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

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Hunting for art

Anne Cipriano was just a little girl growing up in rural eastern Kansas when she learned the value of keeping her eyes peeled. Dangerous snakes and insects lurked alongside the paths she walked almost every day while bringing the family's herd of cows in from the fields.

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MARK ST. JOHN ERICKSON February 20 2005 found at http://www.dailypress.com/

But those unwelcome stingers and venomous fangs weren't the only things that made the grade-school kid pay such close attention to where her feet were treading. Half-hidden in the rich soil of the Missouri River basin were glints of Native American artifacts that reached back centuries - and to Cipriano, these fragments from the past were real-life buried treasures.

Almost a lifetime later, the retired York County resident still keeps watch intently, scanning her surroundings for the slightest hint of what has become a carefully cultivated group of targets. But now - and almost since the day she left Kansas to take a teaching job in Europe - she haunts flea markets and antique shows instead of rolling fields. Long ago she also traded her interest in artifacts for vintage beads, and those bits of stone and glass led her to seek beaded objects - most of them African - and then ritual masks and ancestral figures.

So successful did Cipriano become at rooting these objects out of the strangest places that her collection grew to include thousands and thousands of beads and scores - perhaps hundreds - of African objects. Her collection fills the stairway, hall and several upstairs rooms of her Marlbank home - with so much left over that she was able to become one of the most prominent lenders to the Peninsula Fine Arts Center's new West African art exhibit.

"Everywhere I've lived, everywhere I've looked, there was always something that invited me to explore it more deeply," Cipriano says, sitting in front of a wall covered with hundreds of dangling strings of beads.

"For me, it was only natural to go from beads to collecting other objects. People have an insatiable curiosity - so you're always looking for something else to find and know."

Cipriano's lifelong habit of inquisitiveness came about the hard way. She was one of 12 kids in her family and, after her first year in a one-room country schoolhouse, the only child studying at her grade level.

With so many siblings, she had to share a doll with her sisters, she says. But she and the rest of the kids quickly learned to forge playful relationships with the things in the world around them.

"We could name every tree, every flower, every bug, every snake, every rock," she recalls. "We didn't collect them - but we learned to know them all."

Back at school, Cipriano stumbled upon another window that helped open up her world. Though the bare-bones classroom didn't provide its pupils with much, it did subscribe to National Geographic.

Every month, the little girl pored over the journal's glossy color pages, reveling in the magic of pictures from faraway places. One feature, in particular, kindled what would become a lifelong fascination.

"At the time, there were two Kansans who had just become the first to photograph Africa from the air," Cipriano recalls. "It was so exciting to know that someone from my home state had had such a wonderful adventure. That's where I got my love of Africa."

Cipriano picked up something else from her Kansas childhood, too. Not long after the death of an elderly neighbor woman for whom she'd carried groceries, she received an unexpected token of thanks - a string of porcelain beads from the estate.

"That's what hooked me on beads," she says, smiling at the memory of this influential gift.

"But somewhere along the line afterward, I lost them - and I've been mourning that first string of beads ever since."

Indeed, Cipriano's childhood delight became a defining passion - one that has soothed her loss with a spectacular collection of replacements. Not long after taking a job as a Department of Defense schoolteacher in Europe, she began her pursuit - and soon she was acquiring new finds in earnest.

Her first target was amber - usually vintage and antique examples - partly due to its semi-precious status but mostly because of its origin near her new home in Germany and its ties to her family history. Then she began looking for the equally old coral and blue glass beads that her ancestors in Germany and Holland might have worn before emigrating from Europe.

French seed beads and Bohemian crystal beads followed as she expanded her search over a series of European tours with her husband, Alex, an Army artillery officer.

"Anywhere there was a market, we'd pack up and go - the floh markets in Germany, the boot sales and jumbles sales in England, the flea markets in France, the schnuffel bazaars in Holland," Cipriano says.

"When you visited one place and saw something that interested you, you'd start to see it in other places, too. And if you liked it enough - and the price was right - you'd start adding those things to your collection."

Cipriano came across her first African artifacts in the midst of these weekend bead safaris. But many of the masks and ancestral figures that she's acquired since then have cropped up in the United States rather than in Europe.

Among her best sources was a New York dealer located not far from her husband's family home in Brooklyn. Better still, however, was the rich stream of offerings that passed through a small York County shop that specialized in African imports.

"I began working there for beads. I traded my time for beads - and for me that cemented the way in which the African trade beads I collected were supposed to be used," Cipriano says.

"But the longer I was there, the more I learned - and the more closely I began to look at the wonderful things brought in by this network of dealers who traveled up and down the East Coast."

So sharply did these contacts hone Cipriano's collecting skills that once - during a reluctant visit to a T.J. Maxx discount store with her children - she picked out a vintage African spirit mask from a display of newly made pretenders.

"When I saw what was being sold as African art, I just went - 'Aww!' But then I smelled an old one,"' she recalls.

"How it got there with all that awful airport art, I don't know - but it spoke to me. And I ended up buying this wonderful mask from T.J. Maxx for $19.95."

Today, Cipriano can trace the objects in her collection from the headhunters of the Himalayas to the Mayan, Roman and pre-Islamic artisans of a long-past era. Among her newest additions is a growing assortment of silver and carnelian talismans wrought by the blacksmiths of the nomadic Berber tribes who live in the Sahara.

For a farmgirl from Kansas, she's come pretty far, she says - and the proof can be found not only on the walls of her home but also in the galleries that make up the PFAC's West African art exhibit.

Yet even after reaching her mid-70s, this energetic, sharp-eyed collector shows no signs of giving up the hunt.

"It's not the value of the thing. It's the challenge of finding it - and the adventure," she says.

"There's always something that shows up and leads you on - and until it does, you have no idea that it was out there."

Copyright © 2005, Daily Press

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The Tribal Arts of Africa

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