Tuesday 31 August 2021

The Basics of Collecting Tribal Art


The Basics of Collecting Tribal Art

Tribal art appeals to many people, often for different reasons. Perhaps it is a historic or ancestral interest that fuels one’s fascination. Or perhaps it’s just the aesthetic appeal of tribal artworks that inspires a new collector to enter the field.

With interest in tribal art continuing to grow, and interesting pieces coming to auction regularly, opportunities to discover and acquire meaningful objects are definitely available. To help lay the framework for this fascinating subject, we turn to one of the foremost auction houses specializing in tribal art – Artemis Gallery in Boulder County, Colorado.

Bob Dodge and his wife, Teresa, co-founded and serve as joint executive directors of Artemis Gallery, one of the world’s most respected names in tribal and ethnographic art and antiquities. Bob graciously shared information about what constitutes tribal art and offered authoritative advice on how to start or expand on a collection.

Native American bird effigy bowl carved by the Mound Builder culture of North America from a single piece of stone, circa 500 to 1200 CE. Artemis Gallery image

What is your definition of tribal art?

To us, tribal art is the sum total of the visual arts of indigenous (sometimes referred to as ethnographic) peoples from around the globe.

How are tribal art and antiquities most often categorized? Is it by region or type of item? How can this knowledge aid potential collectors?

Tribal arts, like antiquities, are most commonly categorized according to region, however there are many other ways of categorizing them. Some more common ones can be material, purpose (mask, fetish, votive, offering, ceremonial, etc.), time period, or others. This can certainly aid a potential collector by putting items into meaningful and searchable groups.

Information is perhaps the single most important element of any collecting passion. So, having the ability to find information about legality, availability, value and authenticity can be critical.

What are some of the more common types of tribal art coming to auction, and what are  some of the rarest pieces you’ve handled?

By far the most common form of tribal art on the market would be African wooden masks and figures. By most estimates, I think you could find well over a million examples, with most of them having been created for the tourist trade. Some of the rarest – and at times the most macabre – items we have seen and handled include decorated human skulls created by tribal groups in the South Pacific, Maori jade Tiki figures, and early Australian aboriginal art and artifacts such as throwing sticks and boomerangs.

Circa mid-20th century carved wood figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kuba peoples. Artemis Gallery image

Are certain types of tribal art (bowls, figures, masks, etc.) more specific to a region of the world?

Yes, art by region can be pretty specific and pretty common. Masks from Africa, ancestor figures from Papua New Guinea, large bowls and vessels from the Amazonian tribes, decorated bowls from the American Southwest – all would be examples of regional art.

How has the tribal art market changed during recent years?

The Internet has been a major game-changer for the tribal art market, including the antiquities trade. Dealers in the past were pretty much able to set their own prices depending upon the wealth of their client base. The law of supply and demand was almost irrelevant, because nobody could track either side of the equation.

The Internet has allowed collectors to shop virtually worldwide and see what prices other dealers are asking, as well as easily look at prices realized by major and minor auction houses. The Internet has opened literally hundreds, if not thousands of sources for good material.

Face maskette made of dark greenstone with light green and russet striated inclusions, Pre-Columbian, Mexico, Guerro, Mezcala, circa 500 to 200 BCE. Artemis Gallery image

What would you say to a collector who is interested in acquiring tribal art but wonders about affordability?

A new collector of tribal art has so many options available to them that price should not be a deterrent. I am a collector of ancient art, first and foremost, and a dealer secondarily. I have been able to find wonderful buys at prices even below $100. If someone has a passion for the arts, money should not slow them down in the slightest.

How about potential collectors who may be concerned about legal disputes over rightful ownership of tribal items – what advice might you be able to share?

The laws of cultural patrimony are complicated and confusing. The basics are that if a cultural item has been in the U.S. for more than 20 years, the buyer and seller are safe. Any collector, new or old, should ask for specific information about when an item was acquired, and when it left its country of origin. Then, make sure that information is conveyed in writing on any sales transaction.

