by Henri Kamer
|The cost of art objects in general and those of Black art in particular, already badly
established before the war has increased during the last thirty years at a dizzying rate.
Following the law of supply and demand, quality pieces have reached prices today, which
were unimaginable only a few years ago. For example, in 1966 at the Helena Rubinstein
auction, for which I was engaged as the expert, 1 acquired a Fang head for $ 22,000 (at
present 110.000 F). This head been purchased for about $9,500 before the war by the
Princess Gourielli. Several weeks later, a Swiss collector offered me $35,000 (175.000
F). Today I have offers varying between $80,000 (400.000 F) and $100,000 (500.000 F)
for this same piece.
Still another example, in November 1973, Charles Ratton sold a Baule mask at the Hotel
Drouot for the sum of $50,000 (250.000 F), a price never before attained by wooden art
object from the Ivory Coast.
A more recent record has just been in the price African art. On July 8, 1974, Sotheby’s of
London priced a bronze from Benin at £ 185,000 (about $500,000 or 2.500.000 F). This
piece had been sold by the same house in 1931 at $1,220, in other words, at about
1/1.000 of the current price.
This extraordinary increase in the caste of African art objects has encouraged hunters in
great numbers, Africans as well as Europeans, who no longer hesitate to undertake
expeditions demanding a great deal of time and enormous investments in order to bring to
the market pieces for which collectors and museums will eagerly vie against each other.
Accordingly, there has developed a parallel activity, the manufacture and sale of copies
Counterfeits obviously are not unique to African art. A forger copies anything of value,
bank notes, jewels, securities, paintings, and art objects of all kinds.
A fake, whether it is a postage stamp or a painting, is basically the copy of an original,
executed as faithfully as possible, which one detects in comparing the reproduction to the
When it concerns art, the expert who examines a doubtful object or painting devotes
himself primarily to the work of compiling all the facts in order to determine if a similar
original work has already been catalogued somewhere in the world, eventually to make
the comparison between the two.
The problem becomes more complicated when it is a case of creative fakes not copied
from existing works but conceived by an artist and inspired by the style of a given period.
The history of art has known forgers of genius who have attained perfection. For
example, Maillefer for his 18th century furniture, Van Meegeren for his primitive
paintings, Doccena for his Roman and Greek antiques and Italian cuatro cento sculptures.
The works of these masters, and they must be called that, had never been in doubt
among the experts until the moment when they themselves divulged the truth,
undoubtedly prompted by mixed feelings or honesty and the professional pride of the
Van Meegeren could no longer bear idea of his own works being attributed to Verineer.
He found himself arrested for collaboration when he declared that a good number of
paintings, which he had sold, in particular to Germans, were fakes from his own hand. In
the face of general skepticism among the experts, he painted a Vermeer in his cell.
Maillefer, after having sold his 18th century French furniture to museums and collectors
the world over, felt the need to write a book explaining in detail his techniques of
craftsmanship. All the experts of the period saw their reputations tarnished as a result of
Doccena did not copy Greek antiques he created them. In the same way that Van
Meegeren created a Vermeer or Maillefer a piece of furniture.
It is no longer a question of copying the original these men would be classed more in the
category of creative artists than in that of the common forger who limits himself to
An important American museum was very proud of possessing a Donatello bronze. After
20 years of research, the curators concluded that it was in fact a work of Doccena. The
sculpture continued to remain in the place of honor, which it was occupying. The curator
simply replaced the name of Donatello with that of Doccena, because in his judgment it
was a case of an authentic masterpiece of sculpture worthy of remaining on public view.
This show initiative, which was not lacking in courage, was in my opinion justified
because, not only are these objects more and more in demand by collectors, but their
commercial value, already considerable, continues to increase.
African art, to my knowledge, has not yet had its forger genius, but it is much more
complex and difficult to determine the authenticity of a Black sculpture than that of a
painting or a classical work of art, ancient or contemporary.
AUTHENTICITY AND AGE
The criteria for the authenticity of art objects, other than the primitive arts, are generally
determined at once by the artist, the place of creation, as well as the materials used and,
when necessary, the technique of craftsmanship.
The date of creation for ancient works of art is surely the most important element,
although at times difficult to determine with precision. For example, it is evident that an
antique Roman sculpture must have been executed by an artist living under the Roman
Empire, or that a Louis XV piece must have been produced under that Reign.
