Thursday, June 28, 2007


Quoted from a recent article by Thomas H. Maugh II in the Los Angeles Times:

A new study of DNA from pigs is rewriting the history of human migration throughout the Pacific, indicating the most island residents in the region had their origin in Vietnam.

Studies of pots and other cultural artifacts had previously suggested that the Polynesian and Oceanic cultures originated in Taiwan and spread rapidly through the Pacific, an idea often called the Express Train or Speedboat Out of Taiwan.

To shed light on this period, a large international team headed by archaeologist Keith Dobney of Durham University in England studied mitochondrial DNA form 781 modern and ancient pigs. The older specimens were obtained from museums and other similar sources.

"Pigs are good swimmers, but not good enough to reach Hawaii", said archaeologist Greger Larson of Uppsala University in Sweden, lead author of the study in Tuesday's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Given the distances between islands, pigs must have been transported, and are thus excellent proxies of human movement."

They found that a single genetic heritage is shared by the modern Vietnamese wild boar; modern feral pigs on the island of Sumatra, Java, and New Guinea; and ancient and modern domestic pigs on several Pacific islands. The genetic signature is not found in Taiwan.

The team said this indicated the islanders' ancestors left Vietnam about 3,600 years ago and traveled through numerous islands before reaching New Guinea and, later, Hawaii and French Polynesia.

Friday, June 22, 2007



Fowler Museum at UCLA (north campus), Los Angeles, CA.

June 24, 2007 to December 1, 2007

From the Fowler Museum collection of tribal doors, panels, and ritual barriers. Examples from the Toraja of Sulawesi Island, the Batak of Sumatra, the Paiwan of Formosa, as well as New Guinea, India and Africa are on display.

Monday, June 18, 2007


WHY COLLECT tribal art (or art of any kind)? We collect art because we enjoy having beautiful and interesting objects in our homes. The discovery and acquisition of art is exciting. Great art invites discussion, introspection, and intellectual stimulation. For many, collecting art is a form of social status and a way to display wealth. Art is patronage when collectors invest in and support artists’ works, loan works to public exhibitions, donate works to museums, and create endowments. Although this is not the most important factor, great art is a good financial investment. And, of course, collecting art is fun.

More specifically tribal art is unique and not mass produced. Objects are handcrafted, usually with natural materials. They are made with purpose, often for devotional or ritual use. They are almost always functional, but often with eye towards beauty and form. The forms come from long cultural traditions, yet artist variation is allowed and encouraged. The objects connect humans to their gods/deities, ancestors, and nature. Objects can be beautifully rendered, expressive, animated, soulful, mysterious, and powerful. Tribal art is tactile and begs for physical interaction. And lastly, tribal art is relatively inexpensive when compared to traditional forms of art.


In late January, 2007 the Ethnic Arts Council (EAC) of Los Angeles, in partnership with the LA office of Sotheby’s, held the first of a series of panel discussions on the collecting, preserving, and disposing of tribal art. Jonathan Fogel (editor of Tribal Arts Magazine) moderated the first part of the series with panelists Stacy Goodman (Sotheby’s pre-Columbian expert), Joshua Dimondstein (dealer in African Art), Philip Garaway (dealer in Native American Art), and myself. Following are notes I had for this discussion (since expanded and revised). The bulk of this information is more specific to collecting Southeast Asian tribal art (my specialty), but could easily apply to collecting tribal art from any area. I have divided this part of the series into several more manageable sections for placement on the Tribal Beat blog.

Part 1:

I should begin by clarifying what most dealers and collectors consider is “authentic tribal art”. The most accepted definition is any artifact/object made by indigenous peoples for their own use. There are some subtle exceptions, but this is the best rule of thumb. When collecting tribal art, the first concern should be that each object under consideration is authentic and not a fake (something made to look authentic and meant to deceive) or a reproduction (something made in the style of a traditional piece).

Determining if a specific piece is a fake, a reproduction, or authentic is tricky. I have been doing this for over 30 years, having traveled extensively to many tribal areas, bought and handled thousands of pieces (I have seen many times that number), devoured the literature (often going back over reference materials continuously), and checked out as many museum shows, collections, and exhibitions as possible. Despite every effort, it is still possible to miss something or be fooled by a great fake.

The key areas to be aware of when looking for authentic pieces are:

You have to understand PATINAS (surface wear) and how it relates to the piece. For example, an ironwood statue from Borneo that has been left outside for decades will take on a certain patina, usually gray-white with lichen growth, often with wear on the tops of flat areas caused by rain and puddled water. The same ironwood, when carved into a smaller object that is kept indoors, absorbing natural oil from constant handling, will take on a black polished look and be smooth to the touch. Again, that same ironwood piece ritually bathed in animal blood and left in the smoky rafters of the house will take on a crusty dark patina, and so on. Understanding the use and what patina should exist with that piece is critical.

