Ten questions to ask when establishing the authenticity and value of a tribal art object:

Inspect 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. This can change over time It pays to do your own research.

    What 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.

    Is it fashionable?

    Decorators and art collectors often will place a high value on a piece because it appeals to the current taste in aesthetics and decor.

    Has 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.

    What 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.

    What 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.

    Do 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" only.

    Last, 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.


We 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.

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