Authenticity Matters! A Connoisseur’s Guide to Judging Authenticity in Oceanic Art
A Connoisseur’s Guide to Judging Authenticity in Oceanic Art
10 Crucial Factors Explained
By Michael Hamson
While the topic of authenticity gets batted around in academic circles as an outdated and vague concept, within the harsh reality of the oceanic art marketplace, it is a clear-cut and essential factor. In my opinion, authenticity boils down to artistic intention. Whether an artist makes a piece to sell to a hapless tourist or undertakes to carve a figure that brings to life an ancestral spirit, these present two drastically different intentions. And these two enormously different intentions often correspond to two dramatically different artistic results. The first will probably produce a lifeless wood carving that may be technically proficient and decorative but will be lacking the essential soul that elevates an artifact into a piece of art. If we take the time to really look at these two Karawari River yipwon figures we can discern these large differences in age and quality. Figuring out those factors that differentiate the figure on the left from the one on the right will be the focus of this essay.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #1--Style
I always tell my clients that Style is the most important factor in judging age and authenticity. Just like virtually everything Oceanic art object styles change, seemingly imperceptibly, over the decades and a keen knowledge of this change allows one to accurately date a piece. If that date corresponds to an era of traditional use for that culture, then that is a good sign of potential authenticity.
In this image we have three Middle Sepik River Mei masks. These are classics of New Guinea Art and found in virtually all books on the subject. I have placed them side by side to show the subtle changes that occur in style through the decades from roughly 1880 to 1950. Notice the volumes, the paint (magical), the intensity of the gaze or vitality of the spiritual presence from its strong point on the leftmost mask all the way to the one on the right from the 1950s that seems a bit dead, well, because it is. By the 1950s, the religious foundation, the belief system that originally animated the mask has been replaced by a Western religion. The fire and soul that animated the leftmost mask has been almost completely extinguished by the time the right hand mask was made.
Just like cars, furniture and fashion, the style of Oceanic art objects change over time and a keen awareness of this change allows one to fairly accurately date a piece. Is the figure pre-contact, carved with non-metal tools and of full spiritual integrity like the masterpiece on the left? Or as with the middle object, is the figure carved with metal tools after contact but still ritually important and authentic? Or is it a common, simple fake like the one on the right which is made from a lightwood, churned out by the dozen, stylistically similar to the original but without the spark of life?
The old man in the photo is named Hans and is a retired schoolteacher. He brought out these two Tami Island bowls to show me and they illustrate well the way the style has changed over the decades. The old ones had fuller volumes, blunter ends, with the spirit face smaller and positioned at the very end of the bowl—as on the right. The more recent bowls, as with the one on the left, are wider, shallower and the spirit face is spread out further along the bottom. These people kept their bowls in the rafters of the house, open side down often nested from smallest to largest. Once I had seen enough of them It got so I could judge the age of one just by looking up above my head at the shape of bottom rim—wider with blunt ends? Ok, pull that one down and let’s check out the carving.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #2—Understanding Use
It is critical in determining authenticity to understand an object’s original function and use. As we’ve discussed authenticity boils down to artistic intention and that intention is very specific to each object type. It is important to remember that in traditional South Pacific cultures there was no such thing as art for art’s sake. Everything had a function, a real duty and purpose. For example, masks were meant to bring to life certain spirits, often ancestral or bush spirits, during danced performances. Thus when judging authenticity of a mask one looks for signs of it having been actually danced. In many areas of New Guinea masks were attached to large dance costumes worn on the shoulders that tower sometimes ten to 15 feet above. So one looks for where the mask was physically attached to that larger structure. In addition, some have, like this example, bite sticks that were clinched between the teeth to keep the mask in place. If you look close you can see the deep grooves in the bite stick from it being clamped in someone’s teeth, often quite forcefully and desperately, for extended periods of time as it was danced in various ceremonies over the generations.
Here is a fantastic ancient pre-contact fighting shield from the Kalam people of New Guinea’s Simbai area. War shields were made to be used in battle and thus one has to look for signs of that conflict. One of the surest indicators of this are arrow holes or arrow tips embedded in the surface. I have marked two obvious arrow holes here and then a slash from what looks like bush knife or machete.