Contemporary works must come from the and of the artist to which they are attributed
and of course must date from his lifetime. There is a series of scientific tests, which
permits one to determine if the object dates from the period to which it is thought to
belong. An antique Egyptian piece that dates back 200 years, when it should date back at
least 2,000, is clearly a fake. A Louis XV piece executed at the time of Napoleon III is, if
not a fake, at best a copy having a great deal less value than the original dating from the
Louis XV period.
Contrary to what one would think based on knowledge of classical works of art; the
authenticity of an African piece has no relationship to its date of creation. Authentic
pieces could have been produced yesterday and others will still be produced in the future.
Is not necessary to try to establish a precise date for an African sculpture, but rather to
attempt to analyze its style and especially the reasons for which it was made.
And authentic African piece is by definition a sculpture executed by an artist of a
primitive tribe and destined for the use of this tribe in a ritual or functional way, never
lucrative. This constitutes one of the first fundamental differences between the so-called
primitive arts, to which African art belongs, and other forms of traditional art, which have
been created expressly in order to be sold. All artists have lived and continue to live from
the sale of their works, whether it be Michelangelo working on the orders of an Italian
jirince, or Benvenuto Cellini working for the court of Francois 1re, or Picasso producing
for his clients. Patronage has always existed and supported artists in Europe and Asia,
and the dealers and collectors are actually the patrons of our contemporary artists.
Black art, even in our day, is an art which comes down to us through the ages, a
((beginning art)). The sculptor who creates these fetishes and masks does so without any
thought of profit, in the same spirit that an inhabitant of the Cyclades executed an idol in
marble 5,000 years ago. These African pieces could be more or less ancient or at times
even very recent, by reason of the fact that three quarters of the population of Black
Africa are still fetishist and continue to practice this religion. Most of the ritual sculptures
used are masks, which appear during the religious dances and public celebrations. There
are also figurines and large statues which, according to the region, represent ancestral
portraits, or fetishes to protect the village and its inhabitants, to conjure against evil
spirits, against drought and epidemics, to bring fertility to women or evil and harm to
enemies, such as the nail fetishes from the Bas Congo areas.
Sculptures are for the most part in wood, a few in stone or ivory, and others in an alloy of
bronze, gold, or silver. There exist also a small number of masks made of raffia, leather,
tortoise shell, etc.
Sculptures are for the most part in wood, a few in stone or ivory, and others in an alloy of
bronze, gold, or silver. There exist also a small number of masks made of raffia, leather,
tortoise shell, etc.
If an important event (funeral drought, epidemic) were to take place in a village today,
masks and fetishes would be made in order to conjure the evil spirit, and according to
their rarity and artistic quality, these objects would have a more or less important
ethnographic or commercial value among museums and collectors. Under no pretext
would the inhabitants of the village give them up and in certain cases they would destroy
them or hide them in the bush where they would be lost forever or simply destroyed by
termites and the elements.
Usually African Muslims or Christians who resell them at extremely high prices bring
these pieces back to the European market. If the fetishists caught them in possession of
these objects, their lives would be in danger. These merchants, generally Dioula, bring
back indiscriminately authentic pieces, often of mediocre quality, and recent copies, as
well as fakes, which are not easily recognized by the untrained eye.
It is evident that a mask made a few years ago, or even today, for the purpose of tribal
rituals is an authentic object which has infinitely more value than a 100-year-old mask
carved on order for a local functionary or as a gift to a governor or a European visitor.
As an example, I had occasion to examine a sculpture coming from the Savorgnan de
Brazza family, which had certainly been sculpted expressly for the purpose of offering it
to the famous explorer. This piece then dated back almost a century, but other than its
historic interest, which gave it a certain commercial value, it could not be classed as an
authentic African art object. (This is also true of fake Egyptian pieces made for
Napoleon's troops and that of pre-Columbian objects from Mexico made for and sold to
Maximilian's army). That African sculptor could certainly not be called a forger and he,
as well as his descendants, must have continued to produce authentic objects worthy of
being included in the most important collections. Because, and this fact is unique in the
case of art, a fake African object easily could have been produced at an earlier time than
an authentic object. I would even say that these examples are frequent.
The geographic location of the tribe is a very important factor. The style of the works of
art produced in the coastal regions has come under European influences, which have not
affected the less accessible interior of the country until much later. Even today there are
tribes in existence which have no contact with the outside world who are sculpting works
which could be classed among those of ((beginning art)) while at the same time being
I have observed that authentic sculptures are classed generally in three principal
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1. The objects of the first period, which I call a ((beginning art)), come to us directly from
the ancestral traditions of the bush and the African forest. These are entirely pure and
original creations, which have not been subjected to any foreign influence. They are
extremely rare pieces and are obviously the most in demand.
