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Tribal instincts

Picasso’s five nudes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon helped popularise the beauty of tribal masks. Nearly 100 years later they remain hugely popular – and very collectable. Toby Walne reports.

Tribal masks offer fascinating and exotic investment opportunities that have enjoyed some impressive returns in recent years. Most collectable pieces were picked up as colonial souvenirs and relatively worthless trinkets by European explorers travelling the world in search of conquests between the 18th and early 20th century.

They had an exciting appeal also fuelled by mysterious, usually exaggerated, tales of cannibalism and mythical wild animals in savage unknown lands. This was an era when ancient civilisations were still untainted by Western influence and power but this did not last long.

Once the outside world arrived many historic practices and customs were simply wiped out. It means surviving ceremonial and practical artistic pieces are all the more unique and valuable - and why the best era to collect are usually “pre-contact” 19th or early 20th century before the advent of tourism corrupted the market forever.

Earlier works rarely survived because they were often made of wood or other materials destroyed or recycled over time. It was not until the early 20th century that the fascinating historic items were also recognised as art. The artist Pablo Picasso first observed African carving in 1907. It transformed his art — and that of Western civilisation art movements — when he unveiled the five nudes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon that same year.

Inspiration for the angled heads within the picture is believed to have come from African masks. It provided a catalyst for Cubism and other art movements and turned traditions into fine art. Other artists of the era influenced by tribal art included Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Amedeo Modigliani.

The masks were typically worn for ceremonies connected with ancestral worship, rites of passage or other religious belief. They would give dramatic powers to the wearer, which is often reflected in the fierce spiritual energy and bold artistic imagination of the masks that are most sought-after by collectors. Although spirits occupied the masks during the ceremony they were deemed harmless when not in use, which helps to explain why they were traded.

Prices are as diverse as the rich cultural heritages from where masks originate. Costs start from a few hundred pounds up to several million, with values typically doubling in the last decade. Bryan Reeves, a dealer at Tribal Gathering in London, believes €5,000 provide an excellent entry point into the market for a top authentic mask. However, great investments can be picked up for €2,000 while €10,000 brings more quality choice.

He says: “What you need to find is a mask that actually speaks to you — has a presence that separates it from others. It helps if you have a trained eye but often a great mask will naturally draw you in — perhaps by an expression or particular characteristic.”

The masks that inspired Picasso were made by the Fang people of Gabon and worn by the Ngil male secret society for initiation ceremonies. These white elongated masks with prominent foreheads offer a haunting window to an alien world ideal for investors. The top price paid for a Ngil mask was €5.8 million in 2006 at an auction in Paris.

The Ngil society vanished after colonisation by the French in the 20th century. The old traditional masks then became historic relics of a lost civilisation. The African subcontinent is the main source for tribal art and also the best documented. It tends to have bold and original designs that also incorporate subtly restrained visual ideas that can appeal to the modern international art market.

The masks are most often used for male or female initiation ceremonies, funerals, hunting, visiting chiefs and entertainment. The market is vast but among the most sought after countries for tribal art are the West African countries of Liberia, Ivory Coast, Mali and Nigeria.

Tribes among these regions famed for their masks include the Senufo, Dan and Baule. They are often made of a dark polished sese wood and may have angular features with slanted eyes.

Many masks are representing elements of the animal kingdom through the shape of the jaws, teeth, ears and use of horns. Although the majority of headgear is made of wood many are decorated in natural paints, animal fur, feathers or shells. Years of wear will leave them looking less than pristine but it is the authentic appeal that is of most importance.

Investors should be aware the market is flooded with artificially aged fakes. Cameroon is home to some of the most expensive tribal art to come out of Africa. A 19th century 32-inch earth cult figurine known as the Bangwa Queen sold for €2.3 million at Sotheby’s New York auction house, in 1990.

Another top price was €1.4 million paid for a 19th century Bamana “Kono” mask from Mali that went for more than three times its estimate at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris in 2009. It was an abstract elongated design for a tribal initiation ceremony recognised as a creative symbol of 20th century art Primitivism.

