Townsend’s artifact collection to be auctioned

Items from one of the world's largest collections of prehistoric Native American artifacts, assembled by late Indianapolis attorney Earl Townsend Jr., will go to auction Dec. 3.

The sale represents roughly a quarter of Townsend's enormous collection, and local auction house Antique Helper Inc. estimates the items could bring in about $800,000. If so, it would be the largest sale to date for the auction house.

The rest of the collection is likely to be sold in two separate auctions.

Antique Helper owner Dan Ripley said he'd love the opportunity to auction the remainder of Townsend's collection and attract other collectors who might otherwise turn to big international auction houses like Christie's or Sotheby's.

“It demonstrates our ability to handle this kind of sale,”  Ripley said.

Townsend, who was also a broadcaster, basketball player and patron of the arts, died in 2007 at age 92. A founding member of the Indiana Archaeological Society, he was a passionate collector who wrote the authoritative guide to a rare type of artifact called birdstones.

The animal-like figures are found in the southern Great Lakes region, and their function in prehistoric cultures is still a mystery, said Larry Swann, a collector and friend of Townsend who is acting as Ripley's consultant. Townsend started collecting artifacts as a boy in the 1920s on his family's farm on the east side of Indianapolis.

The small, polished stone carvings have such a refined appearance that earlier generations of collectors didn't recognize them as prehistoric, Ripley said. Some of the birdstones in Townsend's collection are made of granite or quartz, which would require hundreds of hours to work by hand.

Most artifact collectors are farmers and outdoorsmen who catch the bug after finding an item in a tilled field, Swann said. Townsend was unusual in that he had the means to collect hundreds of items, many of which are top-quality, he said.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if museums were going to be bidding on the phone for some of this stuff,” Swann said.

Townsend was the broadcaster for the first televised Indianapolis 500, was the roommate of late President Gerald Ford when they attended the University of Michigan law school, and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1981. Townsend played at Arsenal Technical High School, DePauw University and the University of Michigan.

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