2. The objects of the intermediary period, which are always worked in the style of the
preceding one, have undergone, nevertheless, certain alterations due to foreign
contributions to the culture. Some of them are notably adorned with imported decorative
elements: paint of European origin, copper nails, shotgun cartridges, Venetian or Arabian
glass beads, some of which may date back several centuries. These objects are equally as
valuable and legitimate as those in the first period, although less rare.
3. The style of the objects of the third period is characterized by a marked decadence due
to a considerable foreign influence. This influence can be either intertribal or European.
The sex of the figures is less apparent, being clad in loincloths at the instigation of the
missionaries. Some statues even have sandals. The traditional secular forms give way to a
certain creative audacity, at times delightful, but showing definite signs of decadence. I
would say without hesitation, however, that are indisputable masterpieces of African art
among the objects of the third period.
We should not, however, totally reject those A/rime to add that the stylistic classification
of various pieces, Dogon, Fang, Laule and other, must be the subject of a separate study
to be undertaken by ethnologist with a perfect knowledge of the ethnic cultures
In conclusion, it is essential to state unequivocally that the appearance of a work of art in
one of the three periods mentioned above has, I repeat, nothing to do with its date of
creation. Some tribes in contact with the outside were producing works of the third period
a half century ago, while in our day, others, at times belonging to the same ethnic race
and will continue to remain in that period as long as they have no contact with the
We should not, however, totally reject those African objects directly inspired by
Europeans; the Lenin bronzes and certain ivories of Portuguese workmanship are an
example. The African made fetishes representing everything, which appeared, to him to
be invested with a supernatural power. He went even so far as to draw on Christianity as
a source of inspiration.
In the 15th century when the Portuguese landed in the Boma region and went up river, at
first in search of slaves ant then to conquer the Las Congo kingdom, the Africans
observed the celebration of the Mass, noting especially that before going into combat the
troops were blessed by a priest carrying a crucifix. Naturally they concluded that the
victory of the whites was due to the extraordinary power of this fetish, which they
adopted and baptized Kangi Kiditu. These fetishes were for the most part made in a large
workshop in the Tomboco region and became the symbol of power and invulnerability.
They were carried by important chiefs and have taken their place in the pantheon of
sacred Bakongo (Fig. No 1), sculptures alongside the famous nail, fetishes.
One can only admire the talent of those sculptors who knew how to give an African
stamp and style to these objects of such remote origin.
The Dutch, the French, and the English, who remained only for short periods of time,
followed the Portuguese armies. However, they always left behind settlers and
missionaries, who all had a more or less marked influence on Bakongo art.
It should be noted that style of the objects from these areas is almost always figurative,
therefore necessarily inspired by Europe, however completely ((African)) it may be in
appearance. One must go towards the interior to find the very stylized or totally abstract
composition, which is the truly original contribution of African art to world sculpture.
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One last example, around 1930, the governor commissioned some sculptors of Lobi to do
a group of chairs for which he furnished the design. This model was directly inspired by
the traditional Lobi tripod, but decorated with a double head (Janus head) in profile
which recalls somewhat the design of the ((souvenirs)) in ebony found in Dakar. (Fig. No
2). These objects were obviously fakes, but later on, the Lobis, having greatly admired
this type of chair, continued to construct it for their personal use. This is a typical
example of an authentic object having drawn its inspiration from a fake object.
This fact, unique to primitive art, that a copy or even a fake could have been executed
prior to the authentic object makes the experts’ task extremely complex.
The American customs allow any object dating back more than 100 years to enter the
U.S. duty free. A recent law has just fixed the age for objects of primitive art at 50 years.
Nevertheless, even on the admission of the U.S. government the very large majority of
Black Art objects, which enter the U.S. duty free, are nowhere near 50 years old.
As a consultant to the U.S. customs, I have often been called upon to make a decision on
the age of objects to be imported. In this country where everything rests on formal and
material proof, I have had great difficulty in making the authorities admit that it is
impossible to prove the exact age of an African or Oceanic sculpture because they have
practically all been done in the same style for several centuries.
If this article helps to clarify the misunderstanding on the application of a date for
African sculptures, a great purpose will have been served.
The public must become aware of these two facts:
It is not possible to set a date for a Black art object.
If it were possible to do so, (for example, based on information concerning the person
who collected it or date it was brought back from Africa) this would have no bearing on
Collectors must end the practice of making inquiries as to the age of their pieces or those
they wish to acquire and concern themselves more with the sculpture of the object, its
origin, its function, its eventual rarity, and especially its quality.
