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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

African Art books I like | Genuine African Masks

Buying African & Tribal arts: the facts

Read also other related texts like dealer tips & copy or fake 

Only a few passionate collectors are able to recognize if a piece is genuine or fake.

Today more fakes are produced to satisfy the demand of collectors from around the World. If  you are serious about collecting african art and that you are looking for pieces that where made for their own use, you will need assistance and much study.


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:

 Look at the piece. Is it well carved, is the patina logical (worn at tops not in the holes). When you look with an magnifying glass there may not be parallel lines (from the emery paper). Is the style coherent. Compare it with similar pieces from Museums. 
The ethnical provenance. Even of same quality , the art of different tribes can have huge price differences. E.g.: Luba has more value than Lobi. 
Pedigree. A piece from a collector from the thirties has a bigger value than a similar piece which recently came out of the jungle. Even some very banal pieces from famous artists have reached very high prices. When the piece is published in a book or catalogue it is worth more, certainly if the piece was published a few time in famous exhibitions catalogs
Fashion. Currently the fashion is for the aesthetics and decorative aspect of a piece with a shiny aspect. Collectors of modern art are more interested in the forms than in original patina and quality.
 Conservation state: too much restoration decreases the value. 
Rareness. Did you find that Guro statue? 
Size does matter, most pieces are 40/50 cm . Bigger pieces go for more money, even of same quality. 
Auction result prices and curent exhibitions makes some Tribes more valuable when there is a record price.
When it is fresh on the market and from a Tribe with small production. 
And last but not least the seller. A very well known gallery, artist, collector, may ask more than double the price than from an unknown merchant or someone who doesn't know what he is selling. But if you buy to a well known source you also have much better chances to get a better piece.

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 contemporary creations)?

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 
African sculpture.
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, headle-pulleys, gold weights, Ibedji's twin figures, etc...)?

It depends on what you look for. If you have the plan to collect
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 looking and
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?

David Norden

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In this section:
David's buying tips
African art experts
dealer species
african art commodity
Fake or Copy
Selling African art
currency museum Ottawa
African artefacts
Does it need Evaluation ?
African ceramics
Fake Gabun
ceramic arts in Africa 

African art books

The Tribal Arts of Africa

The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

more African Art books I like

read also : Start ] [ David's buying tips ] African art experts ] dealer-tips ] dealer species ] african art commodity ] Fake or Copy ] Authenticity-Kamer ] Selling African art ] currency museum Ottawa ] African artefacts ] Does it need Evaluation ? ] reconceptualisation ] African-weapons ] African ceramics ] Fake Gabun ] ceramic arts in Africa ]

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