Long time ago, the objects that arrived to Europe coming from Africa were considered as "curiosities" created by primitive beings. At the beginning of the XX century, the European artists began to be interested in the African art from the purely aesthetic point of view, without giving too much importance to their variety, meaning and function. The first artists were Henri Matisse and the fauvistes, especially interested in the colour. It is paradoxical, since the colour in the African art is not the most important characteristic. European museums began to show their "exotic" treasures to the public. In 1906, an exhibition of African art in London excited André Derain. Modigliani, interested mainly in the human figure, found in the masks of baule, ibo and fang peoples, an exceptional source of inspiration. Georges Braque said that African masks had opened a new horizon to him. When focusing on formal and structural aspects, Africans dominated abstract art before Europeans. Pablo Picasso managed soon and better than nobody to take advantage of all emotional load that African art offered. He began to represent the human figure of a more and more geometric form by means of bold planes and angles, obtaining the same sensation of force and power that comes off the statues and African masks. Afterwards, he began to distort the elements that constitute the figure, in the same way that African sculptors were doing from immemorial times.
The African that carves a ritual mask or sculpture, does not consider that he is making an art work. Art is the expression of a personal and disinterested point of view, as we know in western countries. But the African does not express a personal vision, but the one of the community to which he belongs, without much margin for the improvisation nor for imagination. His work is not disinterested either, since it persecutes a certain aim. In any case, and lacking another one better, we continue using the term "art". For that reason in the heading I wrote "art" in inverted commas.
In Africa many people continue practising animistic rites. The one who does not want to travel all over sub-Sahara Africa to see it personally, can stare for example the impressive book "Soul of Africa. Magie eines Kontinents", published by Könemann, year 2000. The objects used in many of these present rites are different from which were used formerly.
It is very improbable that the convinced animistic give off motu proprio the objects used in these rites. But when the animistic leaves his ancestral believes, due to the advance of Islam, Christianity and globalization, he is no longer interested in those objects and puts them on sale.
Some western dealers of African art make a mistake when assuring to their clients that in Africa there are no longer antiquities. Many of them, have not even stepped on African ground. The certain thing is that, in Africa, old objects made for ritual use do exist. Finding them is an arduous and complicated task because of the great amount of falsifications that unscrupulous swindlers display as authentic.
Stimulated by the high prices that African antiques reach in western markets, many skillful artists dedicate to falsify objects. I remember to have seen a card in which someone reffered to himself as "manufacturer of antiques".
Forgers use some advanced techniques in their works. With appropriate chemical agents, a blowpipe and a Black & Decker, experienced craftsmen are able to make a patina destined to deceive most experts. The tests of thermoluminiscence and carbon 14 indicate the antiquity of the material which the object is made of. For that reason, the good forger uses wood of the tree cut down by his ancestors, and gives form to pieces of terracotta cooked long time ago.
Some forgers sell their works to retailers of small African villages, with the purpose of deceive western buyers, that believe to have found a treasure. Thus, many tourists and "indianajones" enjoy buying what they consider cheap antiques, when in fact they are being swindled.
Some collectors only buy objects that left Africa long time ago, the best way to make sure that the object is really old. Unfortunately, this is possible for a few privileged people, since the African antiques with demonstrated and documented origin reach in the market very high prices. In addition, this has the disadvantage that the taste of the person who removed that object from Africa long time ago, perhaps does not agree with the one of the present buyer. Perhaps the object was removed from Africa before it was used in some ritual. If the object belonged to some collector or famous artist, its value still increases more. This, without a doubt, attracts the picaresque some unscrupulous intermediaries that are able to falsify or directly to invent the History.
Some collectors despise objects that have been made in Africa exclusively to be sold outside, rejecting authentic masterpieces. In addition, already from the XVI century, the Portuguese began to bring to Europe exquisite ivory statues that ordered to African craftsmen.
Some objects that have been robbed to their legitimate proprietors at the end of the XIX century and beginning of the XX century have more value in the market than the ones acquired legally nowadays. In February of 1897, for example, the British troops took about 900 bronzes of the XVI century during a bloody expedition of punishment to the kingdom of Benín, in the present Nigeria.
Collecting African art is exciting and laborious. Unfortunately it is not easy to find information about African art. The one who wants to learn, must read, study, search and buy good books, visit museums and exhibitions, not only to watch, but also to observe mainly. Internet is a good source of information.
