The brutal economics of the auction block disappointed members of a Navajo community Tuesday who had hoped that selling a massive handmade rug would raise enough money to save their local health clinic.
Instead, the 28-by-26-foot rug known as "Little Sister" was removed from sale after no bidders emerged at a Sotheby's auction.It took a dozen weavers in the remote town of Chilchinbeto, Ariz., 10 months to make "Little Sister" in 1983 and 1984. But it took just seconds for the Sotheby's expert in charge of American Indian art, Ellen Taubman, to see there were no bidders in the room Tuesday afternoon.
"We had to pass it," Taubman said. "We really wanted to do something for the Navajo. I personally am disappointed in that my expectation was higher."
Bill Battles, the Arizona attorney representing the nonprofit clinic in its effort to sell the rug, said the people of Chilchinbeto had hoped the rug - one of only two of its size ever made - would sell for as much as $3.5 million. That would be enough, he said, to set up an endowment whose interest would pay the clinic's $300,000 annual operating costs.
"I think the clinic will be disappointed," Battles said, adding that residents turned down an earlier offer in hopes of bringing more at auction. Now, he said, the clinic will have to try to find another buyer.
The predominantly red, gray and black rug, composed of 25 panels, was woven in 1983 and 1984 as a giant insurance policy, to be sold if funding for the medical clinic ever dried up.
That day came last year, when officials for the Navajo tribe and the Indian Health Service said they could no longer fully fund the operating costs of the Chilchinbeto clinic, which treats about 4,000 patients a year and serves some 12,000 people.
Shortly after the clinic scaled back its operations, including emergency care, a string of car accidents claimed the lives of a local elementary school principal and several children, Battles said.
"As these things started to accumulate, (residents) realized they had to take action," Battles said.
"This was, frankly, the only thing they felt they had to sell," he said. "They have plenty of dirt, plenty of sage, plenty of clean air. If they could bottle that, maybe they'd have something."
"Little Sister" was the second rug made on a giant loom built in the 1970s by the Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity. The first rug, "Big Brother," measures 38 feet by 26 feet, weighs 800 pounds and is the largest handmade Navajo rug in the world. Woven in 1976, a community ordinance prohibits its sale.
In 1983, Charlie Billy, Chilchinbeto's representative on the Navajo Nation Council, decided to create a slightly smaller version of the rug that could be sold if the clinic, which even then was struggling, needed more funds.
Shortly after "Little Sister" was taken off the loom in 1983, a fire destroyed the giant apparatus.
The outer panels of "Little Sister" are a series of repeating geometric patterns; the center panel features a "rainbow guardian" framing a nightscape, as well as a depiction of a Navajo healing ceremony.
The clinic's acting director, Elaine Nephew, said she had mixed feelings about the rug not selling.
On the one hand, she said, the clinic, which cannot currently see patients, desperately needs the money. However, she said, she also had been "worried. It was from our community. Both ways, it would have hurt."
It's especially important to have a clinic nearby because "people don't have cars," said Mary Jane Bayuk, a nurse practitioner at the clinic."They do a lot of walking and we have a lot of older people."