I went to a fabulous museum show recently. This exhibition featured the work of master artists, highlighted aspects of American culture, traced the history of the entire 20th Century, and focused on advancements in technology. It had everything you’d expect from a great museum exhibition. What I didn’t expect… it was all about motorcycles.
In Indianapolis, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art is a world class museum that tells the American story through objects on a daily basis. Housing an impressive collection of Native American objects and western art, the Eiteljorg organized a special exhibition dedicated to American motorcycles dating back to the early 1900s. The exhibit included a 1905 Harley Davidson, Evel Knievel’s circa 1975 motorcycle, and even a custom built ride from the Discovery channel’s popular TV show American Chopper.
In the “Steel Ponies” exhibition, curators showed how motorcycles played a critical role in developing the American dynamic. The high caliber artwork on these motorcycles is no different than Michelangelo’s carved marble of David, the detailed cast bronze on a 17th Century ship’s cannon, the hand-painted flowers on a 1890 Edison phonograph, or the 1960s furniture highlighted on television’s Mad Men.
Identifying materials, construction elements and symbolism is no different for me, as an appraiser, whether I am appraising a 1905 single-cylinder Harley or a Wells Fargo stagecoach shotgun. As an expert appraiser on Discovery’s Auction Kings, I use my background and experience to appraise many different types of objects. In the same way I appraise a signed Mickey Mantle baseball or a Civil War sword, I appraise motorcycles based on various physical, artistic, and cultural factors. The construction, condition, background, and design highlight a bike’s monetary value.
Some of the motorcycle models on display were decorated with the same elements that you might see on images of Native American horses and riders dating back to early 1900s. One could see the connections between motorcycle design and fringed animal hides worn by the plains Indians or chrome details on production motorcycles reminiscent of the metalwork found on spurs made by Garcia, a famous metalsmith and spur designer.
Also on view were Evel Knievel’s motorcycle that he rode as he attempted to make many of his daredevil jumps and the Captain America bike which was featured in the 1969 counterculture classic, Easy Rider. This Captain America bike was central to the American road movie’s plot.
For me, the highlight of “Steel Ponies” was a chopper made by Paul Teutul, Sr. of Orange County Choppers (OCC), best known for their custom rides and ultra-popular Discovery show, American Chopper. The OCC bike was a 2009 custom piece made for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. Working with the Saginaw Ziibiwing Center, the bike captured the Native American artistry and symbolism known to the tribe including fetish symbols of animals like turtles, eagles, fish, and deer. OCC artists working on this custom cycle used braided leather to wrap the large gas tank, a fringed suede seat cover, and other natural materials. Their choice of materials and design for the custom bike conveyed the freespirited feeling of the Native Americans and connected horseback riding with the contemporary chopper.
On the rigid chopper frame used for the Saginaw Chippewa ride, dramatic artwork served to suggest stitched and tanned animal hides, Indian dream catchers, and eagle feathers. The look of woven imagery was borrowed from traditional Native American objects like basketry and beaded shaman bags. The painted images of animal forms such as the fish, a symbol of long life, spoke to the prophetic beliefs and other teachings of the Chippewa tribe.
The OCC bike along with others highlighted the revival of our interest in Native American culture, technical innovations and sweet rides. Metalwork, design, and technology were all working in tandem on this major museum display of motorcycles. The Eiteljorg’s exhibit was impressive as it highlighted the American experience through the art of the motorcycle. If you are like me, this exhibit will ‘get your motor runnin’.
Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, award-winning TV personality, and TV talk show host, Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide, including around Tampa Bay. Dr. Lori is the star appraiser on the hit TV show "Auction Kings" on Discovery Channel airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Visit www.DrLoriV.com, www.Facebook.com/DoctorLori or call (888) 431-1010.