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?

that you have an idea of some of the basic considerations in collecting African art, you are ready to venture forward.

Build gradually. If you really want to start collecting the real thing, go slowly. And if you intend for your initial acquisitions to have any investment value, then be prepared to spend $500-$2,000. Start by buying jewelry, textiles for wall hanging or utilitarian objects such as stools, combs or tools. “Don’t look just at masks and figures, which are much more expensive,” advises Carol Thompson, former associate curator of the Museum for African Art. “Most people don’t start with a huge number of objects. They can have two great things and that’s all. They build up to a fabulous collection,” Stanislaus adds.

“You don’t have to buy a $50,000 piece right away,” concurs New York veteran dealer Mert Simpson, who has been in the business for over 40 years. “Start your collecting with a small piece of quality and trade up. For a few thousand dollars you can buy a Yoruba twin figure (Nigeria), an Ashanti doll or gold weight (Ghana), everyday objects such as stools, gourds and neck rests, or weaponry often sculpted with birds or other figures.”

Leloup suggests other possibilities. “For $500 you can buy excellent things: an old Mangbetu knife from Zaire, African pottery that is simple but beautiful, or old velvet Kuba fabric from the Congo for even less– between $200-$300. It’s prettier than ethnography.” She agrees, however, that more significant pieces cost money: “You won’t get a decent mask for less than $4,000.” Her suggestion?
Buy pieces from countries like Nigeria (Yoruba and If e are some of the well-known ethnic groups) or Burkina Faso which have millions of people and more art to sell. “The price is less for statues and masks, compared with the Fang people in Gabon or the Dogon in Mali that have only about 250,000 people.”

Work with a dealer. Most African art connoisseurs recommend working with a dealer early on. “It’s a kind of apprenticeship. You need to have some kind of tutor or guide,” says Simpson, one of the few African American international dealers. “Some people have an eye for it. I don’t know any one way or easy formula. Find someone you can trust, who knows more than you do. It’s the best way to do collecting,” he advises.

His Parisian colleague, Alain de Monbrison, says people ought to consult an expert for good art the way they do for everything else. “If my computer breaks down, I call a specialist. If I get sick, I see a doctor. An expert will know technically if an object is authentic or fake. Everyone has his metier,” he adds.

Others suggest that beginning collectors not buy from just one dealer. “You I don’t learn as much. It’s better to have more than one teacher. Talk to as many people as you can,” suggests Thompson.
Museums with strong African art collections and art associations can recommend a reputable dealer. “Find someone who has been in

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