Art connoisseurs had an extraordinary opportunity last June when the largest collection of African artifacts ever put on sale was auctioned in Paris. Collectors and dealers from Europe and the United States bid for over 300 works from Central and West Africa. The Fang Byeri reliquary, a sacred object that held ancestral bones, and the most famous of all the objects from Gabon, sold for a record $1.1 million. When the gavel dropped, the public applauded. Sales totaled $6.5 million for the weeklong event, a considerable sum given the small but growing group of African art collectors.
In fact, collecting African art, which took off in the late ’80s, has become a phenomenon among a wide cross section of people. No longer are pieces being purchased by just a handful of wealthy celebrities or athletes. Increasingly, middle-class people are buying these works, driving up their price and value.
This is due in part to more travelers, including African Americans, going to Africa and becoming more interested in the art and culture. More African Americans are also looking at traditional tribal art forms because they have become familiar with them via reproductions, suggests Lurita Brown, gallery director of Clinton Hill Simply Art Gallery in Brooklyn.
Reproductions, or “faux,” are also less costly than original pieces, and are more affordable for most people. This allows individuals to become more comfortable and experienced with collecting, develop an eye and learn the value of the art while trading up to investment-grade artifacts.
“We’re just beginning to see our images surface in the general market, and we’re hungry for it,” adds Brown.
As more Americans of all colors and classes begin or expand their African art collections, a trend is developing. “Collecting is a process. It is a deepening engagement through financial investment,” says Grace Stanislaus, executive director of the Museum for African Art in New York City.
Becoming a connoisseur who can recognize individual works may take many years to learn. But there are elements that can help even novices distinguish the authentic from the fake. Experts say there are four primary criteria for evaluating African art: age, function, aesthetic quality and origin. Equally important, is buying what you like. That way, even if it isn’t graded valuable, it will be “prized” by you.
UNDERSTAND THE FOUNDATION
Age is considered a principal element when determining what is considered valuable. But when evaluating African art, age is a relative term, since an old African art object can originate from just 30-50 years ago. Most prized carvings and statues are from the late 19th or early 20th century, while objects such as plates, chairs, musical instruments or weapons, can date back hundreds of years. In part, African artifacts don’t date back much farther because of climatic and poor storage conditions, leaving wood to dry out, warp or crack.
What is now considered “art” was originally made for ritualistic or functional purposes, which is what makes African art valuable. As such, many artifacts come from a spiritual context, in dance or other ceremonial or ancestral