Photography: Steve DeFurio/Courtesy High Noon Western Americana
Photography: Steve DeFurio/Courtesy High Noon Western Americana

The Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection of Native American beadwork has a new home in print.

A lesser collector might have given up. But when Bob Sandroni’s California house burned to the ground in 2007 — and with it, his priceless Americana collection — he doubled down. Traumatic as it was to lose all those Mexican saddles, bridles, chaps, wall artwork, and Native American beadwork, Sandroni salvaged the situation the best way he knew how: by collecting.

He’s nothing if not pragmatic. He was well-insured and kept meticulous records. “Everything was valued at the high end of the market. In effect, I sold high and was able to buy low,” he says. “After the fire, I was able to pick up more and more beadwork at depressed prices as the economy slipped into recession.” So much of it and of such quality, in fact, that the Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection — the post-fire rebuilding — has now been archived in a beautiful 228-page book, A Beading Heart: The Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection (High Noon Western Americana, 2016).

“They’ve really built a world-class collection of pictorial Indian beadwork,” says publisher Linda Kohn Sherwood, partner in High Noon Western Americana, a company of dealers and appraisers for Western Americana and founders of the
original High Noon show and auction. “These are museum-quality pieces, and, in fact, some of the collection is on display at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, and some has been published in the book Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork by Lois Dubin.

“A Beading Heart visually explores Native American storytelling and culture represented in the collection’s pictorial and floral gauntlets, adult and children’s clothing, containers, and moccasins.”

And it shows what a great eye Sandroni has.

Quilled dress, Western Sioux, ca. 1880.
Quilled dress, Western Sioux, ca. 1880.

“Bob’s eye, as is the case with many collectors, really developed as he collected over the years,” says James H. Nottage, vice-president and chief curatorial officer of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. “His own sensibilities grew over time, and he has brought together some terrific objects.” One of Nottage’s favorites? “There is a remarkable vest with bear paws on it. It’s just breathtaking,” says Nottage, who wrote the book’s foreword. “Every time I see the image, I think it’s just amazing. [The beauty is in] the simplistic nature of a very graphic image — so sparse in terms of imagery, but the design is exquisite.”

To find treasures like that and the dress with the quilled bodice and butterflies on the sleeves that Nottage is also partial to, Sandroni combs ardently through auction catalogs. When it comes to choosing a piece, he says, it’s partly price but “more my eye. Sometimes if a great piece comes along and you have to pay up a bit more, I won’t pass it up. If you love art, you can accumulate and accumulate, but you have to do it with a sense of intelligence. I could never go out and buy a collection. Hunting, searching, researching, going to many, many shows and auctions — that’s what makes it so much fun. I might find something in Podunk, Iowa, and say, ‘Wow, what a great piece!’ And it’s only $4,000, when at a big auction house, it would go for $24,000.”

Steal or not, Sandroni demurs when asked to name some of his pet pieces, but he does allow that he has a particular fondness for gauntlets. “I have 110 pairs of gauntlets. I complain that I can’t find a good pair anymore, and the dealers say that’s because I’ve got them all.”

But it’s not like he’s hoarding. “Bob is very generous with his collection. He both donates and loans to his favorite museums,” Nottage says. “Bob comes from the East, but he’s been in California for a very long time. He’s an adopted Westerner but takes his interest in the West and its people, art, museums, and artifacts very seriously.”

When that serious affection for the West and its artifacts led the Sandronis to become High Noon clients almost 20 years ago, the business relationship blossomed into a globe-trotting friendship. Sherwood, her husband, Joseph, and the Sandronis have traveled the world together on recreational treasure hunts.

“The collection for them has expanded their world. They love to share it,” Sherwood says. “They have opened up their two homes to all kinds of groups who’d like to learn about it. Bob has collected for many, many years. His two houses — one in California, the other in New Mexico — both display his collection. I think that doing this book was very cathartic for him. He’s still adding but is slowing it down. Putting the collection into ink does something to you: You know it’s preserved for posterity. And Bob is sincerely interested in inspiring his family, hoping his grandchildren will discover the same passion.”

For information on the availability of A Beading Heart: The Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection, visit High Noon Western Americana.

From the August/September 2016 issue.