A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Dear List Members,
Now, this piece takes a prime position in my living room as it is a fantastic piece of tribal carving and "beauty is in the beholders' eyes". I am even convinced that the dealer was not aware that it was not a genuine old piece, but does that distract from its beauty? On the other hand, dealers that repeatedly, willingly and knowingly sell recent pieces for something old should better be avoided, I guess.
But really, as the situation is now, it is nearly impossible to find anything over 25 years old as the supply has been depleted. Truly old pieces do occasionally show up, and recently I bought a stool that was purchased in southern Sudan but which originated from somewhere in Northeast Zaire. (I haven't been able to identify it is tribal sense but is is somewhere between Boa and Zande and I may need the help from this forum to identify it.)
My experience is that the better pieces now come from conflict areas where some of my dealers go themselves with batteries, medication, reading glasses, bicycle tires, food and other locally needed paraphernalia to trade these goods for tribal goodies by people who are in need of modernity items and wish to trade their inherited tribal artefacts for these modern conveniences. That now seems the sole source of genuine old pieces and a source that is also drying up rapidly. As a result of the diminishing supply, and an equally limited number of old pieces already circulating in the collectors' circles, it may be time to review the whole concept of what is a fake and what is not. Colonial (let alone pre-colonial) pieces are gone and what is generally supplied now is recent and rarely older then 25 years.
But is that a point or not? I mean, a good tribal piece is exactly that. If it is recent, it is still a good piece and may even have been used in tribal ceremonies and over time will also reach its antiquity status. We should realize that the time of Livingstone, Stanley, Speke and Luggard is over. Tribal traditions, bonds, ceremonies and religious beliefs are rapidly diminishing in Africa under the forces of modernization, globalization and coca-colaization.
Out of sheer sense of reality I am constantly shifting my collection preferences to items that are still in or entering the supply lines and over the years I have seen myself shifting from collecting statues and masks to, for instance, stools. When the latter sources started to dry up as well, I moved on to utensils and as of recently Bongo grave markers, Dinka corsets and whatever is entering the market. The dealers too are acutely aware of constraints on the supply of good tribal items and they shift towards whatever they can still get.
In that sense it is not really the African dealer who is to blame. It is the market. When demand stretches supply, 'alternatives' fill the gap - be it fakes, good recent carvings or just different items that previously were less in demand by collectors. It is all in the beholders' eyes and the buyer must simply be aware that there is a lot on the market that is not entirely what it seems.
Jos Maseland is a member of our African art Discussions in English
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