The Nez Perce chief wore this garment in early portraits.

Chief Joseph's War Shirt Fetches Nearly $900,000 at Auction


A war shirt worn by legendary Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph has sold for $877,500 at the annual Coeur d'Alene Art Auction in Reno, Nevada.

The item was expected to sell for between $800,000 and $1.2 million, according to reports. "Anything associated with Chief Joseph is highly desirable, and that's a pretty special shirt," Mike Overby, an auction organizer, told The Associated Press.

Chief Joseph is seen wearing the shirt in two historic images: the earliest known photograph of him, taken by John Fouch in 1877, and a painting of him by Cyrenius Hall from 1878 that was used to make a U.S. postage stamp.

According to the information at the Coeur d'Alene auction website, "The shirt surfaced at an Indian relic show in the 1990’s and was sold without any attribution or collection history. It changed hands again before the connection with the historic photo was discovered." The site describes the shirt as being "of the classic sleeved poncho type, made of two soft thin skins, probably deerskin. The skins were cut in two behind the front legs, and the two back halves were joined at the shoulders to form the front and back of the shirt. The two front halves of the skins were folded to make the sleeves, with the forelegs retained below the open armpits. Thus, the natural shape of the animal skin was preserved as much as possible in the design of the shirt, thereby honoring the animal’s spirit."

A total of 308 pieces, mostly paintings of scenes from the American west, were on the block for the 2012 Coeur d'Alene Art Auction, which netted $17,263,598. Chief Joseph's war shirt drew the third highest price, outpaced by the paintings "Scout's Report" by Howard Terpning ($977,000) and "Cowboys Roping the Bear" by Frank Tenney Johnson ($921,000). The Coeur d'Alene Art Auction is not affiliated with the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Indians.

Chief Joseph portrait by John Fouch

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johndavid's picture
Submitted by johndavid on
However this shirt came into these people's hands is a shame. In many ways we have become better at the white man's ways than the white man. We have become greedy and careless just like him. This shirt belongs to the Nez Perce people for whom Chief Joseph fought for. I'm not sure of their ways, but I'm sure this shirt has more significance than just regular everyday attire. I wonder if there is an act such as NAGPRA that can enable the tribe to get this back? I pray that if there is not one yet, there will be soon.

bertkaulaity's picture
Submitted by bertkaulaity on
Totally agree with your statement, sounds like the government selling a hammer for 400 dollars, my man reddog has a good friend and brother with a proud Nez Perce man, the shirt should have been returned when it was first found, but greed is powerful and a lot of our people are to busy swimming in it, it's truly shameful, aho for sharing.