Collecting African Art

[Ben Matros has been collecting African Tribal art from the 1950s and
has given permission to share the following. His website is]

Collecting rare African artifacts can be fulfilling but challenging.
True collecting requires and an eye for quality and scarcity, coupled with an honest dealer or seller. Often mass-produced airport-art is sold as an authentic, collectible-quality piece. Some unscrupulous dealers mix this tourist-art in with their finer pieces. The key is knowing your dealer.

Matros sitting on fetish mound in 1975 with Village Chief in Town of Abomey, Dahomey.

Matros sitting on fetish mound in 1975 with Village Chief in Town of Abomey, Dahomey.

African masks, statues, and other objects have an inherent meaning for the culture, the work, and the intended individual. Original pieces were related to religious practices and every day life. They were not made for museums or collectors.
Not all pieces were used often, and not all worn pieces are old. The tribes in some African countries, such as the Dogon in Mali, in many cases use pieces once and then they are discarded.

1. Look at the piece. See if it’s well carved, is the patina correct? Worn in the right places? Compare it with similar pieces from Museums.
2. Consider the ethnic provenance or origin. Even if of the same quality, the art of different tribes can have huge price differences. Where did it come from? Who owned it before the dealer?
3. Pedigree: A piece from a collector from the thirties has a higher value than a similar piece recently acquired in the West. Even some very banal pieces from famous artists have reached very high prices. When the piece is published in a book or catalogue it is worth more.
4. Conservation: Too much restoration can decrease the value.
5. Rareness: How individual is the piece?
6. Size does not matter. Rarity and quality are the keys.
7. Auction result prices can yield a higher price for a particular piece. It does not mean that the piece is better.
8. The seller. The prestige of the dealer will sometimes boost the price. Large gallery or individual sale, it’s the quality and scarcity of the piece that matters.

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