african maskstribal-art-value
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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Tribal art value

Cast a magic spell onto your portfolio


Combine the decorative with the lucrative by investing in traditional art

Nothing lights up a living room quite like a spear or shield hanging on the wall and tribal art from traditional communities, especially those in Africa and the Pacific region, is becoming increasingly popular with collectors.


says Edmund Tirbutt 29 May 2004 from

See lso our UK England and London pages

Ben Hunter, proprietor of the West London-based specialist dealer Tribal Hunter, says: "The market has been driven by interior decorators buying expensive items for their clients, and they are prepared to spend heavily for the right pieces as opposed to settling for something that is merely decorative. There has been a lot of contemporising of 19th century homes, and soaring values have seen people becoming obsessed with their properties, and also realising that tribal pieces can look fantastic."

But the UK collectors' market in this area still lags well behind those of other countries, most notably France and the US, where Sotheby's and Christie's have actually moved their tribal art departments.

The upside of this, however, is that prices in the UK remain relatively affordable. Someone with a few hundred pounds to spend should find a reasonable selection to choose from, and several thousand pounds can purchase items that are both rare and of excellent quality.

The next of Bonhams' two annual tribal art sales is not until December, but anyone wishing to dip their toe in this unusually colourful and exotic backwater can attend The HALI Fair: Carpets, Textiles and Tribal Art which begins next Thursday at London's Olympia.

The event, which will run until 13 June, will feature everything from tribal headrests and hats to pipes and furniture. The fact that all exhibited items have been strictly vetted is of paramount importance in this field.

Tim Teuten, who heads Christie's Paris-based department of African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art, says: "African art in particular is riddled with fakes and, although there is always the odd one that slips through the net, the leading auction houses and dealers have a good record for weeding these out. Most work is not by a known artist, so items are far less easily quantifiable than paintings, and often just rely on one person's opinion, therefore involving a higher degree of risk."

Consequently an item's known background is of extreme importance, because if it has been in the hands of a reputable collector or dealer, or comes with other proof of its previous whereabouts, it leaves far less to chance.

Siobhan Quin, head of the tribal arts department at Bonhams, says: "The key thing is to buy something you like, but if you are looking for an investment as well you should buy a piece from the 19th century that comes with a provenance. A Fijian tapa cloth we sold this May for £800 had been collected in the early 19th Century by a Royal Navy officer and came with an old label. Without such a good provenance it would only have been worth a couple of hundred pounds."

Items dating back to the 19th century are, however, relatively scarce because most objects are made of wood and therefore deteriorate easily. And they were often created specifically for a particular ceremony and simply chucked away afterwards, meaning that they are often now found in caves and shrub.

Gordon Reece, a keen collector, is adamant that masks are the single most undervalued form of tribal art, despite the fact their prices have climbed steadily over the past two years. One or two spectacular sales at the very top end of the market have made people begin to take notice.

Masks were nearly always worn in conjunction with ceremonies, although these could be for very different purposes in different geographical areas. In Africa they were usually connected with ancestor worship and rites of passage, whereas in the Himalayas they tended to have more to do with ancient religions.

Mr Reece says: "People are often wary of masks, which have always fetched less than figures, because they are not necessarily pleasant to look at and can even seem a little scary. Good original masks are available for between £800 and £6,000, but for every good one on the market there are at least another 10,000 which you shouldn't touch with a barge pole from an investment point of view. Masks from the Himalayas can be undervalued, because although there have been over 800 books published on African tribal art only one has appeared about Himalayan art. A 1930s to 1940s Dyak mask from Borneo would probably sell for around £3,000, whereas a mask from Bhutan in the Himalayas from the same period might fetch £800, even if just as beautiful."

Those seeking the next boom area should take a close look at Nigeria, which several experts regard as being undervalued, and at Aboriginal art from Australia. Late 19th and early 20th Century Wunda shields used by Aborigines are, in particular, getting noticeably rarer. Very good examples, which would have sold for under £1,000 five years ago, are now selling for £3,000 to £4,000.

Would-be investors may therefore have to settle for tribal art from the first half of the 20th century and, as with most collectables, the main determinants of value other than provenance are likely to be beauty, age, rarity and condition.

Bryan Reeves, owner of Tribal Gathering, a specialist dealer based in West London, says: "Original sculptures bought from Africa in the 1930s and 1940s can easily be worth 30 to 40 times their purchase price simply because they cannot be found any more. As for the future, the thing to do is to go for objects with shape and colour, which means getting more into household items, costumes and shields. These are very decorative and moderately priced in the £1,000 to £3,000 range."

But, whilst there is no shortage of examples of impressive returns having been achieved from tribal art, these are the exceptions rather than the norm. Someone who doesn't happen to hit upon the right thing at the right time may have to hold an item for around 10 years just to be reasonably certain of breaking even, once inflation and dealing charges have been taken into account.

