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Tribal Art of Africa – A Guide for New Collectors

Tribal Art of Africa – A Guide for New Collectors


Tribal Art of Africa – A Guide for New Collectors

Africa is considered the cradle of human ancestry, from which we may all trace our descent. Many scientists agree that humankind evolved (and modern humans emerged) on the African continent, based on various pieces of evidence to date.

Discoveries of cultural artifacts dating back 70,000 years suggest that the earliest forms of visual expression were found in Africa.

Africans have contributed to the cultural heritage of the world, for thousands of years, producing masterful works of extraordinary creativity.

Therefore, it is safe to say that the importance of African Art in the twentieth century, and today, cannot be overemphasized.

Many prominent artists such as Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse and Modigliani, were influenced by African Art throughout the twentieth century.

Gallery Preira Fang Figure

African Art is Broad

Tribal Art of Africa – A Guide for New Collectors

Africa’s various regions have many variations of art, from traditional Muslim art in the north, to animist traditions and an emphasis on the human figure to the south.

The beauty of its sphere is that African art includes a huge variety of items, from everyday life objects to paintings, statuary, masks and headdresses, beadwork, tapestry,  baskets, metalwork, weapons, textiles, musical instruments, furniture, stools and pipes.

The term “tribal art” from a particular group of Peoples is also often used to describe African art.

Tribal art is, creative art, born from settled farmers and hunters with Kings, wise men, elders, secret societies and rites.

Today we thought it would be of some help to give you some tips about collecting African art pieces, if you are thinking about where to start and what to look for.

Although these masterpieces can reach high prices worldwide, it is still possible to start a good quality collection of African Art by following some of our guidance and tips.

Have a look at our guide “Tribal Art of Africa – A Guide for New Collectors” below.

Gallery Preira – Lega Mask from Congo

How to Collect African Art: A Guide for New Collectors

Tribal Art of Africa – A Guide for New Collectors

Firstly, we must point out to you another piece we wrote on “Tips on What to Look for When Buying African Tribal Art”, which is available on our website for you to read and gather more information. Please follow the link below.


Yes, passion is probably the first thing you must feel when thinking of becoming an African Tribal Art Collector!

Buy what you love!

Concentrate firstly on your feelings towards the piece when you first lay eyes on it and observe. Pay attention to its strong presence and how it makes you feel and what it makes you think.

Look at each pieces’ history, provenance and make a record of all the details of your purchase. That way you will have a solid record if you ever sell.

Tribal Art of Africa – A Guide for New Collectors


Our first advice to you is to study the subject, do your research, learn as much as you can. You can start by studying a particular area you have more interest in. This is something that takes time, and you need to be open minded.

Study the visual images and symbols and study the interpretation of these within the tribe if it is available. Yes, because not everything is on the internet regarding culture, practices, and meanings within a group of Peoples in Africa.

Most tribes have a set way of creating the form and shape of their artefacts.

African art tends to follow a set of values and traditions.

The sculptor in any community passes his knowledge on to his son and so on. Thus, the traditions continue through the generations.

The secret for us as a Collector, is to look everywhere. The pieces we look for have to be interesting, ‘undiscovered’ and diverse, alongside the visual impact it causes at first glance.

For example, a mask or figure/statue has to have a presence. In many cases these may be crude in form but have a sense of dignity.

But top of our impact list of a piece, is its conceptual power!

African carvings, be it masks or wooden statues/figures, are not intended as artwork pieces, these are pieces created with specific roles within their communities.

To start your African art collection or if you’re in the beginning of your collector’s journey, you may want to start with smaller pieces, mainly because if you do not know how to assess if the piece you are looking for is authentic or not, how old it is, if it was used as everyday life object, you will have invested in a smaller piece with a lower price. However, you now still have a great piece in your collection.

Gallery Preira – Senoufo Kpeliye Mask from Ivory Coast

Miniature Figures

Large sculptures are commissioned by high-ranking figures of a group of Peoples for the use of entire villages, the same way miniature pieces are. These miniature statues/figures are carved mainly for individual practice.

They have all the aesthetic and artistic qualities of large statues but are modest in price. These are thus a great option to start your collection of African art.

These can be masks, figures, bowls, spoons or amulets.

Everyday Life Objects

Other good options for you can be furniture or crockery. These are affordable and exhibit great aesthetic qualities.  Amongst these are stools, bracelets, headdresses/neck rests, clubs, pipes or drums.

Often commissioned by high-ranking figures within a particular Peoples, they were made with great craftsmanship, and often are very refined.


This might be hard to assess at first due to so many fake pieces, made to look old, being out there for sale, mimicking the real pieces.

It takes an experienced eye to evaluate African art, but we can give you some advice here.

Older pieces are usually finer in details, so take time looking at the ears, eyes, hair and hairdos, and overall form for quality. Look at similar pieces on a Google search to help you if needed. By doing so, you will see what proper proportions and representations should look like.

If a form is more powerful, puzzling and abstract could be a sign of an authentic piece.

Keep researching and studying, go to museums, galleries and auctions! There is always something new to learn, even for collectors and dealers who have been doing this for a long time.

Wood Patina

Patina is the surface wear of a piece over long periods of time.

Wood can naturally darken, become smooth and build up a shine from natural oils in our skin transferred through touch.

However, we must warn you that someone who is forging pieces may artificially age a piece easily. Let me give you some methods used to make a new piece look old:

Art pieces can be left outdoors, on the sandy, muddy ground to be exposed to the elements of the weather. They can be placed in insect and termite infestations to cause damage and disintegration. Being on the ground will also give chickens easy access to be pecked, causing some dents on the pieces. They can also be buried for some time than dug up and rediscovered to give a false sense of age.

Another example true for wood carved pieces, is to use smoke or stains to give the wood a dark black surface. If the piece smells of smoke, this may be a forged piece made to look old.  

Ask yourself these questions to assess a piece’s age. Does the patina rub off easily? Does the piece have wear and tear signs that are consistent with the type of use? For example, if the piece was traditionally used in a ceremony such as a procession, is it worn where the piece would have been picked up. If it is a mask, the back of the mask should not have the same finish as the front. All attachment holes should not be uniformly perforated around the edges, and there should be areas of discoloration where the mask was in contact with the face, specially on the forehead area.


Provenance is the ongoing scholarly research investigating the ownership history.

This is sometimes hard to establish. Accurate provenance of an art piece, particularly one pre-dating the nineteenth century and the advent of the modern art market, is often difficult if not impossible to establish.

Dealers and auction houses may withhold information sometimes, at the request of previous owners who would like to remain anonymous.

However, established provenance can help date when a piece was originally acquired, so this is of paramount importance. Try to find out where and when the piece you are interested in, came from.

It would be perfect if a collector of tribal art was an anthropologist, or a just a person with the foresight to keep a record of the names of the village where the piece came from, which parties were involved, and the cultural context in which the item was used and its meaning.

Provenance adds value to the piece specially when it is being resold.

We hope that this has given you some information about African Tribal Art, that you can add to your learning curve

But above all, we hope you enjoy African art for its historical significance.

Enjoy the power of the forms and designs as they touch your inner feelings.

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