Monday, June 18, 2007


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.

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