Antiques and Collecting: Age-Old Art of Disguise; There's Not Much Chance of Finding an Ancient Mask at a Bring and Buy or Boot Fair - but Don't Give Up Hope, Says Richard Edmonds
Byline: Richard Edmonds
There was a time when the only masks most of us ever saw were in the Ethnography sections of museums. Dusty, dull and generally overlooked, they took their place alongside prehistoric bones, grass skirts, insects on pins and spears. People couldn't have cared less.
But times have changed.African masks - wonderfully decorative on a plain wall, now make fabulous prices at the great sales held by the large auction houses, while those who collect them are no longer regarded by the rest of us as eccentrics.
The days when museums traded off their masks and artefacts for pieces of 19th century farm machinery have gone forever. Masks are valuable - that is the message today.
But many of the fine collections brought back to Europe from the pacific or Africa before the first world war, have now been dispersed and are scattered to the four winds located in private collections.
But tourism, we should remember, has helped to spread interest in masks for the modern collector and this is one of the things that has brought new masks back into this country, many of them beautifully made.
Prices are still modest for Balinese and Siamese masks, for example, and I expect they will continue to be so until tourist orientated factory sources dry up - some-thing which is highly unlikely.
Basically, a mask is a disguise. Its function is to personify gods, demons or spirits. It can be a symbol for either benign or dark forces but it is worn to assume control over others or to evade responsibility for one's actions.
A mask - especially in the theatre - helps the wearer to assume another personality. Then again, the wearer of a mask can also hide his incapacities.
In general terms it is African masks which are still the most popular of all in the collecting field.
When African masks from the Congo began to arrive in Paris a century ago, they inspired Picasso and Braque to new artistic endeavours and helped towards the development of Cubism.
The African masks we find on the market today may be very old ones from Zaire, Marli, Nigeria or the Gold Coast. Some may still have their bloodstained rags, feathers and straw hanging from them. These things are often fearsome in a strange way and their carved faces and protruding eyes or genitalia give them a hideous aspect.
Personally, I find African masks very touching and elegant in their simplicity and some of the faces I have seen are deeply moving containing a spirit imparted by the original sculpture that transcends disgust or fear.
Japan has a wonderful mask tradition and I have seen some beautiful antique Japanese theatre masks but rarely any that I could afford. The making of a fine Noh theatre with its representational quality and its fine carving and lacquering is a remarkable thing to handle and a good one is likely to cost anything from pounds 1,000 upwards, especially if it is signed and has a good pedigree. …