A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
No Golden rules for African Art.
- What is the gold-standard for verifying a piece's age?
- Is this 'gold-standard' a requirement for selling to collectors?
- What are the runner-up verification methods?
- Are there any good books that anyone knows of that would help me in this regard, specifically for S. African art?
- Lastly, does anyone have a list of the 'best' general books on African art?
To be honest we have all asked ourselves these questions at some point, I put this down to a desire to learn more and add to our collections and to try mitigate the danger of getting conned.
Well unfortunately, there are no gold standards, no silver bullets and no fast bucks. However, there is one Golden Rule – buy only what you like and pay what you feel the piece is worth to you, that way you never feel cheated or ripped off. Collecting African art is not necessarily about wealth generation, it is about appreciation and enjoyment of the piece.
The business of collecting tribal artefacts is not like collecting hallmarked silver, it is a passion, an appreciation and a quest. If you have a good eye and you ‘do your time’ so to speak you will find it easier.
Everyone has his own opinions – that is what is nice about it, we are as individual as the pieces we collect. I come from Zimbabwe so I naturally collect Southern African as I can relate to it so I will try use examples that you will find in Southern Africa.
True African artefacts are rare and hard to find and there is a thriving market in fakes and curious at the moment, so you need to be aware of what you should look for and how to recognise a genuine piece. There is no formula or principles you should follow in identification but if I was forced to come up with a few I would say; patina, texture/wear, materials / craftsmanship, smell and context.
I will attempt to describe each one of these, but as you can appreciate there is no substitute for getting your hands on a piece and seeing it first hand. You can appraise a piece almost instantly when you get you get your hands on it but unfortunately it is not easy to translate senses into sentences.
The base on the other hand would have had a different sort of wear and will be largely flat and even with no wear between the growth rings. Old headrests for example have incredibly smooth bases, which is evidence of years of movement and abrasion against other surfaces, an object with a rough base or support is unlikely to be well used. The image below is the base of the headrest in the previous image, you can see that the texture is different because of the sort of objects each end was coming into contact with.
Wear is an obvious clue to authenticity. Wear is not only bumps and scratches in the most likely places but it is evenly distributed across the entire piece, some areas will have bigger dents and chips but they should all have the same level of wear. Chips, damage and repairs are an inevitable consequence of time. Incisions and decorative carving collect many years of dust, grease and the collection of matter over time, this is not something you an easily replicate. I pointed out earlier the chip in the base of that Shona headrest and you will also notice in the preceding image of the top of the headrest the triangular incisions are partially filled.
All African objects were created for a specific purpose, so you should check that the wear on the piece is consistent with the function it was created to form. For example, if you pick up an authentic spear, staff or a knobkerrie you can literally feel the previous owners’ handprint at the fulcrum or balance point of the piece. The wood at that point will wear more from the abrasion of hands than the rest of the shaft.
The vast majority of the pieces are made of organic matter (wood and leather) but many other materials (metal or stone) are used to a lesser extent. Organic materials react to the environment they are in and will sometimes show environmental distress, this is most evident where organic and inorganic materials are used together, say for example brass studs on a wooden piece, over time the brass studs will naturally start to be ‘worked out’ of the wood as it expands and contracts.
When you look at the materials used you should try finding out if they would have been used or available in the period the piece is supposed to come from. Brass wire for example, it has been around for a while but when you look at a piece with brass wire on it you will be stunned at how they managed to weave that wire onto the piece so neatly, it is woven on not wound on. Also brass wire is not copper wire!
It is amazing how remarkably well crafted these pieces can be, considering the availability and quality of tools in the pre-colonial period. I can honestly say that of all the pieces I have seen the old ones are better made and have a nicer design balance to them than any curio or fake.
There is a high level of attention to detail but this is balanced against simplicity and visual effectiveness. They are constructed to the same standard throughout the piece. For example in the arches and spaces under a crossbar, under the base and in all the areas that are difficult to carve and difficult to get nice and smooth.
Old pieces are remarkable in as much as every single surface has the same standard of finish on it, the same attention to detail and quality. The only difference is that the patina will change through time, becoming darker in these hard to reach spots. The two images below demonstrate this, the first shows the high level of finish to the piece in general and the second is taken from below and you can see that the craftsman paid as much attention to the parts you don’t see as those you do.
You probably think that this is an odd one to mention, but smell is another sense you must use in identification – old pieces have very distinctive smells. Hard to explain but the simplest and probably most generic term would be that ‘antique shop’ smell. Not a Dubbin, oil, polish, excessive smoke or any other of those smells.
As you get more experienced, you will begin to recognise styles and shapes that point to a specific tribe, sometimes it is not so easy but even then you will get it down to two or three at the most. Once you have that you should use you knowledge of that tribe to cross check if the piece is consistent with the tribe. But then again every now and then you will find a mask which is not consistent with the tribe in any context! Proving that individuality was important as well and that is fantastic.
This is one I will mention briefly for two reasons, firstly if you are a novice or just starting a collection out you would probably have never heard of anyone and secondly would not have the resources or contacts to check a provenance claim.
Final advice I would give…if you are a novice stay away from West African artefacts! You WILL be taken.
Good books with a Southern African bias are few and far between:
1) Kevin Conru recently published his collection in a book entitled “The Art of Southern Africa” published by 5 Continents.
2) Ubuntu Arts et cultures d’Afrique du Sud - published only in French.
3) The Africana Museum Society in Johannesburg published a Notes and News monthly booklet called Africana. Well worth finding as they provide a huge wealth of images and details.
Books on African Art in General can sometimes be an expensive hobby in itself and more often than not – a bit of a disappointment as many of them share the same plates and similar text. As a beginner I would recommend you buy a wide reaching book that contains lots of variation so that you can begin to appreciate the beauty and variety of Africa’s art: try The Tribal Arts of Africa by Jean-Baptiste Bacquart published by Thames and Hudson. Good for visuals and variety.
If you need anything else I am always happy to help, as you
say Southern African is hard to find.
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