Dealers must refrain form praising the antiquity of an object, declaring that ((this is 100
years old)), or from making similar claims, each one more exaggerated than the last.
Museums must set an example and avoid publishing catalogues like the one for the
centennial of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, in which I was amazed to see
objects from the Museum of Primitive Art collection arbitrarily classified under such
periods as the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
These objects, moreover admirable ones, which figure among the most beautiful of
African sculptures, should not have been catalogued in this manner. This does not serve
cause of African art but certainly creates confusion in the mind of the public.
Finally, it is especially necessary that the experts called upon to judge the authenticity of
an object do not do so solely on the basis of apparent or even real antiquity, for example,
on the date at which the piece was brought back from Africa. Nor should they allow
themselves to be impressed by the fact that apiece comes from an old collection or that it
is shown in an auction catalogue, which has appeared between the two wars. These
indications, all useful at times, are far from being decisive.
COPIES AND FAKES
Obviously an object made outside of Africa is unquestionably a fake.
Specialized ateliers exist, notably in Germany, Belgium and France, which produce
imitations in known designs easily recognizable by experts. The determining facts are:
the type of wood used, the technique for obtaining patination, the tool used by the
sculptor, for which one must know how to recognize the marks, and finally the style,
which remains the essential factor of the expertise.
Where the tool is concerned, the European forger most frequently uses a steel chisel,
while the African artist generally employs an adze of forged iron. The trained eye always
detects the difference because the marks are made in the opposite direction, the steel
chisel upward and the adze downwards, and the chisel marks are usually much longer
than those of the adze.
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There are also other details, such as the marks of normal wear and the manner in which
the holes are bored in order to attach the mask.
For example, the European or African forger employs a more or less perfected drill. The
native sculptor employs fire-heated iron, repeating the process several times, which
invariably makes an uneven hole. A talented forger can also do this, but he does not
always think of duplicating the wear in the holes caused by the rubbing of the cords
holding the mask in place.
The dancer's teeth marks on the bit, which serves to hold the mask, are equally an
indication. Finally, on the old mask theirs are the trustworthy traces of erosion, worms,
and insects, especially termites.
Some novice forgers are content to take a casting of a famous piece and reproduce it. In
this case even a child could tell the difference. But others are cleverer and have offered
proof of certain originality. One must then examine the patina very closely, this being the
most difficult of all to duplicate.
Some are satisfied with dyeing the mask, or even painting it, which is very easily
detected by touching it with solvent. In Africa this is the case of numerous fakes done in
An ordinary needle a little so vent are often the basic instruments of a preliminary
A classic patination technique done in Europe consists of burning the wood, coating it
with oil, repeating the operation several times, and then polishing the object with wax. It
is possible to check this method by introducing a needle horizontally under the surface,
which invariably releases ashes if the objects are a fake. But neither is this an absolute
proof, for in some areas, notably Gabon and the Congo, authentic objects have been dyed
following this process of ((patina by fire)). Solutions from a base of different acid are
also used in order to erode the wood's surface. This is equally detectable, either by the
naked eye or in the laboratory.
Inserting a fine point into the wood duplicates wormholes. Some have even used shotgun
pellets. If it is possible to introduce a needle straight into the hole, more than likely it was
not made by a worm, which always leaves a zigzag path.
It is generally much easier to detect a fake in wood, ivory, or stone than it is in bronze or
gold, in which case one must depend more on the style and the casting. There are
numerous fake bronzes made in Europe, which are over castings, but this process does
not escape a specialist. An analysis of the alloy is meaningless, because every native
caster, according to which metals are available at the moment, comes up with a different
As far as the technique of casting is concerned, it is relatively simple for a specialist to
distinguish an authentic African lost wax cast from that of a fake coming from a
The patina is significant only in the case of excavated bronzes dating back several
centuries, such as those of the Hittites or Greeks.
Molecular analysis should solve many of the problems, for actually the molecules of a
metal several thousand years old stretch imperceptibly, which is one of the reasons for
the fragility of an object in antique metal as compared to new metal. But these tests
which in any event are still not perfected, do not apply in the expertise of an African
object because casting processes were introduced in Black Africa by the Portuguese, and
in some cases locally by the Arabs, less than 1,000 years ago.
