Monday, June 18, 2007


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...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was told recently that "If you haven't bought a fake, you just aren't buying enough!"