You have to understand the MATERIALS that are typically used in a specific culture. If you know they have certain types of wood or feathers or plant material in one area and not in another, it can give you clues as to authenticity. Again, this can be tricky as possible trade between groups would allow non-native materials to appear in another culture.

You have to understand the CULTURAL CONTEXT of pieces and how they were used and what they would use, to know if a type of piece would logically exist. If a specific tribe does not use masks for example, why is there a mask for sale from the group? Again, this one gets tricky because it is nearly impossible to know every single item that a culture might make, especially if it is some ancient item that has not been used in recent memory. However, with experience you get a feel for the logic of pieces.

You have to study their ICONOGRAPHY, or their use of traditional motifs, to determine how they relate to specific objects. Some pieces might have certain motifs while others may not. For example, there may be images used only by aristocrats, others just for males, females, warriors, or shamans. And, of course, each village, tribe, and region will have their own designs and imagery.

*Go to Part 2, 3, 4...


The best ways to learn about any art field is to do your homework and view as many objects as possible. Visiting museums, galleries, special exhibitions, art shows, private collections, attending auctions, going to lectures, and reading related publications are all part of the process. When it comes to tribal art it is equally important to handle as many objects as allowed. Holding these pieces in your hands and examining the details up close helps develop and fine tune your “eye” for authenticity.

In the end, you have to take the plunge and buy pieces so you can live with them in your home. There is no better education that having these objects on hand and viewing them regularly, especially under changing light and at various angles. And always ask questions if you’re not sure. Dealers, as well as collectors, appreciate your interest and welcome opportunities to discuss the finer points of specific items.

After you have determined that a piece is authentic then you should consider these other factors (not necessarily in this order, but the quality of the object is always the most important consideration): quality (beauty, form, patina, etc); condition (including restoration, repairs, damage, wear, etc); rarity; traditional use; unusual features; provenance (if any); and lastly the age of the piece. I make a point of putting the AGE of an object last, as too many collectors are obsessed by how old a piece might be, often ignoring the other more important factors.

It's a long story to explain, but the short version is that many collectors (and dealers) come into the tribal art market assuming that age is the key factor when determining if something is authentic or possibly of better quality, when it is not often the case. The IDEA behind this is if something is not obviously old it must be fake! It can matter for some areas of collecting and certainly older pieces (if all of the other factors are equal) may be more valuable than similar newer examples because they are likely to be rarer, but there are many cases, especially with tribal groups in Asia (like the Naga and the Dayak) where these societies still follow a traditional path and made interesting authentic objects for their own use well to the end of the 20th century.

Frankly, the true AGE of an object is very difficult to determine accurately without knowing the exact history of the piece. For example, weathier individuals own items that are rarely used, kept stored as heirlooms, and therefore show virtually no wear. Other pieces may be used every day under harsh conditions and would appear much older than they actually are.

In most cases, age is estimated using a set of very vague criteria. Comparing the piece to other pieces known to be of a certain age, using reference material that specifically dates pieces, comparing stylistic features only found on pieces from a specific period, and examining condition issues or patinas that would likely be found only on pieces of a certain age are the usual methods. All of these are important criteria and together are useful in estimating age, but nature, time, and use wears on artifacts in an infinite variety of ways, so no one set of rules applies. Keep in mind this is not an exact science and experts disagree all of the time.


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.


The most difficult factor to consider is QUALITY. Beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder. What one collector loves another might hate. This is actually good for the market because if we all loved the exact same things, only those pieces would have value and everything else would be unsellable. This issue is too complex to cover here easily, but there are a few points that can be made:

Artistic pieces are not limited to certain types of objects, such as sculptures or masks, but can be considered with any artifact. I have seen crudely carved or downright ugly wood statues that I would rather throw in the fireplace than consider as art objects. But, I have seen many aesthetically and beautiful rendered utilitarian objects such as spoons, doors, panels, bowls, beadwork, etc that I (and most others) would absolutely consider brilliant masterpieces!

Sometimes value and desirability in tribal artifacts have nothing to do with refinement of technique or perceived beauty (especially in the normal western view of beauty). Some of the greatest pieces of tribal art can be simple and informally constructed, yet emanate power and menace (as they were often meant to). Other features we might dismiss as unattractive in our culture are considered beautiful in theirs. For example, the Dayak tribes of Borneo appreciate big ears and many of their sculptures show them sticking straight out! Many tribal cultures (again the Dayaks are a good example) believe the head holds the soul and essence of the individual, so most sculptures will emphasize oversized heads and faces.

