Marjorie Chan, chairwoman of the University of Utah department of geology, enjoys yard-sale expeditions. "It's a lot like geology," she says. "You don't know what you'll find, and the stories behind it are interesting."
A few years ago she struck gold a collection of more than 600 pieces of American Indian art works, mostly jewelry, collected by the late Dorothy Haslam. It's a discovery that will benefit all Utahns, from visitors to the Utah Museum of Natural History to residents of far-flung communities across the state.
Last week, a selection of the treasures were prepared for a two-year jaunt through Utah.
The story of how the museum acquired the collection dates to several years ago, when Chan went to a yard sale in Sugar House. Among items for sale were many issues of Arizona Highways magazine, which sometimes carries articles about American Indian art.
Chan likes to collect these works and wondered if the magazines indicated a similar interest. She asked a woman holding the yard sale whether they had American Indian art.
"She said, 'Oh, yes, we've got a lot because our mother really collected it,"' Chan recalled. The family was thinking about selling them, but they weren't part of the yard sale.
When Chan finally had a chance to see the collection a few months later, she said, "I started looking at the stuff and I was amazed."
The collection had been assembled by Dorothy Haslam, who died in 2003. Over the course of 50 years, she had accompanied her husband, Kenneth, in business travels throughout the Four Corners region. She became extremely interested in handmade material that many tribes sold to tourists and trading posts, and amassed more than 600 art objects.
"It was mostly jewelry," Chan said. "There were literally shoeboxes full of jewelry. They had it very well organized. ... A lot of the pieces were just in mint condition."
Many were signed and some of the turquoise was of a quality no longer available. "Some of the jewelry pieces are really stunning."
Besides the jewelry, there were hand-woven rugs, beads and Kachina figurines. Material was made by Navajo, Ute, Apache, Hopi, Zuni and other American Indian artists.
Chan didn't think she or any other individual collector should buy parts of the treasure, but that it should stay together in a museum so everyone could enjoy it.
That day, she had dinner with Sarah George, director of the Utah Museum of Natural History, which is based at the University of Utah. Chan said she was worried that if the collection were sold, it would be broken up. She told George she couldn't believe her eyes about what Dorothy Haslam had collected.
George told her, "Well, maybe there's a possibility that the museum would buy it," she recalled. Chan thought the idea was wonderful, and George "started things rolling with the museum."
The purchase was carried out through a $100,000 donation from Zions Bank and $80,000 from the Collectors Council, which helps the museum add important material to its collections.
On Wednesday, a sampling from the collection was readied for the museum's Traveling Treasures program. The program, a partnership between the museum and Zions Bank, aims to show Utahns objects that otherwise they'd have to travel to Salt Lake City to see.
For the next two years, the selection of what is now to be known as the "Zions Bank Four Corners Collection" will travel through the state, on display at bank lobbies in many towns. Around 2010, when the museum's new facility opens near Red Butte Canyon, many objects from the collection will be displayed there.
Steve Haslam, Dorothy Haslam's son, said on Monday that the family is "just so elated and excited, because that's what Mom wanted. She wanted to keep the collection together."
The museum was wonderful to work with, he said. "They photographed and catalogued, and just put it in the best environment possible for it."
George said the display that is about to head off through the state is about a dozen objects that amount to a survey of the larger collection. "So there's some Hopi pottery; there is jewelry from three pueblos and the Navajo nation, there's a Hopi Kachina, two Navajo weavings and three sand paintings."
The traveling program, she added, is "a great way for us to take high-value objects and travel them to communities statewide."
Chan's feelings about it all?"I was really tickled to be a part of something happening, and it was just sort of this serendipitous thing. I knew I couldn't buy the collection, and I was also hoping that it wouldn't be broken up."