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

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Taking The Mystery Out Of Buying African Art

Commanding record auction prices, art from the Motherland has grown in popularity and profitability. But how can you tell the authentic from the faux, the fake Metsu painting from the real gabriel metsu ? the genuine African art from the one made in an atelier. Need dealer tips?


by Judith Oringer  text found at  june 1997

Art connoisseurs had an extraordinary opportunity last June 1996 when the largest collection of African artifacts ever put on sale was auctioned in Paris. Collectors and dealers from Europe and the United States bid for over 300 works from Central and West Africa. The Fang Byeri reliquary, a sacred object that held ancestral bones, and the most famous of all the objects from Gabon, sold for a record $1.1 million. When the gavel dropped, the public applauded. Sales totaled $6.5 million for the weeklong event, a considerable sum given the small but growing group of African art collectors.

In fact, collecting African art, which took off in the late '80s, has become a phenomenon among a wide cross section of people. No longer are pieces being purchased by just a handful of wealthy celebrities or athletes. Increasingly, middle-class people are buying these works, driving up their price and value.

This is due in part to more travelers, including African Americans, going to Africa and becoming more interested in the art and culture. More African Americans are also looking at traditional tribal art forms because they have become familiar with them via reproductions, suggests Lurita Brown, gallery director of Clinton Hill Simply Art Gallery in Brooklyn.

Reproductions, or "faux," are also less costly than original pieces, and are more affordable for most people. This allows individuals to become more comfortable and experienced with collecting, develop an eye and learn the value of the art while trading up to investment-grade artifacts.

"We're just beginning to see our images surface in the general market, and we're hungry for it," adds Brown.

As more Americans of all colors and classes begin or expand their African art collections, a trend is developing. "Collecting is a process. It is a deepening engagement through financial investment," says Grace Stanislaus, executive director of the Museum for African Art in New York City.

Becoming a connoisseur who can recognize individual works may take many years to learn. But there are elements that can help even novices distinguish the authentic from the fake. Experts say there are four primary criteria for evaluating African art: age, function, aesthetic quality and origin. Equally important, is buying what you like. That way, even if it isn't graded valuable, it will be "prized" by you.


Age is considered a principal element when determining what is considered valuable. But when evaluating African art, age is a relative term, since an old African art object can originate from just 30-50 years ago. Most prized carvings and statues are from the late 19th or early 20th century, while objects such as plates, chairs, musical instruments or weapons, can date back hundreds of years. In part, African artifacts don't date back much farther because of climatic and poor storage conditions, leaving wood to dry out, warp or crack.

What is now considered "art" was originally made for ritualistic or functional purposes, which is what makes African art valuable. As such, many artifacts come from a spiritual context, in dance or other ceremonial or ancestral worship, or have a practical use, such as a water jug or plate. African art was never made for merely decorative or aesthetic purposes. However, aesthetic quality is necessary to establish value. "Even if a piece was used in ancient ceremonies, if it isn't beautiful, there's no interest," says Helene Leloup, owner of Art Primitif Gallery in Paris.

Finally, there is the origin of the work: where the piece came from (which ethnic group and country), where it's been (because most early pieces were removed by colonists and taken back to Europe) and what collection it's from (who owned it once it was removed from its original environment). All these factors contribute to the value. But what can sometimes make collecting African art complicated is that many works are neither signed nor dated, and are created by "unknown" masters.

So how can amateurs--or even serious collectors--tell the authenticity and value of a mask, statue or an everyday object like a spoon, stool or ladder? If you expose yourself to enough different art forms and cultures, you'll at least be able to distinguish, for example, Nigeria's Yoruba statues and masks from South Africa's Ndebele art forms.

"You have to train your eye, like with any other art. It's like developing an ear for music or a nose for perfume," says Reginald Groux, owner of the Noir d'Ivoire gallery in Paris.

Look at a lot of art. Museums with a strong African or primitive art collection are rich resources and make for a good initiation. Major U.S. cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Washington offer at least one major collection in a museum or have museums exclusively devoted to this art (see sidebar, "In the Spirit of African Art"). Other sources of exposure are traveling exhibitions that tour some of the major cities and museums across the country, colleges and lectures.