An important note is that all cultures have had influences from other cultures and that all artistic traditions have evolved over time often absorbing ideas and materials from other groups. It is rare to find a society that is untouched by others even in ancient times. Some collectors get a bit obsessed and put off if they think an artifact has too much outside influence, but I don't see it that way. It is just another part of that culture's history. For example the Dayak tribes of Borneo Island, have been influenced by Arabs, Malays, Indians, Chinese, and Europeans for many hundreds of years, so how does one logically decide the precise cut-off point for that culture to be "pure"?

Another issue that comes up regularly when selling tribal art (and art of any kind) is the ultimate VALUE or INVESTMENT POTENTIAL. Unfortunately, most collectors are overly concerned about getting a good deal instead of a good piece. It is frustrating as a seller to have to spend a large portion of the “sales pitch” trying to convince the buyer that they are getting a great deal! I would rather spend the time talking about the aesthetic qualities of the piece and why it would be right for their collection. I understand that buyers want to feel they are not getting taken and are spending their money wisely, but to obsess about getting something over the seller or to feel they are being cheated is annoying and insulting.

A good dealer knows the value of his inventory and normally offers objects within a realistic price range. It is rare for a professional dealer to try and over charge on a sale, as it would make no sense to cheat a buyer. Most dealers are trying to establish long term relationships with their clients and make every effort to offer good pieces for fair prices. Good art regularly and progressively goes up in value and most collectors benefit in the long run especially if they bought the best pieces they could afford. In fact it has been my experience most collectors ultimately make more money from their objects than the dealers that sold them, by either eventually re-selling the pieces or getting tax credits by donation. It is very important to remember that enjoying the art is the major part of the investment!

That said, there are interesting investment opportunities when collecting art. Look for areas that are not well known on the market at this time. Look for objects that might be overlooked by the mainstream collectors. If collecting in unknown areas, it is possible to buy great pieces for low prices as the highest values have yet to be set. Once a new area has been bought out then prices normally rise, so buying in early can be beneficial. In addition, once this area has been exhibited or published then prices may raise again as other collectors become aware.



Most dealers, especially the experts in specific fields, have spent years, often at considerable expense, to gain the knowledge, experience, and “eye” needed to properly determine authenticity, quality, and value. This is not easy and involves an ongoing process of trial and error. Most dealers see 100s, if not 1000s, of pieces before carefully selecting just a few objects to show clients. If they make a mistake, they usually have to take the financial loss and rarely are able to recover expenses for bad choices. Dealers can relay important information to the client and generally allow buyers time to make informed choices. Dealers can set up payment plans, take trades, and returns (when appropriate). Typically, dealers have access to support systems such as restorers, conservators, and stand makers. If objects are coming from overseas, most dealers are experienced import/export and shipping specialists. Legitimate dealers offer guarantees, which allow for recourse if mistakes were made in properly presenting and describing an object. Working with experienced, knowledgeable, and trustworthy dealers will give buyers consistent opportunities to see good pieces, gather information, make purchases, and protect themselves from potential fraud.

The exact reverse of this is nearly always true if a buyer does business with a dealer that is not experienced, knowledgeable, or trustworthy. Unfortunately, I meet these kinds of sellers on a regular basis and although the vast majority are honest people who mean well, their lack of experience and knowledge has led many un-informed buyers down the wrong path. These sellers often offer pieces that are not authentic or of questionable quality and if the potential buyer is not aware of this, they may end up spending considerable sums on bad pieces before they are made aware of their mistake. There are other sellers that are dishonest and deliberately offer fakes or reproductions to a naïve market. Fortunately, this is a very small group, but buyers always need to be aware of this possibility when doing business for the first time with a seller that you either don’t know or didn’t come with a recommendation.

Auction Houses:

Reputable auction houses, such as Sotheby’s and Christies, can be excellent sources for high end material. Usually, these auction houses pick up complete and important collections, giving buyers (dealers and collectors alike) an opportunity to purchase on equal terms. Most items offered are well-documented, often with excellent provenance and legal title.

On the minus side, sales at auction are public events preventing buyers from purchasing pieces privately. There is little time to fully inspect pieces and very little recourse if you discover you are not as happy with the purchase as you originally expected. Most auction houses have return policies, but they are rarely as liberal as ones offered by dealers. Buying decisions are rushed and it is not uncommon for bidders to overspend in the heat of the moment. There is virtually no chance for negotiations that may allow for payments, discounts, and trades. There are additional sales fees and expenses for shipping and storage that usually exceed what you would pay in other circumstances.