Pre-Columbian gilded gold mask, Sican-Chimu culture of North Coast Peru, circa 800-1000 CE. Artemis Gallery image

Can you please describe the TL testing process, and the important role the Artemis testing lab serves?

TL testing (thermoluminescence) is one of many tools available to determine the authenticity of an item that is ceramic or made of terracotta pottery. It takes tiny bits of the pottery, done by drilling very small holes into unobtrusive areas, and subjects the samples to an analysis that ascertains how much stored light radiation is in that object. We can then graph the amount of this stored energy to determine when the pottery item was last subjected to high heat, and therefore created. By developing a commercial lab here in the United States, we are able to help collectors and dealers alike in selling authentic objects with scientific analysis as the proof.

What are three items of advice you have for anyone who wishes to start a collection of tribal art?

  1. Be passionate about your collection. Buy what you love, not what you think makes a good investment.
  2. Be skeptical. Go into every transaction assuming the pieces may not be authentic and requires proof to the contrary. Believe the piece, not the story behind it. Stories can be faked, and often are, but the piece itself will usually lead you to the truth.
  3. Be diligent when amassing your collection. Record every aspect about each piece – especially its history, provenance and details of your purchase. That way you will have a solid record should you ever wish to sell, or should your family pick up the collecting bug.

How would you complete this sentence: Tribal art represents…

A way of connecting to peoples who are or were in many respects just like us, and yet, are or were simultaneously so very different. Tribal art expands our ability to appreciate others as well as ourselves.

Friday 20 August 2021


The world's most valuable children's books

Are the books from your childhood packed away in boxes in the basement or the attic? Humble children's books from years past can be immensely valuable, but only if they are the right edition in the right condition. And condition is doubly important when considering the value of children's books. Youngsters can love a book too much, reading it again and again, which results in extreme wear and tear. Crayon or pen markings, and torn or lost dust jackets will all bring down the value of a book.

All of the books below can be considered classics and have been loved by multiple generations of readers. Even Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling is now winning a new audience as its original readers from the late 1990s become parents and spread the joy to their kids.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

Most valuable children's book cover art

Top of the pile is The Hobbit - the book that launched the entire fantasy genre - and we're talking about the 1,500 first edition copies published in the UK on 21 September 1937 by Allen & Unwin. These copies are hard to find and most now reside in personal collections around the world. If you discover one then it's the equivalent of Bilbo Baggins finding Gollum's ring in the depths of the goblin mountain. The novel was a smash-hit from the start and Peter Jackson's movies have only increased interest in Tolkien's work in recent years.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a 1937 first edition sold for $65,000 in 2003.

Affordable alternative - The Harry Abrams 1977 deluxe illustrated edition, with artwork from Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass, is gorgeous, and prices range from $35 to $450.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Most valuable children's book cover art

Several options here. The first appearance of this book in print (2,000 copies) in 1865 was short-lived as illustrator John Tenniel disliked the print quality. Those '1865s' are like hen's teeth and have seven-figure price tags. The next edition (4,000 copies) was released in December of 1865 but dated 1866. They are also expensive and scarce.

Current demand on AbeBooks is all about Salvador Dali's illustrated limited edition (just 2,500 copies) from 1969 and no (sane) parent would give their child this version of Carroll's famous tale. Published in 1969 by Maecenas Press/Random House, the book was issued with 12 loose color illustrations by Dali. If Dali's surreal artwork isn't your cup of Mad Hatter's tea, Alice Liddell (later Hargreaves, the real Alice that inspired Carroll to write this book) signed 500 copies in 1932 for the Limited Editions Club and a handful are still available for anywhere from $3,500 to $7,000.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a Dali copy signed by the artist sold for $20,000 in 2014.

Affordable alternative - Princeton University Press republished Dali's Alice in Wonderland in 2015 and copies start at around $20. The book include a contribution from Carroll expert Mark Burstein, who examines what was going through Dali's mind when he did these illustrations. Good luck with that one!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling

Most valuable children's book cover art

It has to be one of the 500 first editions printed by Bloomsbury in June 1997. The library system swallowed up 300 of them, so what happened to the other 200? If you have one then you have hit the JK Rowling jackpot.

