Evaluating Papua New Guinea Art

Two of the most commonly asked questions of tribal art dealer, specifically regarding Oceanic Art, are:

  1. What is the age of a piece?
  2. Was it used?

Although I fully recognize the significance of these inquiries, I sometimes feel people are missing the point entirely on certain levels.

Good art is good art - regardless of its age or use - and bad art, is simply...bad art. Just because something is supposed to be old does not automatically make it good. And, besides, is it really old?


Consider the spectacular Native American art works produced on the Northwest Coast of the United States. Collectors think nothing of investing in high-end masks made specifically for the art market. The good ones are exquisite examples of tribal art - pottery, buffalo hides, beadwork, regalia, masks - also made for the art market and also regarded as exceptional pieces and highly collectible.

However, when we turn our attention to Africa, New Guinea, and other distant lands, it saddens me that pieces produced for the art market are considered less worthy. This has unfortunately created a thriving industry in fake "old" and "used" pieces.

The Sepiks can and do make things look old (although they are rank amateurs compared to the Africans who have been doing it for 200 years), but increasing the value of newly made pieces by misrepresenting their age is not only confined to artists - many dealers (to be blunt) blatantly lie about the age or use of pieces they collect, and a few have even been known to alter or age pieces themselves.

Sadly, this distortion of the truth has turned many exquisite pieces into second-rate trinkets; the accomplished artists who create them into souvenir vendors. To better illustrate the issue, I offer the following cautions:

Old is relative in the jungle

Beware pieces listed as very old, especially if they were collected recently. Wooden and other organic items don't last long unless carefully preserved. In New Guinea, there are categories of artifacts that are discarded and replaced with new ones when the current ones begin to show their age.

Some types of masks were used only briefly. Certain other types of masks were kept and reused or kept on display in the men's house for many years and repainted repeatedly with each year's fresh religious cycle.

For instance, if a mask got old and bug-eaten and a new coat of paint would no longer suffice, there was little nostalgia involved. A new mask would be carved, imbued with the proper spirits, and the old one discarded in the jungle. Or, if it was felt a mask was no longer doing its job of properly protecting the group, it too would be discarded and replaced with a new one.

The condition of a piece is not an absolute indicator of age, most even relatively new pieces found in indigenous cultures will more than likely exhibit signs of environmental exposure, insect degradation or utilitarian use just by virtue of the environment in which they are kept. But, just because it isn't old or old-looking does not necessarily detract from its quality, especially to the people themselves.

Its purpose within the culture is what should matter...or should, at least in this context.

Truly old pieces are hard to come by. You are more likely to find genuine old pieces to be items that were collected long ago and so were preserved away from the jungle. And to tell you the truth, there just isn't a huge quantity of material available outside of museums and important private collections that are really old in years. Remember, anything can be made to look old with a few tricks.

Perhaps rather than ask when something was collected a better question might be to ask how old it was at time of collection.

Purpose vs. Use

Used is a term that is often bandied about and over emphasized. In Africa, knowing the westerner's penchant for "used" masks, individuals have been known to dance for a few moments with a mask, grab another, dance with it for a few moments, and grab another... producing a whole pile of "danced" (and so, more valuable) masks in a matter of minutes.

Then again, there are pieces from New Guinea that look completely new, but are superb pieces. These are very rare, were used for a specific function or ceremony, and imbued with all the proper spirits and power.Just because it isn't old or old-looking does not necessarily detract from its quality. Its purpose within the context of the culture is what matters...or should at least in this context.

Although the people of New Guinea (Just like North American Native cultures) have changed irrevocably since first contact was made with some groups a very long time ago, starting in the 1700's, they do hang on to many of their beliefs, religion, and ceremony. You can still find good pieces, good in the sense of quality art works that were used and are part of that group's cultural and spiritual life.

In my own mind, I constantly come back to what I mentioned above as a discriminatory and wholly unfair attitude when it comes to the contemporary cultural artifacts of North American Native Cultures and the tribal artifacts of New Guinea. What makes a superb contemporary carving from the Sepik river village of Kamanabit less important and, so, less valuable than a contemporary Northwest Coast carving?

Whether in Africa, New Guinea, or Washington State, a good carver is a good carver and deserves proper appreciation of his or her work. It is also wholly unfair to believe that these tribal cultures should remain stuck in the Stone age (or whatever time period we feel is most romantic for them).

Art as Investment

As with all art, if you buy for your portfolio, with only the hope that the piece will appreciate in value, you will almost certainly be disappointed. Even if the value of the piece increases, selling it is not as easy as liquidating stock holdings.

Oceanic Art is a narrow market and finding a buyer may take months, or even years. If selling to a dealer or gallery, there will be a mark-up - you may be offered less than the original price, or at best what you paid for it, even if it did appreciate.

My Advice

If you like a piece of oceanic art, if it speaks to you in some way, it will not really matter if it goes up in value. You will always enjoy it and never be disappointed. And, even if it does appreciate in value, so much the better! But then if you really love it, you won't want to sell it anyway.

Here are a few quotes from others regarding this subject:

"We are talking the jungle here...it isn't going to last anyway so it makes no sense for a culture to develop too much attachment to things. The renewal tradition makes far more sense for such cultures."
- Joe Maierhauser, 2009

"...I think a further point is that the climate and lack of "permanent" material such as stone in the main art producing areas [of the Sepik] are a factor in the people not developing a cultural idea of "permanence". I personally think we have gone overboard on that one."
- Carolyn Leigh, personal communication, 2008

"I think objects made for sale are an underrated category, while old and painted so-called authentic carvings are over estimated...older pieces are, in fact, rare and better sculptures although recent 'inauthentic' carvings can be very beautiful and equally traditional with respect to style and content. I mean, they are made by the same people, based on the same traditions, using the same artistic idiom, aren't they?"
- Jac Hoogerbrugge in Tribal Art Traffic by Ray Corbey, 2000

"Whether an object is 'early' or 'late,' 'used' or 'not used' in an indigenous ritual context, is, I think, immaterial. It only matters whether the carving moves me...Anyway, why should Western artists be allowed to make things to sell but non-Western artists not be allowed to do the same? In my opinion, that's only the newest form of Western paternalism. If you ask me, it comes from being afraid to look with your own eyes."
- Tijus Goldschmidt in Tribal Art Traffic by Ray Corbey, 2000

"[Speaking of the beautiful Highlands shields] Western oil paint and all, I think such things are wonderful! Culture is a bubbling, living thing and not a fossil, as many patina-minded collectors would have it. Last but not least, there are aesthetic standards and the native makers themselves...how the people themselves see it is more important than how a collector or dealer somewhere else sees it."
- Dirk Smidt in Tribal Art Traffic by Ray Corbey, 2000

"...but nobody asks how authentic a malanangan sculpture from New Ireland is if it boasts a beautiful old label in German and was collected around 1890, given that, as is described by German sources, things were being produced for sale on a fairly large scale at that time...Pieces for export were often more richly decorated than was traditionally the case. Age is, of course, a relative concept: What is collected now will also be old in 100 years time. With regard to the future, I would recommend that quality be given attention when collecting, and that includes letting the local aesthetic standards play a role."
- Dirk Smidt in Tribal Art Traffic by Ray Corbey, 2000

"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