Probably most of you know that lime spatulas were used in New Guinea to bring the dry powdered lime--calcium carbonate--from a gourd or bamboo container to the mouth of the person chewing betel nut. Over the years the tip of lime spatulas get worn down, a bit chewed up and often with a thick layer of white residue—as pointed out here. What one doesn’t want to see on a lime spatula is a tip totally untouched by someone’s mouth.
This unusual piece is from the Massim area and would have been tied to the mast of a sailing canoe and used to hoist up a sail. This is an ancient pre-contact example that shows deep grooving where the rope ran through the bottom hole. So, while this piece has a fantastic patina; more important are the obvious signs of use and wear exactly where it should be.
This classic Sepik suspension hook is not pre-contact but it does show authentic traditional use. As some of you know suspension hooks were used in ceremonial houses, hung up high from the rafters with string bags filled with magical or ritual paraphernalia to keep them out of reach of uninitiated women and children. So there are two key points to examine on suspension hooks to determine authenticity. First, is the lug or hole near the top where the suspension hook would have been tied to the rafters. On this example you can see the lug on the back of the head in the middle photo. If the suspension hook doesn’t have a lug it wasn’t meant to suspend anything.
Equally important, one needs to check the hooks, that area at the junction of the hook and the figure where the string bags would have actually rested. Notice the change in patina here as shown on the right hand image. The straps of the bags have worn the dark patina light and rounded the edges over the years of being suspended. There are literally thousands of Sepik suspension hooks out there of which 99.9% were made for sale and never used as intended. Besides the actual style of the carving these two spots are the first to look for—the lug or hole for suspension and the wear on the hooks.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #3—Patina
Patina is important but it is one of the trickiest factors of authenticity. A true patina of use is critical and one of the truest indicators of traditional use. Back to the two bowls of Hans the schoolteacher—the left is a bit shiny and dark—some white pigment and some scuffmarks from use—which is good. Now look at the right bowl—almost white right? That is a dusty mold ancient pieces get from sitting for decades in the rafters. This is what you want. That dusty mold dries out and can be easily wiped off to reveal the true patina underneath. Remember patina is not dirt. Patina is built up over generations of use and storage and is often very strong and stable—dirt and dust are not part of the patina and can and should be wiped away.
This is not that exact bowl from Hans but this is the exact type of patina underneath that light colored powdery mold seen on his bowl. This patina is dark, thick and encrusted—so hard and thick you would have to sandblast it to get it off. True aged patina is sturdy, strong and permanent. It comes not just from use but more from how something is stored for years in between uses. Most wood objects in the South Pacific are stored in the rafters where the smoke from the cooking fires keep the rats and termites away. Thus, lots of things get a thick dark patina just from sitting in that environment for decades.
Not every old piece has a dark encrusted or glossy patina. For example, this ancient pre-contact, stone-carved spirit figure from the remote area inland of the Murik Lakes has what we call a dry patina. In fact this at the moment is the most desirable patina on the market for sophisticated collectors. It shows a natural aging process untouched by overzealous dealers or collectors wanting the classic glossy surface. Some ritual objects were so important they were kept on shrines well away from indoor cooking fires or often wrapped in cloth for safekeeping and have no discernable patina.
Do not be seduced by a dark glossy patina. Here are two great old cassowary bone daggers from the Sunahu area south of the Southern Abelam. While the left dagger has a dark glossy patina and dates probably to the late 19th century it is the one on the right that is actually older. While bone daggers after generations of use and storage often get a beautiful golden-brown surface some daggers in this area are intentionally washed and kept white. Daggers often have a ritual use and in the Abelam area important ones used in the harvesting of long yams are kept pure and white. Look at the right example, the smoothness of the surface, the refined execution, the subtle volumes of the face with deep nostrils all point to a dagger of extreme age and quality—even though at first glance some might dismiss it for its lack of a traditional glossy brown patina. That would be a horrible mistake.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #4--Pigments
Paint or pigments can be a critical factor in judging authenticity. For many cultures in New Guinea paint is the magical quality that animates and brings the carving to life. In the Abelam language the same word is used for both magic and paint. Here is a masterpiece of New Guinea art hundreds of years old showing layers of paint both traditional and Western classic red from iron ore, faded black from charcoal but then washing powder blue and a crazy yellow/green house paint. As I said paint was applied for its magical qualities and you may ask what magical qualities might blue washing powder or house paint have? In New Guinea the power of a spirit is gauged by the results on the ground—the strength in warfare, success in hunting and abundance from the gardens. When the Westerners arrived in New Guinea with big boats, powerful guns and flying machines the only answer was that these visitors had powerful spirits working with them. Thus the products of the Westerners had this sense of magical efficacy about them.