The main characteristics of a 1997 first edition first printing are a print line that reads "10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1" and the crediting of "Joanne Rowling" not J.K. Prices have fallen since the Pottermania glory days of 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a flawless 1997 first edition for $37,000 (and it wasn't even signed) in 2005.

Affordable alternative - Any of the Harry Potter books signed by their illustrators (ie Mary Grandpre, Jim Kay, Jason Cockroft) are available for low three-figure sums.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Most valuable children's book cover art

This simple children's picture book has had a remarkable impact on popular culture. To have a special copy, it has to be a 1963 first edition published by Harper & Row, and Sendak's signature will add thousands to the value. Sendak, who died in 2012, was a generous signer and often added sketches when signing a book.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a first signed sold for $25,000 in 2012.

Affordable alternative - There have been a handful of Where the Wild Things Are posters produced over the years. Not cheap but definitely collectible.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Most valuable children's book cover art

A modern classic where bad things happen to bad children. The golden ticket here is a September 1964 first edition published by Knopf that's been signed by Dahl, and has a pristine dust jacket. Only 10,000 copies were printed and they sold out in four weeks.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a first edition signed by Dahl in the month of its publication sold for $25,000 in 2015.

Affordable alternative - Look for Dahl books signed by his illustrator Quentin Blake.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

Most valuable children's book cover art

A lesson to all of us about being careful in what is thrown away. Both the US and UK editions were published in 1922 and you will need one of these to have something special on your bookshelf. William Nicholson provided seven memorable full-page illustrations.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a US first edition sold for $15,950 in 2013.

Affordable alternative - Marjory Williams also wrote a book with a very long title called Poor Cecco. The Wonderful Story of a Wonderful Wooden Dog Who Was the Jolliest Toy in the House until He Went out to Explore the WorldArthur Rackham provided stunning illustrations. It's possible to find early 1925 editions for several hundred dollars.

Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne

Most valuable children's book cover art

The story about the bear with little brain is an essential item for any children's book collector. Published in 1926 by Methuen, the ideal copy would be signed by Milne and perhaps also the book's illustrator E.H. Shepard. The presence and condition of the dust jacket will heavily influence the value of this book that has delighted readers for 90 years.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a copy signed by Milne and Shepard, and containing a bookplate displaying Milne's London address sold for $11,851 in 2016.

Affordable alternative - Look for beautiful Folio Society editions from either 1999 or 2004 which can be found for under $100.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Most valuable children's book cover art

First published in 1962 by Ariel Books, this classic story was rejected by dozens of publishers because they thought no young reader would understand the combination of science, and good versus evil. Ellen Raskin, author of The Westing Game, designed the beautiful Sixties era dust jacket and your copy needs a pristine dust jacket to fetch a top price.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a first edition for $11,000 in 2015.

Affordable alternative - Signed copies of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in the Wrinkle in Time trilogy, are easy to find for between $50 and $400.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum

Most valuable children's book cover art

Dorothy and Toto are still going strong today. Is this book America's greatest fairytale? Probably. The first edition was published in 1900 by Geo M. Hill but the copyright notice is dated 1899. This book was first printed with 24 color plates by W.W. Denslow.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a first edition for $8,800 in 2012.

Affordable alternative - The University Press of Kansas (of course) produced an illustrated edition in 1999 and those copies are as cheap as chips.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by JM Barrie

Most valuable children's book cover art

Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie's adult novel The Little White Bird in 1902. The boy who never grows up then appeared in a successful stage play that opened in 1904 and ran until 1913. A proper Peter Pan book finally appeared in 1906, called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Arthur Rackham provided illustrations and it's the artwork that makes this book so appealing to lovers of collectible children's books.

Most expensive copy to sell on AbeBooks - a first edition signed by Rackham sold for $6,500 in 2016.

Affordable alternative - Prices for the Folio Society's edition begin at $60.

How valuable are you vintage Barbie dolls?

  The Guide to Vintage Barbie Dolls Blonde #1 Boxed Barbie. Sold for $6,600 via Morphy Auctions (April 2013). Estimated Reading Time:  11 mi...