The need for a long-term perspective is particularly important with tribal carpets and rugs.

Christopher Legge, an Oxford-based dealer specialising in village and tribal carpets, says: "Some items I sold for £100 when I opened my first shop in 1974 would now be worth £2,000 and I cannot recall anyone who has bought from me for investment purposes being disappointed if they have been prepared to hold for 20 years or more. But values do not go up one day and down the next, as in the stock market, and whenever people have tried to make short-term profits they have found it difficult unless they have had considerable specialist knowledge. There has been huge interest in Moroccan tribal carpets during the past 10 years, but the bubble has probably burst and those looking for an area that could come into vogue should perhaps consider Persian village and tribal carpets, which are now starting to meet growing interest. Kurdish carpets, which have tended to be comparatively neglected, could also find demand boosted by a new book on the subject."

Ensuring that purchases are maintained in suitable condition is a much bigger issue for carpets and rugs than for most other tribal art, which tends to be kept out of harm's way on walls or in display cabinets. If you start off with a rug with good quality wool you could both use it and maintain it in good condition for 100 years, but you could also destroy it within 20 years with careless use.

Carpets and rugs should be cleaned at least every five years in conjunction with specialist advice, a process that is likely to cost £100 to £200. As long the ends and the sides aren't frayed they can be vacuumed regularly, and even pet cats and dogs should not pose a threat if they are house-trained. Spilling wine or other liquids can often be resolved simply by blotting it with kitchen paper until it is dry and then giving it a scrub with cold water, but never keep a woollen rug near an open fire, because a spark could be very bad news.

* The HALI Fair: Carpets Textiles and Tribal Art, is taking place between 3 and 13 June at Olympia, London. Call 0870 126 1727 for tickets or visit  for further information.


Tribal art value investment

  Shields, which often contain beautiful graphics, seem to be the subject of insatiable demand from collectors and can be bought for as little as £1,000. But the better and older ones are likely to cost two or three times as much.

This 1940s Maasai shield was sold to a US private collector for $7,500 (£4,100) by Tribal Gathering this April. The Maasai are a semi-nomadic East African people who live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. (Tribal Gathering 020 7221 6650)
  Joss Graham Oriental Textiles, a south-west London-based dealer, is excited by the potential in ewe cloths, particularly those woven before 1940. These are bespoke prestige cloths worn by high-ranking tribal chiefs, male and female, in Ghana. At the moment it is still possible to buy them for £500 to £1,500.

The firm also has a splendid collection of prestige hats from the early 20th century Cameroon grasslands, selling at between £450 and £850 each. These were essentially wigs that chiefs wore in order to stand out from the crowd and are becoming very rare. (Joss Graham Oriental Textiles 020 7730 4370)


Jonathan Hope, a south-west London dealer specialising in South-east Asian textiles, is very bullish about tapa, a painted or block printed bark cloth stripped off species of the paper mulberry tree from between the late 18th century to the present day. Prices range from £1,000 to £15,000 but, because the bark is very fragile, it needs to be framed like a painting.

Hope's collection also includes the heddle pulley which was used for weaving by the Dogon people of Mali in the early 19th century. This is priced at £2,750, although later models with less elegant sculpture can be obtained for only a few hundred pounds. (Jonathan Hope 020 7581 5023)

'Every day you learn something new'

Gordon Reece, who is aged 60 and lives in North Yorkshire, became interested in tribal art over 40 years ago when he was an art student.

He says: "Tribal art has so much to do with modern art in Europe that as an art student you are bound to come across it. Leading artists like Picasso bought tribal art, which is the antithesis of The Renaissance and it is obviously exciting to the art student because of its degree of abstraction.

Mr Reece admits that his home, which is packed full of his own personal collections of primitive Himalayan masks, tribal jewellery and figures from the Pacific Islands, is not dissimilar to a museum.

Fortunately, however, this has not affected matrimonial bliss because his wife has now become nearly as engrossed in the subject as he has.

"You get an enormous return from being a collector because every day you learn something new about your items which you've never appreciated before," says Mr Reece. "With one mask, for example, I eventually realised that the colour wasn't there for decorative reasons but because it represented an important ceremony carried out by the tribe every 20 years." 

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African art books

The Tribal Arts of Africa

The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

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read also : Start ] Art teaching ] Unesco ] De Morgen ] made in China ] Rock art ] 419 ] african rock art threat ] Make-a-fake-fang ] Artefacts seized ] Pandora-Box-on-fakes ] No-Golden-Rules ] [ tribal-art-value ] art of Africa ] faking african art ] Looting African Art ] South-Africa looting ] Kenyan art battle ] Modernism ] Getty grant ] endangered species ] art rage ] African business ] Ebay Rap ] Daughters of The Dust ] African Traditions Bonfire ] valuing african art ]

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