It is not that often you encounter a truly old, ritually-used New Guinea object with substantial remains of pigments still intact. The colors were often dry and powdery that over the years just easily washed away. But in this late 19th century mask you can get a sense of how vibrantly colored these objects were when originally used. Especially when you consider a mask such as this was just one small part of a much larger dance costume fitted on a man’s shoulders with a towering headdress maybe 10 feet tall above festooned with bird feathers, leaves and colorful flowers.
Remember paint or pigments are not always easy to see at first. They are often covered by dirt and layers of patina such as in this old Owl mask from the Boiken people. Here you can see where the thick surface has chipped away unveiling the layers of bright pigments underneath. Even on very dark objects one should almost always be able to see traces of pigments in the very deepest recesses of the nose, ears or under the chin.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #5--Piercings
A critical diagnostic I frequently use in judging a New Guinea object’s authenticity is the presence of piercings. It is hard to overemphasize their importance. These objects were not mere spiritual representations but actual manifestations of those spirits. As such they were treated as living, breathing beings. They had names and were dressed and adorned as living members of society. An essential part of this attire were pierced nose and ears. When after decades of missionary conversions the people stopped their traditional initiation ceremonies and stopped piercing their own ears and noses this cultural change manifested itself in the art production as well. The vast majority of inauthentic sculpture from New Guinea post-1950 do not have pierced noses or ears—while 99% pre-1940/50 objects do have these piercings.
So taking a look at this Boiken figure you see ears largely pierced, both nostrils pierced and there are holes at the top of the head and under the groin area—probably for suspension during ritual use or within a ceremonial house.
Not only is the existence of the piercings a critical factor for authenticity the nature or style of the holes helps determine age. Both of these Coastal Ramu River masks are 100% authentically-used examples. Yet look how the holes around the perimeter are made. Remember these masks were not worn directly on the face but attached to a larger dance costume that rested upon the shoulders. So on all of these masks you will see a number of holes where the mask was attached. On the left mask the holes are fairly even circles—not exactly drilled but something a bit more precise and regular was used. On the right, the holes are rectangular, uneven and dug out. The squareness of the edges suggests metal tooling but the irregularity of the holes suggest early contact period. Say a solid generation older than the mask on the left.
As we reach further back in time you can see how the piercings change. The mask on the left from the Masco Collection, a true masterpiece, has numerous holes of many different sizes and shapes—again, these hole are there so the mask can be lashed to a larger dance costume. With the mask on the right the holes have gotten so large from so much use they are as large as shotgun blasts. As you can see the mask has had a rough go of it—there is substantial wear, quite a bit of damage and many layers of pigments. But this is exactly what you want in an authentic piece of Oceanic art—something that literally screams authenticity. It was being used almost to the point of it literally breaking apart.
To hammer this point home a bit more here are two Abelam figurative sculptures. The left everyone can see is much more recent than the right. It is still perfectly authentic—how can I judge this? Well, in large part by the pierced nose telling me the person who carved the figured still considered it alive and worthy of having a pierced nose—although you can see how tiny the hole is—meaning this figure probably dates to the 1940-60s era—where male initiation was still taking place but the practice was waning.
On the right this small piece was probably the top of ceremonial carver’s adze. The ears are pierced and the nostrils here are enormous—just as large as the eyes or mouth of the figure. I put these together to show the extremes and how the size of the piercings often correlates to the age of the piece.
Just to reiterate the obvious now. This mask from the Murik Lakes at the mouth of the Sepik River has an aged patina, some remains of traditional red pigments, a somewhat classic style but…look at the ears and look at the backside of the mask—where are the piercings? The mask does not have holes on the inside of the mask around the perimeter to tie to a dance costume because it was never intended to be used. It has a hole up near the top to hang the mask up to be sold not used. Not authentic.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #6--Attachments
If you look at the image on the left, you can see the reality of a New Guinea dance mask—in this case from Vokeo Island in a 1934 photograph by Ian Hogbin. The spiritual presence was a dynamic moving presence that was an assemblage of various materials and objects that all had their visual, magical and cultural significance. Of course, what is collected is often just one discreet part of that assemblage, normally the wooden mask.
