Art collectors scouting for new fields are dis covering the textiles of Indonesian headhunters, West African peoples, and the Indians of South America, among others. While the art market has languished after the big run-up of the 1980s, many dealers report a surge of interest in woven fabrics with eye-catching patterns and exotic origins.
Modern societies think of textiles as strictly utilitarian materials that are used for a few months or years, then thrown away. But earlier cultures treated fine robes and ceremonial hangings as treasured objects. These pieces were used ritualistically for weddings, funerals, and circumcision rites. "The older pieces survive," says Mary Hunt Kahlenberg, a Santa Fe (N. M.) gallery owner, because "they were thought to have substantial religious or magical powers. So they were only taken out of storage a couple of times a century."
EERIE CHARM. Modernization has changed the value systems of many textile-producing societies, leading families to sell their heirlooms. Some of the most coveted materials come from the Indonesian archipelago, whose weavings rival those of the Middle East in variety and fineness mf technique yet are not as well-known. Says Carlton Rochell, an expert on Asian art at Sotheby's: "They are very pretty, and the market is at its beginning stages."
Quality Indonesian pieces had spiritual purposes, and they exude an eerie charm. Borneo headhunters wrapped their trophies and draped their sacrificial altars in specially woven red-and-black cloths that were hidden from outsiders. Other Indonesians wrapped their dead in weavings that bear rows of stylized skeletons sprouting trees to symbolize the renewal of life through death.
The prices of some of the finer Indonesian primitive textiles have shot up as high as $20,000 in recent years. But good examples of silks and batiks from Sumatra and Java can still be found for $1,000 to $3,000.
West and central African weavings are also high on collectors' lists. The geometric raffia panels of the Kuba people of Zaire, thought to have influenced the work of artists such as Henri Matisse, bring the highest prices--up to $ 20,000 for fine old ones. The dazzling checkerboard kente cloths produced by the Ewe people of Ghana can go for up to $10,000--although excellent antique specimens sell for $2,500 to $4,000.
AUCTION RECORD. But you don't have to pay stiff prices to get quality stuff. Fine Mali cottons go for less than $500. And Eric Robertson, a New York-based African art dealer, says that tie-dyed textiles, worth collecting and costing
less than $100, are still being made all over West Africa.
Latin America is another major source of precious textiles. The striped mantles of the Aymara Indians of Bolivia have developed a strong following in the U. S., according to New York dealer Mark Shilen. Some of the strangest and most sophisticated of all weavings were left by the Indian civilizations of pre-Columbian Peru. Earlier this year, a pink-and-red Huari shirt (circa 500 to 800 A. D.) sold for $90,750 at Sotheby's--an auction record for a pre-Columbian textile. But you can find good pieces for $5,000 to $10,000. So, collectors are discovering that they can purchase a weaving of great age for roughly the same money as more modern high-quality textiles, says Stacy Goodman, a pre-Columbian specialist at Sotheby's. Experts caution that because of possible legal problems, you should only buy pre-Columbian objects from reputable auction houses and galleries that can prove they are not dealing in smuggled goods.
Getting started in textile collecting is an adventure in itself. Pieces have no signatures or dates, and few sell at auction, so clear price guidelines aren't established. You can educate yourself through books available in museum libraries and bookstores or by visiting the Textile Museum in Washington, D. C. But many experts say the best way to begin is to plunge in and buy some pieces you like.