As well as a moderately sensitive and cultured person is able to distinguish, for example, the styles of Dalí, Miro or Picasso, many Africans are able to distinguish not only the evolution of the different African styles, but also the author of some authentic object. In Africa, history is transmitted orally from one generation to another. Among the animistic believes, the cult to the ancestors occupies an outstanding place, whose memory is transferred from parents to children. Forgetting an ancestor is equivalent to deny his immortality. When an expert writes that an object made in Africa was made by an unknown author, the only thing it means is that he ignores who has made it. Generally, he does not care, and he will not investigate this point, alleging that it is the result of the aim and the spirit of the community that the object comes from. But in the case of nonextinguished communities, some artists are not anonymous. Many collectors distrust systematically African antique dealers. Although it is truth that their main quality is not the sincerity, generally they know very well their business, they know how to distinguish an authentic object from a fake one, and they often know the name of the authors of some old objects, even if the artists passed away many years ago. It is worthy listening to them.
It is important to know the rites in which the objects are used. The use determines the patina. Among the enormous variety of African ritual objects, some are used once, and soon they are rejected. If we find one of these objects with evident samples of use, there are many probabilities that it is a falsification. Other objects belong and are used by successive generations.
Some masks are used whenever a decease in the village takes place. Others are used once every certain years. Some statues are frequently caressed or hackneyed by children. Others are left in altars during the years, and nobody dares to touch them. Some objects are greased with carite oil, bee wax, bleeds, dung, eggs, etc. Others are left outdoors and undergone the effects of the climatology: heat, humidity, sun. Some objects are often transported from a site to another, or they are struck with force against the ground. Others are buried during years. Some objects are carved in very hard wood so that they do not lose weight along the years. Other wood lose weight when curing. Some Africans usually cook within the huts. The smoke of the bonfire and the steam of the food determine the patina.
Some forgers rub the objects repeatedly to give them use appearance. If watching the items with a magnifying glass we can observe that the object has many rays in the same direction, probably it is false. Futhermore, if it has indications of use in sites where nobody takes hold of it.
Some collectors think that a piece is false because they have not seen any other similar neither in exhibitions, nor in museums nor in their books of African art. In books we can only find the objects that appear in books. But there are many more. In fact, rarity is one of the aspects that other collectors of open mentality value more. Some tribal groups are more prolific than others, and the objects of certain ethnic groups are more valuable that objects from others.
The great amount of fake objects existing in the market has discouraged many nascent collectors, who fear to waste their money in trinkets. But still antique objects made for ritual purposes can be found in the market at reasonable prices. On the other hand, many famous collectors began buying reproductions. Collecting is a process with different stages. To get to be expert can take many years of study. We already have more or less developed the taste. Buying only beautiful copies is a good beginning. The aesthetic taste varies from a person to another one. It is difficult that an insensitive person appreciates the beauty of the African art, whereas a positive, intelligent, sensitive and cultured a person always finds some attractive in the well-made African object.
Some collectors think that once in a while old objects "emerge" from Africa, and that these objects are rescued from the forgetfulness into the hands of western collectors. This point of view could be valid only for objects of certain ethnic groups already extinguished, like Tellem people. Other many objects are very well in their current locations, and they do not need to emerge to exist.
There is a dimension in each object valued enough by good collectors: its surroundings. It is not the same, for example, to see a poorly illuminated mask hanging from a brick wall, that to contemplate it in a museum, or being used in some ritual dance, which is its natural context.
You do not need to be a millionaire to have a good collection. In my site I offer an enormous variety of modern, old, big, small, authentic and used objects, reproductions, authentic but new objects, etc. I always establish reasonable prices, and I never sell reproductions for the same price as antiques. When I calculate the price of each object, I take into account its beauty, its authenticity, its antiquity and its abundance or shortage in the market. But I also consider the price that I have paid when I bought it, and the expenses that its acquisition has caused to me. The best indication that I am doing my work correctly, is that most of my clients repeat. I invest my benefits and I dedicate all my efforts to find better objects every time.
Items in the "Collection" section have not been plundered, but exported from their countries of origin with legal authorizations. In this section I have put the objects that according to my personal criterion emphasize over the others. In its acquisition I have considered two fundamental aspects: aesthetic beauty and/or antiquity. Some are old, some are new. Some masks or sculptures could have little touches, as a consequence of its antiquity, or as a result of having been used in ritual dances, or after having been buried.
All objects out of the "Collection" section have been made recently by fairly paid adult craftsmen. These objects could have some little differences in relation to the photographs, but they will never have less quality. All the articles are hand-made with very old methods that have not been changed during centuries, but the steel blade of the Touareg sword and the modern djembe's iron pegs.
The main difference between a fake and a reproduction, is the intent of the seller.
© José Francisco Ortega Viota.