What: The tribal art market can be divided into two categories – decorative pieces that were first made towards the end of the 19th century to sell to outsiders (missionaries were the first buyers), and true collectors’ pieces made by tribes to use in ceremonies and as totems. The former can be bought for as little as £80, while the best examples of the latter can fetch £1m plus. At the height of the market in 2006, a Gabonese “Fang” mask from the Pierre Vérité collection sold for a record €5.9m. The principal sources of tribal art are Africa (mainly the west coast); Oceania (notably Australia, New Guinea and Polynesia) and the Americas (pre-Columbian pieces and those made by the Inuits and North American Indians).
Need to know: After the 1930s, most tribes ceased to produce items for their own use, so serious collectors tend to be interested only in earlier pieces. The most sought-after works include those of the African Fang, Baule and Senufo tribes, all Polynesian pieces, those from the Sepik River area of New Guinea and artefacts of pre-Columbian America’s Olmec and Mayan peoples. Because objects are unique, there are no hard and fast rules regarding size or design, although studies are now being carried out which attempt to identify specific schools of tribal art and even specific makers.
These studies show that different pieces can have an affinity. The principal markets are in Europe (especially France and Belgium) and the US, although the number of buyers has grown considerably from the small nucleus of 15 years ago. Worldwide, however, there are still fewer than half a dozen truly major collectors.
Top tips: The most important consideration when buying tribal art from a dealer is to obtain a dating certificate – a true expert can usually date a piece very easily. If the piece turned out not to be of the stated age, you would be entitled to a full refund. Avoid heavily restored works (minor repairs, such as stabilising of cracks, are acceptable) and look for simple, elegant, beautifully shaped objects. The presence of blood and fetish material is not a selling point. To prevent accidental damage, it is wise to have pieces professionally mounted.
Pitfalls: Buying a fake – ie a souvenir piece that has been passed off as genuine tribal artefact – is the most common mistake. Ensure, too, that you are not being offered an illegally exported piece that breaks the 1972 Unesco Convention regarding culturally significant objects being removed from their native country.
Forthcoming selling exhibition: September 28-October 1. Tribal Perspectives, 27-28 Cork Street, London W1. Eight dealers offering a wide range of tribal art. www.tribalperspectives.com
Renowned dealer: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, 27 rue de Seine, Paris 75006. Tel: +33 9 81 24 1618 www.jbbacquart.com. New gallery show starts September 6.