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?

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.

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