|By Brett Weiss
DENVER, Colo. — Most hardcore specialty collectors are content to conquer a single field of collecting.
This is definitely not the case with Chuck Rozanski, owner and president of the Mile High Comics, one of the largest online comic book retailers in America. In addition to running Mile High Comics, which includes four brick-and-mortar stores in the Denver metro area, Rozanski collects Pueblo pottery.
Before expounding on Rozanski’s Native American pottery collection, which stands at an astounding 8,500 pieces and counting, a little history is in order. Rozanski was born in Ashaffenburg, German in 1955. His family immigrated to America when he was five years old, and this is when his fascination with comics began.
“My mother somehow learned about Classics Illustrated, Jr. comics, which contained fairy tale adaptations,” Rozanski said. “We were very poor, but she somehow scraped together the money to get me issues by mail, which she then read to me as bedtime stories.”
Rozanski’s step-father is to blame, as well.
“My stepfather also used to bring home grocery sacks filled with comics that he traded from his army buddies,” he said. “I would read them in my hiding places. By age seven, I was totally addicted.”
By the time Rozanski entered his teen years, he was selling comic books to his friends from his parent’s basement. When he was 14, he opened his first booth at an upscale, indoor flea market. Things only escalated from there.
“I attended my first national comics convention as a dealer in 1972,” he said. “I grossed $1,800 during that convention, which was a huge sum in those days. I was only 17 years old at the time, but I knew from that moment onward that I wanted to be a comics dealer for the rest of my life.”
Despite (or because of) those beginnings, Rozanski had ambition to spare. “I opened the first Mile High Comics store in Boulder, Colo. after sleeping in my mother’s 1963 Chevy Impala sedan for four months in 1974, at age 19,” he admitted. “At 21, I had a chain of four stores, and had purchased the ’Mile High’ collection of Golden Age comics, the largest and highest-quality collection of old comics ever discovered.”
The “Mile High” collection Rozanski refers to is the stuff of legend. To summarize this monumental find, Rozanski purchased a collection that included every comic book published from 1938-1950, all in near-mint condition. This included such key issues as Action Comics No. 1 (first appearance of Superman), Detective Comics No. 27 (first appearance of Batman) and Marvel Comics No. 1 (first appearance of the original Human Torch), among many others.
For Rozanski’s full account of this dramatic, historical, industry-altering purchase, go online to www.milehighcomics.com/tales/cbg12.html.
Two decades after opening that first Mile High Comics store, Rozanski began collecting Native American pottery. His ongoing hunt for comics, in fact, led to his new hobby.
“I have always been a fan of attending auctions of all kinds, and ended up at a series of Native American arts auctions run by Bob and Dal Payne during the early 1990s,” he explained.
“After buying a few random pots, I began to realize that I was experiencing an inexplicable resonance with certain pieces.”
Thus, a second obsession was born.
“That (experience purchasing pottery) led me to start buying reference books and reading up on where, how, and by whom the pottery was being created,” Rozanski explained. “This culminated in my driving to Santa Fe in 1998, and first stepping foot on the sacred dance plazas at Santa Clara Pueblo. I have been totally hooked ever since.”
Rozanski collects all types of Pueblo pottery, but be has a “special affinity and social connection” with Santa Clara Pueblo and the other five Tewa Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Okay Owinge, Pojoaque, Nambe and Tesuque.
There are probably as many reasons to collect a certain type of object as there are collectors, and some collectors aren’t particularly verbose in explaining why they collect, but Rozanski has an organic connection to his collection that is unique.
“I have had a remarkably large and beautiful Tewa prayer, which incorporates images from seven pieces of pottery by 1930s Pueblo artist Van Gutierrez, tattooed over my entire upper torso,” he said. “As a direct result, thoughts of my pottery collection never leave me, even when I am on the road buying comics collections.”
Native American pottery is in a unique class in terms of construction and what it means to the culture.
“Traditional pottery creation at the Pueblos is a spiritual act. Each piece is (supposed to be) made of clay dug on or near the Pueblo, hand-cleaned by the creator or their family, and then hand-coiled and polished at the kitchen table,” Rosanski explained. “Each piece is then fired in the backyard, using just wood and manure as fuel.
“Throughout this process, prayers are to be said to Mother Earth for allowing her flesh to be combined with the prayers of the artist in order to create a work of beauty to feed the family of the creator. Fired at very low temperatures, Pueblo pottery tends to crack and break easily. Each failure is attributed to a lack of sincerity in prayer. Each successful piece fired is then considered by many creators to be their ’child,’ as the process of hand-working clay inevitably results in tiny bits of the creator’s skin and blood being contained in each piece.”
Collecting Pueblo pottery is clearly a transcendent endeavor for Rozanski; but as with any collector, he must deal with such prosaic concerns as where to put everything.
“Most of my pottery is displayed in more than 60 six-foot high showcases in our main Denver warehouse,” he said. “I just purchased a second warehouse, which contains room for another 60 cases, but I won’t gain much more than a little wiggle room by doubling up on cases, however, as I have pottery crammed everywhere in our offices that presently cannot fit in my existing displays.”
Time is a factor as well in organizing, cataloging, and displaying his collection. “That is a continual problem,” Rozanski said. “There are just not enough hours in the day.”
For some collectors, the items in their collection are like their children – it’s hard to pick a favorite.
However, despite owning more pottery than he can properly display, Rozanski has no problem naming a few special pieces that he holds in higher regard than others.
“I stumbled across an Ogapoge Polychrome water jar from the 1720s that appears to have been made in Frijoles Canyon, by refugees from San Ildefonso Pueblo,” he explained. “It is the only unbroken piece of which I am aware from that time period, and would auction from $10,000 to $50,000, depending on the day. I also have an 1890s San Ildefonso sacred corn meal box which depicts the birth of Avanyus, the gods of lightning and rain that I have tattooed over most of my body. I bought it at a Bonham’s and Butterfield’s auction for $1,800, but I would have gladly paid $10,000 for this unique piece.”
When asked about other valuable artifacts in his collection, Rozanksi said, “I have three sacred corn meal boxes by Sarafina Tafoya, the mother of legendary Santa Clara potter Margaret Tafoya. Margaret died at age 100, a few years back. Sarafina was illiterate, so only five signed boxes (signed for by her son, Manuel) are know to exist. They, along with my two corn meal boxes by Marie and Julian Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo, would retail in the $6,000 to $10,000 each range. I have numerous other pieces that could retail for above $10,000 each, including a wonderful large human figure from Cochiti Pueblo that was made in 1880. I paid $11,000 for that one figure six years ago.”