Generally, the fake bronzes made in Africa are very badly done and usually produced in
large numbers. They could hardly be mistaken for originals, for the Africans do not even
go to the trouble of doctoring them up seriously. They prefer working in wood, or even in
ivory, which is much in demand by Europeans. I would say that the era has passed of
great African casters, those direct heirs of the techniques introduced several centuries
ago. Generally speaking, it can be stated that there are no fake bronzes in Africa, which
are unique pieces.
Nevertheless, in spite of all the experts and the controls, there are to be found in many
museums and collections, in Europe as well as in America, some fakes made outside of
Africa, just as there are forgeries in areas other than Black art, notably paintings and
classical antiques. Fifteen years ago the development of the e Carbon 14 s process made
it possible to date wood objects within 100 years by determining at which moment an
organic material has ceased to be radioactive. While this is invaluable in expertise
Egyptian or medieval woodcarvings, it is, in my opinion, not very helpful in the case of
Black art. For, as we have seen above, an authentic object can easily be less than 100
years old and, more important, a clever forger will make an object of old wood, thereby
rendering the Carbon 14 test invalid, as it determines only the age of the wood, not the
time at which it was carved.
A more recent process, that of thermo luminescence, does not appear to give any better
results. I have ascertained on more than one occasion that several examinations of the
same object give contradictory results.
In order to become convinced, one has only to refer to written reports from the
laboratories at Oxford, which were devoted to a thorough examination of the Hassilar
terra cotta from Anatolia.
Each report on the thermo luminescent test concludes with a different date of firing,
therefore dating from a different period, and this is for objects, which are strictly
identical. The discrepancies varied from 300 to 1,000 and at times 2,000 years. One thing
is certain, at least fort that which concerns the specific example of the Hassilars; either
they are authentic and all date from the same period (within 2 or 3 centuries), or if on the
contrary, as I believe, they are the work of one forger or of one atelier, which is more
probable, they have still all been produced at the same time, say, within a period of ten
years. This would demonstrate in both cases the extreme inaccuracy of these laboratory
We come now to the fakes in wood made in Africa destined to be sold to tourists or to
flood the European and American markets. They are for the most part crudely executed,
have no plastic quality whatever, and in general, are done from the same stereotyped
model. I do not know of any fakes done as one of a kind in this category. On the contrary,
they are made in large numbers, for hand labor is not expensive and the Africans always
sell them. From time to time, a new ((style)) of fake appears which may pass undetected
in the beginning, but which is rapidly followed by numerous arrivals of objects, all of the
We will cite two specific examples on this subject, first, that of the sculptor Paul Tahbou
who, with the aid of his son, makes in his Band join (Cameroon) workshop large
Bamileke masks of the Batcham type. These objects are most often done on order and
eventually are sold to different collectors. There is a well-documented article on this
subject by Dr Harter in e ((Art d' Afrique Noire)), (No 3).
Another sculptor, Simon Misëre, specialized in the production of Kota and Mahongwe
reliquary figures at Libreville (Gabon). The artist, himself of the Mahongwe race, is the
direct descendant of the last traditional sculptor who lived in the Okonja area and
executed the Bieris according to the needs of neighboring villages (Fig. No 3).
In these two cases, it is evident that analysis of the materials used, of the tool marks and
even of the patina would serve no purpose. The two sculptors, each showing certain
originality, have recognizable styles.
There are in Africa other artisans, not as well known, who are engaged in the same
activities as those of Paul Tahbou and Simon Misère. I know personally a Kuba sculptor
at Mushenge in North Kasai, another in the area of San in Mali, who execute traditional
objects of their own ethnic group, either on order from Europeans, African dealers, or
still for tribal ritual needs.
According to the purpose for which it was made and its final destination, the same object
could be considered authentic or false. Thus, Simon Misére produced two Mahongwe
reliquaries; the first, being sold to the village chief, is perfectly authentic; the second,
ordered by a European or an African merchant, falls into the fake category. Moreover,
originally these two objects have appreciably the same commercial value. In ten or
twenty years, the one which has stayed in the village will be worth a high price (this
object will have been consecrated, will have .a natural patina, and will give all the
appearances of an antique); while the other will always be scorned by collectors, in so far
as it is a modern piece.
For another troubling factor in Black art and existing nowhere else, as we have indicated
before, not only could a fake piece have been produced at an earlier date than an
authentic one, but also the same hand could have produced the two.
The distinction should be made, however, between sculptors like Simon Mistre and Paul
Tahbou, who only produce objects coming from their own ethnic group, and others, much
more numerous, unfortunately, who imitate pieces from any area. In this case, they are
obviously badly done, in other words, a Mahongwe reliquary executed by a Mahongwe
sculptor in Gabon would be more ((excusable)) and of much better workmanship than a
Nimba which should have come from the Baga country in Guinea, but which was instead
made at Bamako, in Mali.
