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How to determine African Art Authenticity and age.

Luba Binji stool

To determine the age and authenticity of African art sculptures there are many techniques that can be used but nothing will replace having seen tens of thousands objects during the past thirty years of buying and selling African art through auctions , visits of collections, museums, fairs, and studying African art through books and online research, and last but not least living among the objects.. .

Luba Binji stool
A stool From the Luba Benji substyle.

HAS THE AFRICAN ART BE USED IN A RITUAL OR DANCED ? What was it used for, has it been handled ?

There are many types of wood, and not all have been used for the same purposes. Some African sculptures where made to be put outside and the used with needed to be resistant to the weather conditions, those where often made in a very heavy and dense wood, while masks made to be danced, and neckrests needed to be transported all day long, where made in a light wood. An inteesting book for that matter that listed “31 Wood Conditions,” to be analysed to determine it's function where mentioned in the book “Surfaces”, but it is hard to find today at decent price.

Of course using common sense when looking at the wood conditions allow to determine and recognise those masks , figures and objects with a look artificially produced to make it look older than it really is .
Clear signs of fakery are :


By rubbing the objects in the wrong places, wrong directions, in an exaggerated or to big area, in an uniform way on the different parts of the item and in an uniform manner to influence the appearance. The result is an unnatural patina.


Old masks often are just have the light color of the wood on the back. More recent masks made for the decoration market or to fool the starting collectors are first colored on the back and given a palm oil treatment to simulate human sweat from the dancers. Often the mask is broken and restored with thick raffia, or put on a termite hole and then under the ground to similate aging and insect damages, making it appear older than it really is. Also the patination are done often in a repetitive and not layered with a time build up. Also often the fakers are using the wrong tools that where not in use in the old times. The fakers also can not imitate very well the patination due to the effects of time and the oxidation of the wood, so characteristic for those having seen a lot of historical masks. The sun's UV also are occasioning the fading of applied pigments. The artificial patina made by a repetitive motion of man’s hand rather than by the accidental, varied, time-


It is not so difficult to create an impression of erosions on masks and statues artificially, drilling holes to imitate insects, using chemicals abrasives to damage the surface. Putting the objects in the ground, or keeping them in the garden for a few months . Or on the top of a termite to produce a quick old -aged impression . The fakers use contemporary pigments and even oil paints, but those can't replace the real aspect of UV damaged, laundry blue, white kaolin, and red Tokula powders turned brown or gray. BEETLES

A small pin hole made artificially on the surface is not the same as the remains of powder from beetle borings. Sometimes fakers use old woods and recarve them, but those insects usually do there holes beneath the surface and not on the surface, making it easy for the trained eye to spot the difference. Using patination machines to rub the wood makes the artificially patinated object looking quite unifom, and lacking the richness of a time build patina. from a layered surface. These variations can be determined using a microscope.


When the masks and figures where made they often where darkened using the firing of the wood and greasing it, but this makes the wood to smell for at least 30 years, so when you smell nothing it's a good sign. Also old wood becomes oxidised, so when you look at the cracks in the wood it should not be white but the wood should become colored you the cracks filled with dust and dirt.

Signs of Aging in a Western environment.

A long time ago , westerners who lived in Africa used to wax and even varnish on the items they bought to protect them against bugs and mushrooms. For most collectors it is important to have an object that has stayed for a long time in Europe, giving it more guarantees of being genuine and not to made for the decoration market. But it depends also on the tribe and the cultural evolution. eg. in the culture from Gabon, exercicing rites related to the Fang N'gil was prohibited since the end XIXth century, making all object made after that date quite divergent from the traditional styles, and not deemed so worthful by collectors. Same for objects from Benin, .., S it is important to know if the sculpture just come out of Africa or if it has a Western provenance history, some signs making it possible to recognise the qualities of having been resting in an out of Africa environment? – ( does it have an old base, are there painted numbers or etiquettes on the piece, are cracks in the wood showing fresh wood or accumulation of Western dust, does the sculpture or mask have restoration and how where they done and by who, has the original patinaa been cleaned, a lack of odor is a good sign, style comparison with similar items in books and museums, etc, etc.) A fake decorative object doesn't have the same look and feel than the original since nature and man have two different handwritings, and those sculptors who are copying objects from books make mistakes in size , proportions, and patina. It is even often possible to recognise the workshop worked on a particular piece because of man’s “handwriting” style that is different from the originals, often details are forgotten, or other details have been added to enhance the “attractivity” and the techniques used are often different than the originals and more contemporary tools and materials used giving it another “feel” the experts often recognise quite fast. Other observations that can be made are the carving qualities, the logic of a piece’s form, the function, etc. That is all needed to establish African art authentication and valuation, a field that is quite difficult seen the hundreds of different tribes and also the large scale of collectors, and experts that not always agree with each others. But the internet and the various groups for even the more obscure collecting areas are available to ask opinions and help to establish the authenticity of any object.


It is very important to compare the appearance of similar pieces in the African Art literature, museum, dealers and auction catalogues, if a similar piece has been exhibited, a known hand, book material on such pieces and on rare occasions it can even happen that you recognise that piece itself, provenance which can double or even triple it's value, auction results of similar pieces, rarity, original invoices, etc, etc. This can all help to establish an evaluation, but also to appraise a mask or sculpture the expert prefers to see the piece in person to make a more secure judgment on the age, presence and authenticity of the sculpture. But today it can become more tricky, because some carvers have made it a skill to copy some rare types of masks , when you 5 examples of the same rare type of mask all looking the same with the rubs on the same spots, you know there is something suspicious about it. Carvers from the Ivory Coast are making beautiful and quite convincing Baule masks, and carvers from Gabon make quite convincing copies from the Mahongwe's, but often they add to much unlogical patina, and make the figures somewhat bigger than the genuine ones to make it look more “important”, knowing the genuine ones can often sell for six numbers . To valuate and authenticate African art is still an “instinctive” reaction by most experts and collectors of African art, and rare are those who can give you a hundred procent guarantee but it is believed that by viewing a lot of objects, and studying the books and catalogues, applying stylistic comparisons, and types of woods from each tribe, and the aging characteristics it can come close to a “science” .

Books like “The Tribal Arts of Africa” from Jean-baptiste Bacquart to determine the tribe and use of the sculptures and the book “Surfaces: Color, Substances, and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture” who is listing 32 Wood Conditions will help you on your way to become a great collector.

But don't expect to become an expert yourself in a few weeks, it takes many years and the help of good friends to be able to uncover all the richness of African art.

If you need a second opinion or help in building a collection, or cleaning up an old one, you can always  contact me.

David Norden

African Art Antiques

Sint Katelijnevest 27

B2000 Antwerpen.


+32 3 227.35.40

I wish to thank by Leonard Kahan and Donna Page for inspiring me in writing this article and our own experience in 30 years of dealing.

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