Out Of Africa: A Buyer's Market In Tribal Art

African tribal art is one of the richest yet least understood collecting fields. For many people, African art still means just sculpture and masks. But collectors can choose from a vast array of objects, including ceremonial clothing, beaded work, carved furniture, and eating utensils. With Christie's and Sotheby's holding African-art auctions in New York on May 5 and 6, respectively, now is a good time to look.

Because dozens of African peoples each produced distinctive artifacts, identifying and valuing their output is challenging. Prices can vary enormously. Some of the costliest carvings are those made by the Kota in Gabon and the Senufo and Baule in the Ivory Coast. Their work influenced artists such as Picasso and Modigliani. The best of such pieces sell at prices approaching $100,000--or more--putting them out of range of most collectors.

On the other hand, well-known pieces are often safer buys: Their provenance is often established European collections, and a consensus has been reached on their quality. Philippe Leloup, who with his wife, Helne, has galleries in Paris and New York that offer some of the most exquisite and expensive African art, says prices for the top pieces continue to rise, while the middling things have languished. Sotheby's holds the auction record for tribal art: $3.4 million in 1990 for a sculpture of a Bangwa queen.

But you don't have to spend huge bucks to get good things. Eric Robertson, a New York dealer known for eclectic, innovative shows, recommends the works of Nigerian peoples such as the Ibo and Ogoni. Small masks by these groups run from $3,000 to $8,000. Small Yoruba sculptures called ibejis, which are memorials to dead twins, cost as little as $1,500. Elegant Akan commemorative heads fashioned from terra-cotta begin at around $500. Household objects such as spoons, staffs, and combs often look marvelously sculptural when mounted: They start at about $100. Theodore Celenko, curator of African art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, suggests collecting work from northern, eastern, and southern Africa, because these areas have been less picked over than the central and western regions. "You can buy excellent things in all price ranges," says Lisa Bradley, director of Pace Primitive Gallery in New York.

PITFALLS. Starting with lower-priced items may be wise, because African art is full of traps for novices. One problem is making sure objects are genuine. In general, serious collectors want items that have been made traditionally and used in dances or other tribal activity. But authenticity can be hard to verify, especially with African carvers turning out scads of fakes and reproductions. Wear marks on masks or dried blood on objects used for sacrifices may indicate genuineness, but such signs can be faked, too. Poor carving is usually the best tipoff that something isn't right.

Dealers and experienced collectors advise beginners to develop their eyes by becoming familiar with museum collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Museum of African Art in Washington. Informative books include Art of Africa by Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat, and Lucien Stephan ($175, Harry N. Abrams) and African Art in the Cycle of Life by Roy Sieber and Roslyn Walker ($29.95, Smithsonian).

Local museum curators and reputable dealers can be helpful in authenticating work. When you visit a dealer, remember that it is a buyer's market so prices are negotiable. The dealers should guarantee their wares and agree to let you return purchases within an agreed-upon period, in case you change your mind. Ask about possible legal problems. For example, dealers report that the U.S. is now tightening up on antiquities from Mali.

Whether your purchases will soar in value is hard to predict. Robertson thinks that as more collectors come into the tribal-art market, they will drive up prices as they have in African-American paintings and crafts. But the main reason to buy art is because you enjoy it. Making money in this game requires just as much work as in anything else.