Internet Sales & Auctions:

The internet has opened new opportunities for buying and selling art. The market is worldwide giving access to a huge supply of material and large pool of potential buyers. All of this can be done from the comfort of your home or office. Doing business with legitimate on line galleries (normally extensions of traditional galleries and private dealers) usually offers the buyer the same service and protection given with direct sales. Legitimate auction houses that offer on line bidding give buyers additional means of participating in auctions when it is not possible or desirable to attend in person. Another variation of this service is eBay, at this time the only major direct online auction business that offers ethnographic art (as well as nearly everything else imaginable).

There are some drawbacks, most that can be overcome, but they should be noted. There is often no face-to-face contact making it more difficult to build solid personal relationships between sellers and buyers. It is helpful for sellers to be able to view buyers’ collections (preferably in person) to determine quality and taste levels, making notes for future offers. Buyers can show sellers images of their collection via email, but it is not the same as handling the pieces in person.

Buyers should be able to examine each object under consideration in a quiet, reflective manner and not be under pressure to make decisions, especially without seeing the piece firsthand. Buying pieces just from photographs is difficult enough and unless there is a clear and easy return policy, it should be avoided completely.

There are many reputable and knowledgeable sellers using the internet (as extensions of legitimate businesses), but unfortunately there are others that are not, either by design or lack of experience. It is my opinion that most sellers in this other category are not deliberately miss-leading their buyers, but just don’t have the expertise or experience to know the difference (at least most of the time) between an authentic piece and a fake. More rarely, there are sellers that do know and offer fake pieces to unsuspecting or naïve buyers.

EBay has the most problems with this issue. There are legitimate sellers on eBay, but unfortunately the vast majority fit into the latter category. On any given day, most ethnographic pieces offered on eBay are reproductions, fakes, or at best lower quality authentic artifacts. Great pieces rarely show up on eBay, as anything of true value and aesthetic quality can be solid in the traditional marketplace and for more money. It is my opinion that eBay is an online flea market with some good pieces popping up on occasion, but generally should be avoided by buyers trying to build serious collections.

Source Countries:

It is still possible to buy tribal art in the countries of origin. This is especially true in Asia. Traveling to exotic locales and discovering little treasures is exciting. It is not unusual to find antique shops in the larger cities and tourist locations, making it more accessible to the casual visitor. Generally speaking (but not always!), prices are cheaper as you get closer to the source. Adventure travel agencies bring visitors to even more remote locales, allowing for the possibility of buying directly from owners at the village level. Assuming the average buyer is content with picking up a few souvenirs, there is no real problem purchasing items on a trip overseas.

The problems surface when casual buyers or inexperience collectors try to buy quality authentic objects. To start, the vast majority of objects offered in these shops (including those that claim to sell antiques) are reproductions or outright fakes. The majority of the remaining pieces, that might be authentic, are often of low quality or in poor condition. Most sellers in source countries are not experts in tribal art and are basically merchants, with the attitude that any sale is a good sale. It is not in their interest to educate the casual buyer, but to encourage you to buy something, as they really do not expect to see you again. You have to take ever story about the piece or your relationship with the seller with a grain of salt. Typical lines: “this piece is 80-90 years old” (I don’t know why, but for some reason they use that age for everything!); “it was owned by my grandfather” (really, it looks like it was made yesterday); “you are my best costumer and I am only showing you the best pieces” (hey, thanks for waiting all year for me to show up!) and the classic “special price for you” (fantastic, where's my credit card?).

Buying directly in the field is not a sure thing either. It has been a common practice, for years, for the more unscrupulous sellers to “seed” fakes at the village level. For example newly made carved wood doors/panels, smoked to look old, have been re-placed in old houses and reproductions of sacred artifacts are offered for sale by the village chief as having been in the family for generations (“it was owned by my grandfather”). Just because you are sitting in a village in a remote part of the world, does not guarantee that items offered for sale are original or authentic.

Other issues to be concerned about is finding reliable shippers, dealing with laws about removal of restricted cultural objects, and customs regulations at home. Besides your time and expenses, there are potential medical, political, and legal problems when traveling in third world countries. Keep in mind; it is extremely unlikely there is any recourse if your purchase turns out to less than you expected when you return home.

Because quality objects are getting harder and harder to find in the field and local sellers, with access to the internet and international auction and sales reports, are more aware of the ultimate value of these objects, they will often offer pieces at prices closer to retail in the West. Sifting through all of the junk, B.S., and higher prices to a buy good pieces can be daunting, even for the experienced buyer.

*Regardless of where you buy tribal art, it’s important for the buyer to do his/her homework. Read, research, and get to know the areas you are interested in. And lastly to buy from the most reputable and knowledgeable sources you can find.