The Authenticity of African Sculptures

The issue of authenticity of African art has been central to collectors for decades.  Henri Kamer, who was president of the International Arts Experts Association at the time, published an outstanding account of the state of the matter in Artes d'Afrique Noire, No. 12 (1974).  The text  that follows is extracted from an English translation of that article, and has been edited further.  The original includes a number of illustrations.  They are not included here because I believe the text suffices without them.

The original version, including the illustrations, in French and with the English translation, is linked here as a .PDF file.  [see  article >>] You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader (a free download at to read this document.  I am grateful to Gavin Alcott for providing it to me.

Steve Price (October, 2004)

The cost of art objects in general and those of black art in particular, has increased during the last thirty years at a dizzying rate.  Following the law of supply and demand, quality pieces have reached prices today that were unimaginable only a few years ago.  For example, in 1966 at the Helena Rubinstein auction, for which I was engaged as the expert, acquired a Fang head for $22,000.  This had been purchased for about $9,500 before the war by the Princess Gourielli.  Several weeks later, a Swiss collector offered me $35,000.  Today (1974) I have offers varying between $80,000 and $100,000 for it.

Still another example: in November 1973, Charles Ratton sold a Baule mask at the Hotel Drouot for the sum of $50,000, a price never before attained by a wooden art object from the Ivory Coast.

A more recent record has just been set in the price African art.  On July 8, 1974, Sotheby’s (London) priced a bronze from Benin at £185,000 (about $500,000).  This piece had been sold by the same house in 1931 at about 1/1,000 of the current price.

This extraordinary increase in the cost 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 obtain pieces for which collectors and museums will eagerly vie against each other.  

Accordingly, a parallel activity has developed: the manufacture and sale of copies and fakes.  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 a copy of an original, executed as faithfully as possible.

When it concerns art, the expert who examines a doubtful object or painting devotes himself primarily to compiling all the facts in order to determine if a similar original work has already been catalogued somewhere in the world, eventually to make a comparison between the two. The problem becomes more complicated with  "creative" fakes, those 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 artist.

Van Meegeren could no longer bear idea of his own works being attributed to Vermeer.  He found himself arrested for collaboration when he declared that a good number of paintings, which he had sold (especially 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.  The reputations of all the experts of the period were tarnished as a result of this publication.  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 ordinary plagiarism.

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 that it was occupying.   The curator simply replaced the name of Donatello with that of Doccena, because in his judgment it was an authentic masterpiece worthy of remaining on public view.

This initiative, which took some courage, was (in my opinion) justified.  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 the artist, the place of creation and the materials used and, when necessary, the technique.

The date of creation for ancient works of art is surely the most important element, although at times it is difficult to determine with precision.  For example, it is clear 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 date from the lifetime of the artist to which they are attributed.   There is a series of scientific tests which permit 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, if not a fake, is at best a copy, having much less value than the original.

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.

By definition, an authentic African piece is a sculpture made by an artist of a primitive tribe and destined for the use by this tribe in a ritual or functional way, never made for profit.  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 prince, or Benvenuto Cellini working for the court of Francois, 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 primeval 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 very recent, since 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 are 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 circumstances 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, indiscriminately bring back 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 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.

  • 21-3-2008

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Comments (3)

Denise Marts
Said this on 24-10-2009 At 08:42 am
Beyond excellent. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Nothing as clear and comprehensive as this on the subject of authenticity has ever been nor will ever be written again. Bravo. Incredible. A masterpiece of clarity and understanding of African art.
Said this on 6-1-2010 At 11:23 am
Excellent article. A real masterpiece of clarity and advisable for every one who builds a collection of African art. Hervorragend, zeitlos und aufschlussreich für alle Sammler.
Besten Dank für den Abdruck.
Said this on 6-1-2010 At 11:25 am
To your comment we agree absolutely. Thank you.

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