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Value can be found in collecting African Art

February 17, 2019

Ethnographic is a term applied to art and collectibles from different cultures such as those from the Middle East, Africa and South America. The ethnographic art many are considering during February, Black History Month is African Art. This offers many an opportunity to become familiar with a genre that was largely neglected until the late 1980s. Even so, some rather important western artists such as Picasso and Matisse were majorly influenced by it.

At first collecting African art was merely a hobby for the rich and famous however over time the middle-class has shown an interest and many are now serious collectors. Generally speaking African Art refers to art work created in the Sub-Saharan countries and free of influences of any colonialism such as Christianity or Islamic religions or European culture.

Much of the art from Africa’s past doesn’t date back that far. Due to the climate much of what is really old has deteriorated. Therefore, if it isn’t pottery, a weapon or furnishings most will be from the late 19th and 20th Centuries and have antiquity and artistic value. African art is usually not signed and is often designated ‘anonymous’ and listed by a tribe or ethnic group such as a piece might give credit by ‘unknown Yorba artist.’

Popular on the market today are textiles, jewelry — particularly trade beads, hand forged currency, baskets, furniture and pottery. What has long been popular and suffered from many reproductions are the masks and carvings. Like so many other antiquities the value often comes down to authenticity, rarity and quality. Where the piece has been is also significant so provenance and pedigree of the past owners is a consideration in value and authenticity.

To become acquainted with African art one should study up on it, buy a few relatively inexpensive pieces and visit shows or museums. It is a broad field that has been much maligned with reproductions and fakes so before spending any big time bucks it might be wise to consult a credited expert and buy only from a reputable dealer.

If visiting New York City anytime soon, go by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and enjoy their February guided tours on African Art. They also have an online segment devoted to their African collections that is cataloged and presented according to the country of its origin. Their website gives more detailed information.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.