For an object of the style or of the civilization of a given tribe, which is executed by
another tribe, is in principle a fake. However, there are exceptions; some artists have been
induced to make ritual, functional or court objects for other regions, either as a gift or to
be sold. These objects are completely authentic.
On the other hand, objects characteristic of one ethnic group and produced specially for
the western market are copies of questionable value, whatever the date of creation.
To simplify the problem, I can state that a Black art object cannot be definitively
classified as a fake unless it is expressly copied from the original for commercial
purposes (Fig. No 4, 5, 6).
Actually, there are to be found in the heart of the same tribe numerous and successive
productions of objects of the same type which are always similar in design to the
preceding series. In certain regions there will exist in the same village a large number of
objects, notably masks, practically identical, made in numerous copies for the ritual and
daily needs of the tribe concerned and, this, from generation to generation. These objects,
as well, are indisputably authentic.
In Africa there is no creative artist, as such, and the purely decorative object, of which
there are so many in Europe and Asia, does not exist. All art is functional, ritual or
traditional and is inextricably part of the civilization of the ethnic group.
Some pieces are executed with more or less plastic beauty, according to the talents of the
creator, who is called an ((artist)) but who would more accurately be an artisan.
It often falls on this person to perform the functions of sculptor and caster, and he must
work exclusively for the benefit of the community, which provides him with food and
shelter. He produces the masks and fetishes according to the needs of the moment, always
on order of the dignitaries of the tribe and never following his inspiration of the moment,
as would any conventional artist.
In effect, that which currently is called an ((African art object)) has not been conceived as
such by its creator. The ((object)) made in Africa, for the various reasons explained
above, became en ((art object)) upon its arrival in Europe. It was even at that time classed
as ((ethnographic)) and ((native)) art. It was only a short time ago that the concept of
((Black art)) became generally accepted.
As far as the copies are concerned, these have always existed in art. At the Louvre the
notation in seen on numerous statues, ((Roman copy of a Greek original)), and those
Roman copies have in turn been copied during the Renaissance and down through the
In Black art, as we have seen above, objects of the same design have continually been
redone, and if they are executed for ritual purposes, they retain great value as collection
The current fakes executed in series in the cities in Africa are less dangerous on the
whole than those realized in Europe, because they are more easily detected. However,
copies made in the bush according to traditional practices and having aged in the country
under local climatic conditions often poses very difficult problems for the expert.
On the other hand, there also exist well-classified and well-known styles. But one must
guard against classing as fakes theses objects, which do not exactly resemble the pieces
illustrated in books. Some experts are not sufficiently trained in this respect and have
committed very grave errors.
There is still a great deal to be learned about Africa. If the pieces characteristic of some
countries are perfectly indexed, there are other regions, which are still rich in objects
awaiting an accurate classification.
In the course of my 25 expeditions in Africa I have brought back objects which, at the
time, were considered doubtful because ((the did not exist)) and which now are shown in
the largest museums of the world and in the most important works on Black art.
To cite a few examples, there are the Bambara ((Queens)) from the Bougouni region, the
Tellems, the Baga Snakes, the Dogon and Bambara Irons, the large Nafana masks, falsely
attributed to the Gourounsi by William Fagg when they first appeared on the market.
One should also avoid classifying an object as fake simply because only a few
well-known and well-catalogued pieces existed before the war. As we said at the
beginning, the enormous prices at times paid for African sculptures have encouraged the
search for such pieces, and many objects of known and unknown types have been
brought back from Africa. In the last 25 years the number of valuable objects in existence
in Europe and the United States has increased a hundred fold, and I am sure that this is a
very conservative estimate.
For example, before the war one knew of only a few specimens of the Kifwebe mask
from the Songye tribe, less than 50 in the world, to give a number. Several hundred have
arrived in the last ten years and have sometimes been classed as doubtful, and even fake.
