by David Norden
Originally these pieces were ritual and related to religious practices
of every day life: pregnancy, marriage, illness, death, and the honoring
of the chiefs and deaths family members. They were
not made for museums ( and our cathedrals where not made for tourists).
Not all pieces were used often, and not all worn pieces are old. The
tribes in some African countries, for example the Dogon in Mali used the
masks from generation to generation. But in other countries they were
used once and thrown away.
There is a very big market for pieces made recently in Africa for
decoration shops, but these pieces don't have the same value as the
originals, even if at first sight they look the same.
But this is also the reason that I try to find pieces coming from old collection instead
of buying from the african runners. I see them often in my shop and I nearly never buy from them because they
always come with recent made copy's.
Top Ten tips to determine african art value and authenticity:
Building your collection
Building your collection is a creation. It will show who you are and what you stand for and
it also tells something about your personality.
In fact, building a collection is a little bit like making a bouquet of flowers. You can choose to have all similar
items coming from a same region and in a specific material, like the collector I know who only
wants well-patinated ivory figures from the Congo. If the ivory doesn't show much use,
he doesn't want it.
I also know a sculptor who had collected 70 different Bassa masks.He told me
"It is like the a James Ensor painting - all different characters".
Other collectors, such as the painter Corneille, don't feel a necessity to have old items.
They just collect on the basis of shapes. A few years ago, I saw an exhibition of
Corneiller, in the modern art museum
in Oostende and I was shocked to see that most pieces where recent and in my eyes not Museum-worthy.
Corneille, however, explained that he was just interested in the shapes, expressions and colours to inspire his own work.
You have also other artists collectors like Arman or Baselitz who focus on fine old items.
I am a professional photographer, and my mother was a collector. That's how I
became interested myself, but I couldn't live with pieces coming from one tribe only.
I like it all and the pieces in my shop are like a personal collection and depicting a little bit my own personality in, multiform.
My main interest is Central African art and Gabon, but I also like the fine carvings from
West Africa, such as the Baule, Senufo, or Ashanti. I also have a small collection of Indian bronzes,
pre-Columbian pieces and other archaeological items.
So before starting a collection you should ask yourself what your goals are
in relation to your personality :
Questions are from me, Blue answers are from Merlijn, a
members from my discussion group (click African
art Discussion group
if you want to join)
1) Must my collection consist of items with high value at the short-term (buy only antiques) or long-term (you can also buy
No, definately not. When you start with a collection buy the things
you like, that's primary. If you have the plan to sell African
sculpture however, be careful in what you buy, and I advise that you
don't start selling when you have only a few months experience in
It's all about what you want. You can e.g. also start a collection of
contemporary art in soapstone.
Starting a collection is like building a house without blueprints:
You start with pieces for which you pay too much (you will find out
after a few years), and with lots of reading and looking at African
sculpture. Maybe if you are lucky you will find good sculpture too
when you start. If you are not experienced, don't let the amount of
money you spend on a piece exceed the limit of a nice price. Take
your time in learning.
After some years, you probably want better sculptures, and if
possible, like the ones in books. To attain experience here, go to
art galleries, museums, etc. and study the tribes, styles, and type
of wear on sculpture (colouring, patina, etc).
2) Do you want a mixed collection or rather focus on a special theme, like a specific animal
(e.g. snake, elephant, monkey ), or some utilitarian type of object ( pipes,
gold weights, Ibedji's twin figures, etc...)?
It depends on what you look for. If you have the plan to
antiques, you'd better choose for a mixed collection if you haven't
got a thick wallet, because your chances in finding and buying a good
antique will increase dramatically.
If you look for a particular style, particular material, animal,
region etc., stick with the subject you want and don't expect that
all things should be antiques (it would probably cost you dearly if
you do). However, if you think it's fine that your collection grows
slowly and steadily, you can go for the antiques.
3) Abstract (textiles, utilitarian items) or figurative; fine carvings or rough;
used (items with patina) or not?
4) Will you pick up what comes your way, like a fisher, or will you actively chase after your
pieces of choice?
Both can be attractive. For me the hunting is more
exciting than the
buying. That's when the mission is complete.
But you can wait what comes by, because there's always
5) Is my collection a work in progress, or will I keep my pieces forever once I have them.
Or will I have some goals (e.g.: 100 spoons from different regions), and once attained will I sell it as
a collection and start some new collection ?
6) Will I focus on a specific geographic area (eg. All Lega material) or not?
7) Do I want pieces that show European or cross-border influences ?
8) Will I document every piece and try to find similar items?
This is not a bad idea, not only for studying purposes,
but also to
remember addresses, books and prices, should you ever decide to sell
after -let's say- 10 years.
9) Will I try to find the best samples from current tribes or do I try to be complete by finding the most rare samples?
One tip: expect the unexpected when you collect. Keep
don't try too much. That's the most exciting of collecting and that
is what gives it spirit.
10) A starting collector should better try to find small but fine pieces when they start, the chance they are genuine and affordable is a little bigger. Don't buy if you don't feel the crush or if you doubt.
Tell me what you think. How you build your collection or whether you have other views on the subject?
Read also other related texts like dealer tips.