Learn more about African cultures. "African art is unique in that different regions are producing art in various materials, colors and textures now," says Lurita Brown. "There's even new underground art coming from Africa that's not going through the traditional route of brokers and gallery owners to get out," she adds. In essence, there are as many different art forms--both old and new--as there are countries producing art.

"This is the cultural property of a whole continent," says Stanislaus. "There's a deep belief system [reflected] in African art. The objects are undeniably powerful," she adds. The Museum for African Art has a "friend's-level membership," which occasionally organizes those interested in collecting and takes them to see well-developed private and public collections.

Ask a lot of questions. The only way to learn about a country's art and culture--let alone a continent's--is to ask. What is the work's origin? What country does it come from? When was it made? What is it made of? Whose collection did it come from? And, if possible, who made it (i.e. from what tribe)? These should be asked of any dealer or gallery owner you consider buying from.


Now that you have an idea of some of the basic considerations in collecting African art, you are ready to venture forward.

Build gradually. If you really want to start collecting the real thing, go slowly. And if you intend for your initial acquisitions to have any investment value, then be prepared to spend $500-$2,000. Start by buying jewelry, textiles for wall hanging or utilitarian objects such as stools, combs or tools. "Don't look just at masks and figures, which are much more expensive," advises Carol Thompson, former associate curator of the Museum for African Art. "Most people don't start with a huge number of objects. They can have two great things and that's all. They build up to a fabulous collection," Stanislaus adds.

"You don't have to buy a $50,000 piece right away," concurs New York veteran dealer Mert Simpson, who has been in the business for over 40 years. "Start your collecting with a small piece of quality and trade up. For a few thousand dollars you can buy a Yoruba twin figure (Nigeria), an Ashanti doll or gold weight (Ghana), everyday objects such as stools, gourds and neck rests, or weaponry often sculpted with birds or other figures."

Leloup suggests other possibilities. "For $500 you can buy excellent things: an old Mangbetu knife from Zaire, African pottery that is simple but beautiful, or old velvet Kuba fabric from the Congo for even less-- between $200-$300. It's prettier than ethnography." She agrees, however, that more significant pieces cost money: "You won't get a decent mask for less than $4,000." Her suggestion? Buy pieces from countries like Nigeria (Yoruba and If e are some of the well-known ethnic groups) or Burkina Faso which have millions of people and more art to sell. "The price is less for statues and masks, compared with the Fang people in Gabon or the Dogon in Mali that have only about 250,000 people."

Work with a dealer. Most African art connoisseurs recommend working with a dealer early on. "It's a kind of apprenticeship. You need to have some kind of tutor or guide," says Simpson, one of the few African American international dealers. "Some people have an eye for it. I don't know any one way or easy formula. Find someone you can trust, who knows more than you do. It's the best way to do collecting," he advises.

His Parisian colleague, Alain de Monbrison, says people ought to consult an expert for good art the way they do for everything else. "If my computer breaks down, I call a specialist. If I get sick, I see a doctor. An expert will know technically if an object is authentic or fake. Everyone has his metier," he adds.

Others suggest that beginning collectors not buy from just one dealer. "You I don't learn as much. It's better to have more than one teacher. Talk to as many people as you can," suggests Thompson.
Museums with strong African art collections and art associations can recommend a reputable dealer. "Find someone who has been in business a long time, who has reliable taste, customer references and knows which African dealers have authentic merchandise," suggests de Monbrison.

Handle the objects. Don't be afraid to look at them inside and out. Thompson says even at premier auction houses such as Christie's or Sotheby's, you can ask to have an object taken out of the glass case in order to inspect it. "It's important to touch, smell and look at the piece After all, you're going to be living with it," she adds.

Go to auctions. Serious collectors should get on the auction circuit. Auction schedules are listed regularly in Tribal Arts magazine, a quarterly journal published in both English and French, African Arts magazine and Art And Auction magazine, a monthly which covers auctions worldwide. Or you can subscribe to auction house publications.

Take a trip abroad. If you're really serious about collecting African art, most, of course, is in Africa. But what you'll see depends on where you go. The commercial market is strongest in Europe, particularly Paris and Brussels. Post-colonial ties remain strong, as does the tradition of collecting. Paris has at least 20 well-established African art dealers, all concentrated in the same neighborhood on the Left Bank; Brussels has 10. "Make a trip to Europe once a year," suggests Helene Leloup. But there are major collections and museums in the U.S.--from the Smithsonian's National Museum for African Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum for African Art in New York.