The Kurumba antelopes, the large Nimba sculptures, and still many others are equally in
this category. I wish to remind the reader that at the time of my first expeditions into
Africa 25 years ago, only very few oft the Dogon sculptures, the Bambara antelopes, and
even the Dogon, Mossi, or Bobo masks were known to exist. There were the specimens
brought back around 1935 by Marcel Griaule and kept at the Musëe de l'Homme of Paris,
and those brought back by Lem at about the same time and sold to the Helena Rubinstein
Around 1955 1 was amazed to ascertain that a very large number of specimens of these
types, considered extremely rare at the time, were available in Africa. I was not yet aware
of the true situation, because after having personally brought back hundreds of them, my
successors who visited these areas, Europeans as well as Africans, found several
The market value of these objects besides has considerably decreased. A Dogon Kanaga
mask was worth the price of a Fang sculpture or a Kota reliquary around 1948, about .9
3,000 (15.000 F at that time). Today they are to be found on the market for about. 500
(1.000 F), while a Fang or a Kota, even of mediocre quality, are now priced in the tens of
thousands of dollars.
What took place in West Africa twenty years ago continues today in other areas. I will
cite briefly the hundreds of pieces brought back from Cameroon, in particular the
Bangwa sculptures of which we know only a few specimens, the Dan masks and Baule
sculptures from the Ivory Coast, the Bobo masks from Upper Volta, objects from all the
ethnic cultures of Nigeria, the Luba and Songye sculptures from Zaire. Some of these
objects number in the thousands, and I would not hesitate to add that most of those
appearing on the market in the last quarter of a century are far more important than those
of the same type known before the war. This has not prevented the proportional decrease
in value of a Kifwebe mask, a Luba sculpture or a Bobo mask.
This is due to the ever-changing situation in Africa. The opening of roads, the creation of
airports, and the rapid acceptance of Islamism, especially among the young, have incited
the Africans to rid themselves of the objects in which they no longer believe. Their
growing need for money has done the rest. The search for art objects in Africa continues
today with a thorough charting of each area. Sooner or later the virgin areas are
systematically visited and cleaned out of all art objects.
Most ethnologists have had to adapt to this new situation created by the extraordinary
affluence of objects and revise certain positions. Jacqueline Delange, Francine N'Diaye,
Pierre Meauzé, Jean Laude in France; Albert Maesen, Paul Timmermans in Belgium;
Elsie Leutzinger in Switzerland; Roy Sieber, LEon Siroto in the United States have been the
forerunners and have appliedthemselves to studying and reporting on these objects until then
unpublished. I apologize to the many others I am omitting.
Others unfortunately have adopted the position of the ex-curator of the British Museum,
William Fagg, who continues to propagate his personal advice with disturbing
inaccuracy, persistently misleading the public, claiming for instance that there is only one
authentic Kurumba antelope in the world (that of the Helena Rubinstein Collection), only
two or three Nimbas, three Kifwebes, and so on...
One must equally guard against classing hybrid or atypical pieces as fakes, for as we have
seen above, artists of some tribes have continually realized works of other tribes,
sometimes far away, and this has produced a mixture of styles. This is particularly true of
artists working in ivory, as well as casters, because they have been and still are less
numerous than the sculptors working in wood and have been called upon to do jewels and
prestige objects in styles having no relationship to those of their own people.
I have more than once heard certain ethnologists declare an object fake because they did
not know of another piece exactly like it. In addition, especially where court pieces are
concerned, royal objects in gold, bronze, or ivory, there is in Africa a large number of
unique pieces executed on the order of kings or important chiefs. These objects, which do
not serve in the ritual ceremonies, are not of a traditional design, and some are invaluable
due to their extreme rarity, indeed of their unique character. One can cite as examples the
silver court objects of the Fan Empire in Dahomey, the Benin bronzes and ivories from
Nigeria, the various objects from the court of the Moro Naba emperor of the Mossi in
Upper Volta, those of the king of the Kuba at Mushenge in northern Kasai, and still many
We come now to the problem of the expertise. As we have show above, the determination
of the production date of an object, which is almost always the single criterion of
authenticity in the classical arts, is of no consequence for the African pieces. Of all the
methods of detection provided by modern techniques, such as, the Carbon 14 test for
organic materials (wood, ivory), molecular analysis of metals, ultraviolet or infrared rays,
as well as thermo luminescence, none are really useful.
Nor can one depend uniquely on technical details, such as, the nature of the wood,
patination technique, or the tools, which were employed. A forger can obtain the right
wood or scalp with traditional tools. Also, it is possible that a perfectly authentic object
can be completely lacking in patina.
In my jostlement it is much more important that the expert who is called upon to give an
opinion on an object have a thorough knowledge of the various details of traditional
styles and possess especially that rare faculty of having an instinct for quality.
To feel the quality of an object is to have a sixth sense which unfortunately escapes too
many people and which places all the responsibility of judgment with the expert.
