Kim's Tips of the Trade - African Art

A Primer for Looking at African Art, Part I

I don’t believe in making something more difficult to understand than it has to be. In the spirit of that belief, I would like to present a simplified format for looking at African art. Based upon my experience at Shango Galleries for the last five years, I present to you a list of parameters which I think will be helpful to you in understanding what you have, or what you don’t have. Is this list comprehensive of all African art—tribal, contemporary, reproductions and fakes,  and will it tell you exactly what you own? No, but it will help you eliminate certain questions in your mind and winding roads to follow, as well as expose you to perhaps characteristics of African art that you had not thought of before.


DON’T MAKE THESE GENERAL ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT AFRICAN ART:


AGE:  A 20th century piece does not equate to low value.  Many African art items at auction are from the 20th century.  The dating of them is referring primarily to when they were taken out of Africa, not necessarily when they were created.  Twentieth century items may be worth less than a hundred dollars, but some sell for millions.
Keep in mind what many collectors look for:  beauty of form, symmetry of design, rarity, the artisan’s skill, and sometimes just a great provenance.
SIZE:  Size is NOT in direct proportion to value.

Small--Small 4-9” passport masks have value, selling around the $500-1,000 range on average*, even though they may be seen as miniature versions of other masks that are twice the size. Small 5” Lega ivories can have great value. The Sotheby’s Paris sale 6/17/2009 (Sale #PF9009) Lot 109 contained a female ivory figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was 8 ¼” in height and estimated to sell at 50,000 – 70,000 EUR.  It sold for 60, 750 EUR ($84,079.80 USD).
Sotheby’s New York 5/13/2011 (Sale #N08779, The Robert Rubin Collection of African Art) just sold a Songye male power figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo lot 49, that was also 8 ¼” in height  for $2,098,500.  It was estimated to sell at $150,000-250,000.

*These masks can also sell for just a few hundred, as well as sell for several thousand each.
Large—Large Yoruba figures 30+” in height or large Cameroon pieces 30+” in height are not necessarily more highly valued, even though they may be seen as inflated objects compared to their smaller counterparts. In America, we have a tendency to believe bigger is better (cars, homes, malls).  Transposing that belief to the art world is a mistake.  On January 15th this year Skinner’s in Boston, sale #2533B, lot 218 a Nigerian Yoruba wooden shrine figure 37.5” in height that was estimated to sell between $3,000-5000, sold for $4444.  On June 16 2009 at the Christie’s Paris Sale #5568, lot 92 a 31 ½” in height Bamileke mask from Cameroon sold for 2500 EUR ($3,471.03  USD) and was estimated to sell between 1500-2500 EUR. And yes, sometimes larger objects DO go for more at auction. Just don’t make it a rule for yourself to gauge values.  Witness Sotheby’s New York auction 5/13/2011, lot 250 was a Nigerian Yoruba standing female figure offering a ram with a height of 35 1/2". It was estimated at $200,000-400,000 and sold for $1,650,500.  If you are considering buying or selling and you feel uncomfortable about the process, ask an expert.

Did I mention that one never knows what will happen at an auction? More on the topic of African art next time.