African art continues to be vibrant. Contemporary African art incorporates western influences in imaginative ways. "Colonialization passed through the African continent like water over waxed canvas," says dealer and auction expert Pierre Amrouche. "Africa is now reappropriating and reintegrating its own art," he adds. Contemporary African artists are becoming more prevalent, identifiable and accepted. Brown suggests that it is because these contemporary African artists have learned to draw upon images that neophytes are more familiar and comfortable with.

Experts recognize the phenomenon in the rush to buy African art. "People are buying it for different reasons--as a work of art, for prestige, for the pleasure it gives or as an investment," says Simpson. "Artists feel more vibrant around it."

Simpson says he'd like to see more African Americans become major collectors. And he feels this will become more of a reality as the educational process becomes more accessible. "I'd like to see us get more involved. Look and see the wealth that you have in this art; that is who you are."

The Spirit of African Design
African Americans are searching for pieces they can "live with," pieces they can incorporate into their personal living spaces, whether at work or at home. A new book, The Spirit of African Design by Sharne Algotsson and Denys Davis (Clarkson Potter; $35) taps into this desire and shows us how to integrate our heritage into our spaces in a variety of striking and aethetically pleasing ways. Filled with wondrous color photographs, the book explores the origins of all kinds of African art, from utilitarian objects to art pieces. It even addresses how outdoor gardens and backyards can be transformed by incorporating simple fabrics into outdoor cushions, to the kind of flowers planted in the garden, as well as how to clean and care for African textiles.

Here are a few other resources you may find helpful in learning more about collecting African art:

The Museum for African Art, 593 Broadway, New York, NY 10012; 212-966- 1313.

Metropolitan Museum of Art (Rockefeller Primitive Art Wing), 1000 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10028; 212-879-5500

The Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11238; 718- 638-5000

The Schomburg Collection, The Schomburg Center for Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Blvd., New York, NY 10037; 212-491-2200.

National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, 950 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20560; 202-357-4600.

The Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202; 313-833-7900.

Read also a text from Lavuun Quackelbeen father.

Alex Arthur  from Tribal Arts magazine opinion:

Granted, there are plenty of dealers who deal in fakes mixed with authentic. 
They split into those that knowingly do so and others that just donn't get it! 
Through the print version of this magazine and others, the advertisers are being 
very public about what they are selling and open to the scrutiny of their peers 
- with this in mind, I have noticed an effort on behalf of many dealers, to not 
offer disputable pieces as much as was once the case. Many of the 
"rogues" in the business chose not to be so public. It is difficult to 
perhaps attain the label "reputable" because of the competitive nature 
between art-dealers but careful attention to ads over a period of time should 
satisfy many collectors as to a certain dealers taste and validity.

Unfortunately, there are no real associations that guarantee tribal art, but 
there is an association with a code of ethics (ATADA - Antique tribal art 
dealers association) that its members should adhere to. If I remember correctly, 
any member has to accept the return of any proven fake. Perhaps then, it is the 
collector that must insist on guarantee and return policies with a chosen dealer 
or not do business ....

My hope is that while the authentic material diminishes, our knowledge of 
antique tribal art is always increasing - magazines, books, websites all 
contribute to us sharing information globally and this growing awareness should 
eventually eliminate the bad eggs from the marketplace.

On the subject of "buyer beware". In some way, collecting itself is an 
art of accumulating knowledge and expertise, NOT just pieces of wood with labels 
attesting to their ethnic origin. There are many collectors who eventually know 
more about given areas than the dealer they are buying from - but most didn't 
get there by never making a mistake, never looking at books and museum 
collections and not asking questions of the objects they purchase. 

A last thought on ascertaining authenticity: Let's face it, patinas and 
techniques can be duplicated to varying degrees of accuracy - good enough to 
fool collectors, dealers, museums and so-called experts (in ALL fields of art), 
but we should remember that the most difficult job of a forger is to capture the 
spirit and fluidity of the carver that made the original items. Authentic and 
archaic tribal art is charged with this "spirit" and are seldom rigid 
representations of a style. The greatest known masterpieces all have it. Learn 
to distinguish this, and the battle is 3/4 done. 

Any more opinions?
Alex Arthur

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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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