questions to ask when establishing the authenticity and value of
a tribal art object:
the piece closely. Is the carving good? Does the patina show
signs of wear where it should? Is the style consistent with museum
pieces from the same tribe?
Trace its ethnic provenance. Works of some tribes attract
higher prices than that of others. For example, Luba work seems
to have higher value than Lobi work.
is its "pedigree"? A piece from an established collector
from earlier years has more authenticity and more value than one
to come out the the bush recently. Old material simply is almost
never available in Africa today. If the item is published in a
book, its value can increase. If it only looks like one published
in a book, chances are it is a copy made by someone trying to
capitalize on the familiarity of the appearance.
Decorators and art collectors often will place a high value on
a piece because it appeals to the current taste in aesthetics
it been restored or repaired? As a rule of thumb, restoration
can detract from the value of a piece. If it has been repaired,
it should be so noted and the price should reflect that status.
Native repairs, however, can add authenticity and charm to a piece
if not increase the value.
Is the piece unusual? A genre that is hard to find in its authentic
condition can have extraordinary value. As with anything else,
supply and demand affect price.
is the size? Is it in keeping with the traditional size and
use of similar kinds of pieces? Bigger pieces can be more expensive,
given the same quality.
is the auction market doing to the prices of similar objects
and/or work from the same tribe? A record price of a piece at
auction can drive up the perceived value of similar work and objects
from the same tribe.
you like it? A major factor in the value of a piece is the
aesthetic pleasure it gives you, the buyer. If you like the object,
and it turns out to be less valuable than you expected, you will,
at least, not be in the position of having to look everyday at
something you don't like. It is best not to buy for "investment"
and most important, do you know and trust the seller? A reputable
dealer or collector will stand behind his or her items. With reputations
to maintain, they are not going to stay in business long if they
try to cheat their customers. They may misrepresent an item by
mistake - perhaps because it was misrepresented to them. They
are human. But a reputable seller will take the item back and
return your purchase price. That is your best assurance of value.
are indebted to David Norden, proprietor of the African Art
Shop in Antwerp, Belgium who has graciously allowed us to combine
his thoughts on this subject with our own. While the focus of these
questions is on African Tribal art, the general principles apply
to all ethnographic art. You will find a link to David Norden's
Web site on our links page.