and other items to northern Minnesota Indian reservations, here sitting alone at a back table observing the auction. He’s purchased 24 arrowheads on this Saturday to add to his collection of arrowheads, beadwork and trading beads from the Sioux and the Ojibway.

Likewise, an Arlington man has picked up a few spear points for his collection.

I ask how long he’s collected Native American artifacts.

“You don’t want to know,” he laughs, then admits to collecting for 60 years.

Bidding on auction items.

As I observe and photograph, it is easy to pick out the serious collectors, like the group of men clustered around a table accumulating stacks of boxed artifacts, examining their purchases with an eye-piece magnifying glass.

A successful bidder examines the artifacts he’s purchased.

Some collectors accumulate quite a stack of boxed artifacts during the sale.

Or the men with boxes piled at their feet, so intent on the auction they don’t notice me on the floor with my camera.

Or the individuals motioning the auctioneer assistants over for a closer look at artifacts as bidding jockeys between competing buyers.

Or the bidder who pays $250 for a single Paleo point.

Paleo points from 10,000 – 12,000 are the rarest item up for auction, says auctioneer Bob Helbling Jr. who has been auctioning off Native American artifacts for some 20 years with several such sales annually. He also points out a child-size antler scraper and a buffalo bone spoon as rare artifacts.

Saturday marks Helbling’s second Native American artifact auction in Faribault, a location chosen because the auctioneer likes to try out different locales. He had a successful sale here last year in this community conveniently located along Interstate 35 in southeastern Minnesota.

Most artifact collections come from estates, says Helbling, noting that typically the children of deceased collectors just don’t have any interest in the collections.

But it is apparent on this rainy Saturday that many others are plenty interested in history and in collecting Native American artifacts.

DISCLAIMER: Bob Helbling Jr. of Helbling Auctioneers is my husband’s second cousin. Prior to Saturday, the two had never met and my husband and I were unaware of the family connection. That relationship did not affect the writing or content of this post.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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18 Responses to “Who’s buying Native American artifacts at a Minnesota auction?”

  1. hotlyspiced Says:

    It sounds like there were lots of people there keen on collecting Native American history. Amazing how one individual has been collecting for 60 years now. He must have an incredible collection. xx

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, these bidders were quite intent on purchasing the artifacts. I couldn’t get much info from the man who’s been collecting for 60 years. But, yes, I would expect that after six decades, he has quite a collection.

  2. treadlemusic Says:

    A couple of years ago Hubby and I drove through the reservation south of I90 in South Dakota. (Rosebud, I believe) So struggling, so sad. Their young people get educated at the many junior colleges in the area and then leave, most, never to return!!! Wounded Knee cemetery was saddest of all. Thanks for the post! Hugs, Doreen

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you for sharing your observations, Doreen.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        At the cemetery site there were 2 teepees set up and the multi generation family members lived there during the summer/tourist time and kept the dome museum open that is quickly falling into disrepair. When there are heavy rains, or severe weather, they race to remove the wall hangings and artifacts that would become damaged from the leaking, etc. They were/are so devoted—-cooking on very small hot plates. The one young boy had made bracelets to sell there. The art work was so beautiful!!! My heart broke during our visit with them. Hugs, Doreen from S.E. MN

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Wow. What love. I imagine you simply wanted to weep.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        I think hubs & I did as we drove away and through the rest of the area headed for Belle Fourche.

  3. How fun to make new connections with family! It must have been a fascinating auction!

  4. Sartenada Says:

    Wow. If I would be there, then I would have bought postcard photos of Native Americans. Native Indians are my favorite dating past to my childhood when I read stories from them. My favorite writer is Zane Grey and I have nearly all his books written in Finnish. So sorry from off-topics.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You would have found this auction of Native American artifacts so interesting. Like you, I was also drawn to those photo postcards. I have never read Zane Grey.

      Sidetracking here, too, but you would have enjoyed a presentation I attended last evening about the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. I grew up in the region where this war occurred. Watch for a forthcoming post on the talk given by a Minnesota State Representative who is also an author.

      • Sartenada Says:

        I am very glad about Your answer to my comment.

        To understand better my love to American Indians and Wild Frontier, it is wiser to give the link to my old post:

        Indian life

        To know more about Zane Grey, then look for Wikipedia for example.

        Have a lovely day!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Thank you for the link to your post. I’ll check it out. I am certainly familiar with Zane Grey. I just am not a reader of westerns.

  5. dan. Says:

    Is anyone looking for a native american war club? i have one to sell.

  6. Deb Says:

    I have collected a lot of fabulous Native American Art…. pictures, 2 huge wall Dream catchers, statues, dolls, vases, and much more. It is not vintage items… but great Art collection that I have enjoyed over the years. I am downsizing my home now, and have to sell it. If anyone is interested in purchasing any of it to decorate your home, please call me, we can schedule an appointment for you to come over and look at it. I live in the twin cities area in Minnesota. My phone number is 651-260-1075.

    Kind Regards, Deb

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Consider that an invitation to phone Deb if you are interested in her Native American art.

  7. Jessica Says:

    My father found something that looks exactly like the stone tools. Can anyone tell me more about them?

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I wish I could, Jessica, but I know nothing about stone tools. Where did your father find them and when? I would suggest contacting a local historical society. Or, readers, can you help Jessica?


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