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Tips on What to Look for When Buying African Tribal Art

Today we thought it would be appropriate to talk to you about what to look for when you are looking to purchase your first African Tribal Art piece and you’re a complete beginner or, you already have purchased some pieces based on what you visually like, but would like to know which are the pieces that are authentic and have more value in today’s market. Therefore, we will give you some advice and tips on what to look for when buying African Tribal Art.

Firstly, we would like to explain very briefly what it means for for a piece to be authentic in the African art market. Authenticity of an African Art Tribal piece refers to an artifact carved by an artist of a tribe and it was only used by this tribe in a ritual or functional way, such as religious ceremonies, or, a teenager reaching a certain milestone.

The criteria for the authenticity of African art , is generally determined at once by the artist, the place of creation, as well as the materials used and, the technique of craftsmanship.

Fakes? Yes they do exist, and this is basically a copy of an original, executed as faithfully as possible, which one detects in comparing the reproduction to the original. If you have doubts, please ask for advise, we’re here to help, contact us.

However, if you follow our advice, you will most likely be able to assess a piece yourself, at least the very basic important aspects of a piece.

If you are interested in learning a bit more, we can recommend a good read where you can expand your knowledge, the book “African Art in Transit” by Christopher B. Steiner, Cambridge University Press, 27 Jan 1994

Chokwe Female Figure from Angola

Read more about this piece on our website

We all firstly look at a piece and it must be visually interesting to us. However, this alone is not the only attribute a collector is looking for. We look at it and see if it is well carved, is the patina logical (worn at tops not in the holes). This is our first advice to you, look at the patina. What this means is when you look at the artifact with a magnifying glass, there may not be parallel lines (from the emery paper). Is the style coherent. You can compare it with similar pieces from Museums, you can find everything online these days to help with our research. Patina is a gloss or sheen, produced by age and wear, on a surface resulting from age or polishing. Or, it can be any similar acquired change of a surface such as the green or brown film on the surface of bronze or similar metals, produced by oxidation over a long period.

These days, the aesthetics and decorative aspect of a piece with a shiny aspect is on of the attributes a person looks for when buying African art. Collectors of modern art are more interested in the forms than in original patina and quality.

Then, art dealers will assess the piece’s potential value. A piece from a collector from the thirties has a bigger value than a similar piece which was recently bought by a tourist in Africa. Even some mundane pieces from famous artists have reached very high prices. When the piece is published in a book or catalogue it increases its value, certainly if the piece was published a few times in famous exhibitions catalogues.

Another tip on what to look for when buying African Tribal Art is the ethnical provenance. Even of same quality, the art of different tribes can have enormous price differences. For example, a Luba piece has more value than a Lobi piece. Have a look at our website

Tips on What to Look for When Buying African Tribal Art – You also need to take into account a piece’s conservation state. What we mean by this is, that artifacts that were carved by a tribe’s artist to use in religious ceremonies for example, is a piece that has had some use and has the signs to show for it. When these signs are not present, this could mean that it has undergone restoration and, too much restoration decreases its value. Therefore, you need to look at a piece and see that it is most likely not perfect, but is authentic and shows its wear and tear through times.

When an artifact is fresh on the market and from a Tribe with small production, this makes the piece more wanted by many. We would call this a rare piece.

The rareness of a piece is something all art dealers and collectors alike, are always looking for. But here, there is a lot of ‘competition’ as more entities are involved in looking for such pieces, like museums. Rareness is perhaps an area where you will need specific advice from experts or at least a reasonable knowledgeable person in Africa Tribal Arts. Again, please feel free to contact us if you need any advice

As well as any of the above, size of a piece is also an attribute that does matter. Most pieces are 40 to 50 cm. Bigger pieces go for more money, even of same quality.

There is so much to be said around African Tribal Art and there are many published books that can help you make an informed decision when wanting to buy African Tribal art. We can recommend another book which contains a lot of information, here is a little snippet “Every piece of African woodcarving has an embellished surface, whether it is dyed, pigmented, refurbished, or encrusted with sacrificial matter. Surfaces is the first book to present a detailed study of what happens to African wood sculpture from its creation to its ritual use and “retirement.” – “Surfaces: Color, Substances, and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture (African Expressive Cultures)”.

Feel free to contact us if you think we may be able to help you.

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