Monday, June 18, 2007


It has been my experience that CONDITION can be a major factor in the ultimate value and appreciation of tribal artifacts. Textiles with heavy stains, large holes, or significant fading are nearly worthless on the market and should be avoided. Sculptures with missing sections, especially faces or limbs may be okay, but are more difficult to sell (or resell), therefore lowering their potential value. Obvious exceptions are ancient pieces that would be expected to be in less than perfect condition and may have taken on interesting patinas and surface wear.

Repaired pieces in themselves may not be a problem depending on the circumstances. Objects in great condition (they are rarely in perfect condition when old and used) are usually more valuable in the market than damaged, repaired, or overly restored pieces. A "repair" is usually defined as putting something back together (perhaps with glue, nails, or fiber) that is still visible. "Restoration" is usually defined as attaching, replacing, or re-constructing a piece so that is not visible and appears to be original. It is usually acceptable to do restoration as long as you have the original piece or can make a piece that would be obvious and logical to fill that missing area.

Putting together a piece with old (but not original nails) can be acceptable if the original object was put together with nails in the first place, which is not unusual with tribal objects made in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Depending on the potential value of the piece and how the repairs were made, it can be worthwhile to re-repair a piece. For example, a good piece that was put together with wooden pegs, but later repaired with rusty old nails, could be disassembled, the nails removed, and replaced with old wood pegs (or ones made to look old). This should not affect the value in a negative way.

It can also depend on how much has been repaired and the quality of the repair. A sloppy glue job can be ugly, but it may also be re-repaired properly by removing the old glue and re-doing it correctly. Small repairs here and there usually don't bother buyers. Any repair or restoration is acceptable if someone has just re-attached an existing broken piece. Native repairs using native materials are usually okay and in some cases desirable as they show the care and attention to the piece from the owner, that the object was so important to them they kept maintaining it.

Making "fantasy" pieces that did not exist or adding pieces that were not originally part of the piece (usually to enhance and add value) is not acceptable. The biggest sins for repaired or restored pieces are if they are done poorly (and can't be fixed) or done by adding enhanced parts to increase value. Regardless, any significant restoration should be noted by the seller.

PROVENANCE is usually defined as the known history of an object and can include a list of previous owners, exhibition history, and details of its origin. Good provenance can tell you a great deal about a piece and should enhance its value as many collectors prefer to have this information. It can be especially useful if there is some dispute about cultural patrimony or previous ownership.

However, provenance can also be used to falsely enhance the value of an object. It is not unusual for many sellers to use provenance to support their position that a piece is authentic, because it either came from an old collection or was owned by a collector know to have old pieces. It may also be used to boost the perception of the quality of an object, because the previous owner was known to have a great eye, therefore any object from that collection must meet those same high standards. That may be true, but it also may not, as I have seen plenty of pieces from important collections that were not very good and in some cases were fakes! There are also incidences of sellers using fake provenances, so additional caution should be exercised.

Lastly, I do run across collectors that will only buy pieces with provenance and will ignore better pieces because they come from lesser or unknown sources. This may be due in part to a lack of confidence in their “eye” and insecurity about making mistakes, assuming good provenance will protect them. This is an unfortunate position for these buyers, as they will potentially miss many good opportunities to acquire great pieces. The focus should be on buying great art, not great stories.

1 comment:

JDB said...

WONDERFUL blog on collecting...
I came upon this the other day and it resonated.

From "Emerson's Essays":
To believe your own thoughts, to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men; that is genius. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light, which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought because it is his. In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

"Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than that. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impressions with good humored inflexibility more than when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say, with masterly good sense, precisely what we have thought and felt all the time. And we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinions from another."

He may not have been speaking of collecting, but I happened upon this shortly after your blog on how to collect. Finding one's own truth and following one's path seems rather important. We have to teach ourselves, do our own research and be confident in with own collecting eye and in our collecting 'skin' first and foremost before we invite others to provide their opinions.