Central Africa is also a popular area for tribal art. There is a tendency towards more naturalism in this region but there are still plenty of iconic designs. Masks of the Lega tribe of the Congo are among the most collectable from the region.

They were not worn but carried by members of the Bwani secret society and hung on fences outside during meetings. They were a symbol of status within the community and a top tribal elder might own a six-inch ivory mask.

Another Congo collectable comes from the Beembe tribe and their oblong wooden hunting masks with feather crests can sell for €15,000. Other tribes in the Congo region that made bold mask designs include the Kuyu, Teke and Kongo. The Gabon is also a popular collector’s haven for masks, with 19th century items often going for between €10,000 and €20,000.

Angola is another appealing market, with 19th century examples from the Cokwe tribes proving particularly attractive. Angola spirit masks often had scarifications - skin marks - and serrated teeth. Wooden masks with woven cloth or raffia headpieces change hands for €7,000 or more.

Mozambique and Zambia also have a mask tradition. The Himalayas, Pacific Islands, Timor, south-east Asia and Australia are also worth exploring. There are potentially greater opportunities to discover undervalued gems in these less developed markets.

The Melanesian regions of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya offer some particularly intriguing examples, thanks to a bloody history of warfare and belief in witchcraft, sorcery and dead spirits. The Asmat head-hunters decorated enemy skulls with feathers and coloured seeds. An early 20th century Asmat ancestral skull might cost €7,000 to €10,000.

The tribal mask art around the Sepik region is also highly valued with the fierce elongated heads and hooked noses often decorated with colourful paint motifs and vegetable fibres to symbolise hair. Examples can sell for €3,000 and upwards.

Other headhunter trophy masks can be found from tribes living in the Solomon Islands, which can be recognised from the red and white patterns on black. Other regions of the orient attracting increased interest among tribal mask collectors are China and Tibet. These can have a raw expressive power with strong and often garish colours used in acting out historic events or folklore tales of good fighting evil.

Over the past 20 years a growing understanding of their intrinsic value means almost all tribal art has held its value, while the top rare discoveries have risen as much as tenfold in price. But as an investment, tribal art must be considered a long-term investment and collectors should usually hang on to items for at least a decade if they are to expect decent returns.

Provenance, beauty, age, rarity and condition are the main ingredients for investors — with provenance right at the top of the list. Because the market is flooded with fakes it is important to trade through a reputable dealer — even if it means paying a bit more.

Reeves, of Tribal Gathering, says: “It can be worth paying 20 times above the market price if you get the expertise of a dealer’s eyes who can also guarantee authenticity. It is not worth risking a mistake. Their years of expertise will hopefully help you avoid fakes.”

However, he suggests the best place to start is with your hands planted firmly in the pocket at one of the half dozen or so specialist trade exhibitions held worldwide every year for those dealing in tribal art.

Details are available from dealers or the magazine Tribal Art. The next in Britain will be “Tribal Perspectives” from 28 September to 2 October 2011 held at galleries in Cork Street, Mayfair. Visitors can mingle with specialist dealers, learn from their knowledge and enjoy pieces on show. Dealers are happy to meet those fresh to the market. An UNESCO treaty in the 1970s made it illegal to export particularly rare early tribal works from certain countries and many pieces come from existing private collections.

The market is international but despite historic links with Britain has shifted in recent years from London to Paris and Brussels. Tribal Art offers a full list of international auction sales and dealers along with features on tribal art collectables, including masks. The British Museum in Great Russell Street, central London, holds a collection of tribal art in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

Books that look at tribal masks include “The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geography”, by Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, “Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art” by Jack Flam and Miriam Deutch and “Black African Mask” by Marlese Franklin.

Contact: Tribal Art magazine, +32(0) 67 877 277,; Tribal Gathering, 020 7221 6650,; Clive Loveless Primal Art, 0208969 5831,

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