Monday, June 18, 2007



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.

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