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How Authentic is an African Tribal Mask

How Authentic is an African Tribal Mask you ask… well, let me try and give you some useful tips today.

To determine the age and authenticity of an African Tribal Mask or any other type of African Tribal art, knowledgeable collectors and dealers use many different techniques. However, there is no better way to learn than having lived among these pieces, having had close contact and seen thousands of pieces when purchasing and selling African Tribal Art like we do.

Research online or through books or African Tribal catalogues is also a good source of information if you know where to look for, as not all information out there is accurate. You can also go to auctions, fairs, museums, visit collections, this is where you will get knowledge from. But keep in mind that this will take years, but you have to start somewhere if you are an African Tribal art lover like us.

Today we will solely focus on How Authentic is an African Tribal Mask. However most tips apply to other African Tribal art pieces as well.

Gallery Preira Photo – Bwa Owl Mask from Burkina Faso

Depending on the place you buy your mask from, very often there is no information as to origin and no guarantee of authenticity. This is a big concern in today’s marketplace as there are so many fakes and reproductions. All our pieces come with a Certificate of Authenticity accompanied with information about each piece.

There are various degrees of authenticity, a mask can be used and authentic, but it can also be new but authentic. You find many decorative, reproductions and fakes out there, therefore, you have to be careful when purchasing African Tribal art depending on your desirability of its authenticity.

Many types of wood are used to carve masks, and not all have been used for the same purposes. Some African sculptures for example, were carved with the purpose of being put outside for all tribes’ members use and will need to be weather resistant, these are made in a very heavy and dense wood, while masks made to be danced, and neck rests need to be transported all day long, are made in a lighter wood. 

One good way to assess the age of a piece is to look at the materials that were used to carve and to make that piece. There are materials, tools and techniques that were used let’s say in the 1900s, that are specific to that era, therefore cannot belong to any other era.

Something we must always bear in mind with African Tribal pieces, is that any tribe’s ceremonies, meaning of pieces, what they are used for, etc, are all part of the Secret Society of each tribe. Therefore, there are many secrets and meanings that are not known to outsiders, as they only share what they want. So, many meanings are only reflect what we would like to believe about them.

AUTHENTIC USED AFRICAN TRIBAL MASK

Lets start with authentic used African Tribal masks. This is what most serious collectors and museums look for, masks that were carved by the tribe’s craftsmen, who’s craftmanship has been passed down onto generations and generations and were used in various ceremonies and celebrations.

Signs of wear, age, damage and repairs can make the mask even more desirable. However, we must warn you and you should be careful, as used masks can be faked, and through a quick “antiquing” job with tinted varnish for example, it can be very hard to tell if its authentic or not.

Another thing you must be aware of is an unnatural patina. By rubbing the pieces in the wrong places, wrong directions, in a big area, in an uniform way is a technique some people use to influence the appearance of a piece.

AUTHENTIC NEW AFRICAN TRIBAL MASK

Authentic new same as the above, but has never used. Some masks are crafted within the tribe, are not used or have very little use, but this is still an authentic mask. Some of these masks are sold and show some signs of age from being stored or displayed improperly. This is something that occurs but will still be culturally correct and is usually in good condition.

Gallery Preira Photo – Bwa butterfly Mask from Burkina

DECORATIVE, REPRODUCTIONS AND FAKE AFRICAN TRIBAL MASKS

These are new masks that were made for tourists and lovers of African art who do not want to spend huge amounts of money on a piece they love. These masks are normally well carved and are creative. Please be aware that fakes are masks that are misrepresented as authentic.

MYTHS

There are many myths out there in relation to the authenticity of a mask. Let me give you an example. A piece has a smoke scent so many believe it is authentic.

NO! THIS IS WRONG! When masks and other African tribal art pieces were/are made, they often were/are darkened using the firing of wood and greasing it, so the wood would smell of smoke. However, be aware that people who make fakes can also use this method to make believe that this is an authentic piece.

Other examples are creating an impression of erosions on masks and statues artificially, drilling holes to imitate insects, using chemicals abrasives to damage the surface. Many fake carvers put the pieces in the ground, or keep them in the garden for a few months to make them look older and suffered erosion. Some even put pieces on the top of a termite to produce a quick old -aged impression . Small pin holes made artificially on the surface is not the same as the remains of powder from beetle borings. I could go on and on with many techniques that are used to make a piece look older and more used than it really has been.

THE BACK OF A MASK TELLS MORE THAN THE FRONT

If the mask is predominantly wood, the patina of the surface can be an indicator of authenticity, particularly on the reverse of the mask. The tribe’s person who wore a mask does a lot of moving in his dances, and contact between body and wood can leave sweat and oil stains. You can look for wear from forehead, cheeks, chins and noses. The repeated rubbing movements on the mask will leave its marks.

Masks are predominantly worn during social events and religious ceremonies, often as part of ritual dances. They have different designs and are meant to convey specific symbolic meaning and the masks have purposes that differ according to tribe and ceremony, as does their style and decoration.

Masks vary widely, some are simply carved wood, others are more intricate and have painted elements and incorporate raffia and other materials.

A less polished and slightly uneven surface on the reverse of a mask is often observed in older traditional masks. The working of the wood can also be indicative of the authenticity of a mask; it should have been clearly executed by hand. Any indication that mechanical tools have been used, for example if holes in the mask appear to have been made with an electric drill, should make a buyer wary.

Dogon men in their ceremonial attire (Google photo free to use)

An interesting fact that many people don’t know of, is that ceremonial masks are part of a big and heavy costume, and normally have a piece of fabric covering the back of the wearer’s head. This is to ensure that no one recognises the person under the costume and behind the mask in the ceremonies they are being used in.

However, due to its huge volume and weight, when sold, masks are stripped of all of this fabric and are sold as only the wooden mask. This is also the reason why most masks do not have two holes on each side, above the ears, where a string should have been to hold the mask on the wearer’s face/head.

This is a summarised and brief piece of advise we have got for you, but if you need any further guidance, please do not hesitate to contact us at

Gallery Preira Photo – Senoufo Kpeliye Mask
Gallery Preira Photo – The back of a Lega Mask from Congo
Gallery Preira Photo – The front of a Lega Mask from Congo
Photo from Google
Photo from Google
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