It is possible to learn to recognize the styles characterizing different tribes, their
sociology, and their customs through books, which have been published on the subject, or
better yet, to study them in the field. But taste and a feeling of quality are never acquired.
This is innate.
It would be indiscreet to give examples here, but we all know amateurs who, without any
special knowledge in the beginning, have succeeded, due to their taste and discernment,
at times with very modest means, in forming collections, which count among the most
beautiful in the world.
On the other hand, some specialists who hold a number of impressive degrees and have
enormous funds at their disposal, has been responsible for disastrous acquisitions which
have discredited the showcases of many museums and famous collections for which they
have been advisors.
It is relatively easy for someone to become aware of his lack of knowledge in a certain
area and to remedy it, but no one is ever conscious of his lack of taste. This is the reason
that those who are incapable of perceiving the quality and the beauty of an object suffer
an irreversible lack which they will never be able to correct, simply because they do not
feel the necessity to do so.
An authentic object can be of the highest quality or extremely mediocre. This will
substantially affect its commercial value. A fake, on the other hand, has no quality
whatever; it is a thing without life. Because that which counts in the final analysis is the
capacity to feel something of the soul of the artist, and especially the spontaneity of his
move. One cannot overemphasize the hand which creates has not the hesitations of the
hand which copies. Therein lies the whole problem. The connoisseur’s eye is not fooled.
An expert must at the same time have a wide knowledge of techniques and styles and
especially a sense of quality. His advice comes from his inner conviction but, taking into
account the extreme complexity of certain problems, this is unfortunately not always
sufficient. All experts have sometimes made mistakes, in all fields of art. They can even
change their opinion several times on the same object. Large museums are accustomed to
taking objects considered as masterpieces from their exhibiting rooms to join the fakes on
reserve in storage. This does not prevent the later rehabilitation of the piece in question,
which could then reappear be/ore the public in a place of honor.
This actually happened about two years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New
York with a bronbe horse coming from Greece and dating from the geometric period. On
the admission of the director of the museum, world experts are absolutely divided on the
subject of this piece, which periodically is classed as authentic or fake.
Neither an examination with ultraviolet or infrared rays, nor the thermo luminescent
method, nor the molecular analysis has apparently resolved the problem.
I have taken the liberty of mentioning this example here because the story has been
widely circulated by the American press, but usually this type of incident is handled with
the utmost discretion, for obvious reasons.
Many other works of art questioned by the majority of experts are stile exhibited in
different museums and their withdrawal awaits only the departure of the conservator
currently in charge.
To conclude, let us say that the advice of experts is rarely unanimous. In effect, there are
objects, which serve as standards of authenticity and others of falsification, but there are
equally others, which do not offer the least proof one way or the other. Each expert has a
((feeling s for the object following his personal criteria. The expertise relies more on
instinct than on technically verifiable facts; the idea of certain date does not apply to
African objects: the majority among them come under the category where the expert
must, above all, obey his own inner conviction.
I turn here to a formula cited by Patricia de Beauvais, in an article appearing in ((Paris
Match)) on September 28, 1974, entitled ((Has the Louvre paid a million dollars for a
fake Fragonard?)) This remarkable account of the controversy raised by the acquisition
of this painting closes on these words ((Battle of experts apropos to which it is fitting to recall
this modest definition of a difficult profession among all: "A good expert is an expert who is
wrong less often than the others")).
The directors of the Louvre, as well as Mrs. Daniel Wildenstein, count among the most
important specialists in the world on this subject. However these highly competent
experts, obeying their inner convictions, bring forth diametrically opposed opinions.
Let us say, in conclusion, that there is no universal authority on Black art.
Africa is a large continent, with large unknown areas. There are experts for certain
regions of Africa (ivory Coast, Congo, Upper Volta, etc.), just as there are specialists in
Japanese, Chinese or Iranian art, rather than for all of Asia.
A general work on Black art written by one author, and there are many of them, is
worthless, all the more so because the majority of these books invariably reproduce the
same famous objects. It would take a college of ethnologists to write such a book, and
preferably those having worked for years in the field, and on the objects.
We all still have much to learn through direct, human relationships with the inhabitants of
the African bush, who are extremely reticent when it comes to questions about fetishism.
I have personally experienced these relationships and those who have worked, as I have,
in the bush in daily contact with Africans would certainly not contradict me.
It is my hope that such a work, or rather a series of works with illustrations, preferably
not yet published, will one day be realized, and that a large public will finally see in
Black art something other than the primitive sculptures whose only merit has been in
serving as a source of inspiration for cubism and our modern art at the beginning of the
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