Antiques/collecting: Face to Face with Ancient Artefacts; How Do You Train Your Eye to Recognise the Masks, Decorated Pots, Figurines and Carved Reliefs Now Most Sought after? Asks Richard Edmonds

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Byline: Richard Edmonds

Collecting artifacts from ancient cultures was always considered to be the province of the very wealthy and it is true to say that over the past 100 years great collections of native artifacts have been formed.

But the spread of ancient Chinese pieces over the last ten years has knocked that one on the head and so quite ordinary people with medium income have been able, over the last few years, to afford Chinese ceramics from the Song, Ming dynasties and other areas of these rare things.

And it is true to say that oriental ceramics from centuries now lost in time have become a common sight at the NEC Antiques Fairs.

But young collectors have been coming forward for some years -they are a particular kind of person, well-travelled and inquisitive and frequently with a university degree in their area of choice.

They move easily through museums and dealing areas in places as far apart as Greenland and Yucatan. It is this particular kind of person who may well own the tribal masks pictured here.

But for this emergent crowd, tribal art is paramount and it scarcely matters whether it is pre-Columban, African, Tibetan, Chinese or Antipodean.

This is art which is distinctly non-pretty and by its very nature is connected to tribal areas which have developed on this planet and which, therefore, have their own significance in modern times.

So what are the new collectors buying in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and everywhere else where they fly in and out like other people catch a bus?

The answer is, for one thing, Zulu beadwork, original African tribal pottery, bronzes or carvings. Then again they choose Mayan pottery in the form of standing figures, or Mexican figures dating from 100BC to 250AD, Navajo regional rugs (which I handled last year at an antiques fair in Los Angeles noting the price tag of $18,000). Then there are Apache wickerwork baskets -now very costly, or native American elkskin tobacco pouches and much more besides.

I have also noticed that many of these things now appear regularly in Miller's Price Guide where you will find Mayan jade ornaments with an estimate of $3,500 -$4,200 offered at Sotherby's, New York. I was looking at MPG for the year 2000 and I noticed an interesting comment by MPG's Gordon Reece who wrote in that year: 'The work is honest and above board and purchasers are not hidebound by the constraints of forming a definitive collection from some well-documented tribal group.'

With prices listed in MPG from around pounds 150, you can see that it is worth your while to scour Part Two of the next NEC Antiques Fair, which opens in a few weeks. Take it from me I shall be looking just as closely and like you I shall beware of buying a dubious piece, so caveat emptor.

But where do you start getting your eye trained to recognise the masks, decorated pots, figurines, carved reliefs, and so on which represent the art of pre-Columban Central America?

A good plan might be to borrow or pur-chase At The Heart of Pre-Columban America (Five Continents: pounds 40), a book which describes the amazing collection formed enthusiastically by Gerard Geiger who certainly was not short of the odd dollar.

In page after page of detailed photographs, many of them fine works of art in their own right, you get the most marvellous images honest, exciting and fascinating in their naivety.

If you read the words pre-Columban as meaning before Columbus (the man who changed the world entirely for the Americas and paved the way for the rape of Mexico by Cortez and his greedy Spanish wolves), then you will realise that the Olmec period (1800BC -300AD) is an area whose artifacts are in a rare category (although you never know what can turn up at a boot fair). But to own an Olmec piece would be my dream since in Olmec mythology humans could change shape effortlessly with supernatural beings by the simple act of donning a mask (the same is true of the African mask culture, of course). …