There are many pitfalls and hazards in collecting tribal art. Unscrupulous or just plain ignorant sellers often misrepresent pieces as either old or used when they are neither. What is "quality" tribal art and what isn't? What matters and what doesn't?
What matters is how it makes you feel each time you look at it or hold it in your hands. Does the piece "speak" to you? If an artifact speaks to you then each time you look at it or hold it you will feel connected to it. The same holds true of any type of art.
Moral of the story: Unless you have unlimited funds and want to become a world-renowned tribal art collector, buy what you like at a price you feel is fair.
Airport art (I use this popular term for lack of a better one) is generally still rooted in the culture that produces it... just a bit farther from the tree (so to speak). This particular type of art is usually a little more refined and a little more westernized.
Although airport art can be well done and attractive, there is a considerable amount of rubbish in this category. But if a piece is well done, aesthetically pleasing, and you like it then who care.
This category is often mistakenly overlooked as a viable form of tribal art, although it includes items that are thoroughly based in the culture and lives of the people who produce it.
Much of the art produced along the Sepik River in New Guinea fits in this category and deserves to be considered some of the finest and most aesthetically pleasing tribal art in the world.
Identifying quality: These pieces are more contemporary, but are made following the cultural guidelines used when making pieces for actual ceremonial or utilitarian use, they just haven't been used nor are they intended to be.
This group of items includes bowls, spoons, basket hooks, bilum bags, stools, canoe prows, weapons, and some jewelry. These are made for daily use, but may also be aesthetically beautiful.
This does not mean there is no spiritual significance to the pieces. Practically everything in New Guinea has some sort of spiritual ties. This is an area where you can often find authentic pieces and the prices can be reasonable.
Things to look for: They show signs of use - wear, chips, insect damage, patina and polish from handling, native repairs.
This is the most sought after form of tribal art and the rarest (also the most faked). Works in this category can be wonderfully powerful, exciting to look at and hold. Others, quite honestly, look like nothing but a piece of junk to most of us. Good ceremonial pieces may be old or they may be appear new, but in either event, genuine ones are worthy regardless.
Pieces in this category are typically made for ceremonies, initiations, protection from evil, symbolic use in the men's house, or items produced for bride price. They include masks, figures, some jewelry, talismans, and magic bags.
On rare occasions, it may be possible to find a piece that this category for cheap, but generally people who have them know their value and tend to hang on to them, or sell them in galleries and in the big auction houses.
Keep in mind: If something in this category is cheap, there is probably a reason for it.
My advice: If you want to collect pieces in this category, learn everything you can about the art of the area, ask pertinent questions of trustworthy dealers, visit museums, buy auction catalogs. But, again, beware a bargain. Take the time to know the dealers you are working with.
I consider this to be the most reprehensible class of artifacts. These are pieces that may have some aesthetic beauty of their own, but were made entirely to fool the collector and to profit from people's desire for old and used pieces. There are ways to tell the fakes, but the best ones are hard for even an expert to identify.
On occasion, we have even seen absolute fakes whose carvers we know sold on occasion in the big auction houses.
Beware of super bargains on "museum quality" pieces. Don't try to collect top quality ceremonial pieces until you know what you are looking at. It is too easy to sell a fake to a gullible collector who wants to believe everything they are told and thinks they are going to find something for nothing.
Caution: Although villagers have been known to, and do, misrepresent the authenticity of pieces they are offering, it is more often the sellers who tend to do the most harm.
"Art, in the most general sense of the word, as a phenomenon that attempts to reach beyond the everyday world and at first sight pursues no readily apparent or understandable purpose, is something that is found in all human communities. It would be impossible to imagine the existence of man without art in some form or another..."
- Buehler, Barrow, and Mountford, The Art of the South Sea Islands 1962