So, what you are looking for with an authentic mask is that sense the piece was once part of just such an assemblage. The great old Vokeo mask on the right has the paint, the seed eyes and mouth, the pierced ears where shells would have hung, the rattan binding around the lower half of the mask and you can see the edge of the bite stick just below the ear.
On the left is an ancient spirit figure from the Yuat River of Papua New Guinea with the pith-helmeted Society of Divine Word missionary standing by. Look how alive and fully outfitted the large spirit figure is as a functioning member of the community. It seems both of this world and outside it. On the right is how the figure is at the Basel Museum in Switzerland—surprisingly intact with skirt, armbands, nose pieces, shell eyes, shells along the face and some fiber atop the head—but comparting it to the original photo it is missing more head decoration, carrying bag, bone dagger and other accoutrements. These images give you an idea of how central these attachments are to the vitality and personhood of the figure and thus their remnants can be key to judging authenticity.
Here are three other top quality, authentic Oceanic art examples with numerous proper attachments. The Middle Sepik River mwai mask is an ancient pre-contact, stone-carved example with human hair beard but the traditional nassa shells covering the face have been replaced by Western shirt buttons.
The ancient Papuan Gulf figure has fiber ear decoration, string arms, bark belt, shell pubic cover and is armed with a cassowary bone dagger by his side—kitted out as a fully-functioning member of the community ready to go about his business.
The Ramu River figure on the right has fiber tassels through the nostrils, a bit of fiber around the top knot and extensive shell earrings.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #7--Wear and Damage
Wear and damage are a part of life with Oceanic art. Village living in the tropical South Pacific is not easy on wooden objects. There is fire, hungry rats, insect infestation, storms, earthquakes, warfare and fervent missionaries that all take their toll. While these ritual sculptures are often the most important objects to the people they do not pass through the generations unscathed. Such is the case with this ancient suspension hook from the Sawos people living in the grassy plains north of the Middle Sepik River. This was obviously a very important ritual object many generations ago. It is carved from a dense hardwood with stone and bone tools and has the detail and elaborate composition that only a master-carver could accomplish. Because of its complexity with hornbill birds, snakes and subsidiary ancestral faces I would assume the piece told a creation story of paramount importance to the village. But in the ensuing generations the piece has fallen on hard times, probably due to the unrelenting missionary activity of the last 100 years. The sculpture now has a surface only acquired from decades of exposure to the weather after being either discarded or hidden in the bush. Such a carving relating a creation history in opposition to a Christian version would be a prime target for missionaries. You can see the facial features have been deliberately hacked away by a bush knife. As if the rejection and split from this earlier traditional belief system had to be done in the most violent manner possible. You can see the snake forms have separated from the shoulders, one of the heads at the tip of the hooks is missing and the overall surface is severely weathered. Yet the hard, dense wood has survived, and the spiritual presence still looks back defiantly. The damage and wear in this instance convey a complex history that is somewhat sad but unquestionably authentic.
This is not a mask but the head from a full ancestral spirit figure from the Yangoru Boiken area of Papua New Guinea. While hundreds of years old what has survived is the still shockingly powerful face but even this is heavily scarred with a fragmentary headdress and chunks missing from the ear. It is as if generations of abuse have whittled the spirit down to its utter essence because what remains is a timeless vitality, a living, breathing presence.
I think this old Manam Island mask exemplifies authenticity in Oceanic art quite clearly. That it has led a long and celebrated ritual life is evident in the damage, the repairs, the layers of pigments—both traditional and Western--and the dark patina on the exposed wood surfaces. The chunk out of the forehead and the damaged ear suggests a violent crash that tore the mask from its tall superstructure. The resulting crack down into the face shows glue hastily applied to hold what remains together in one must assume was a show-must-go-on desperate situation.
New Guinea betel mortars are wonderful objects. They are often figurative and well-carved little jewels that from their near constant handling develop smooth and glossy patinas that impart both the skill of the artist but also something of the owner whose hand has held the object thousands of times. Gripped firmly in one hand while mashing the ingredients together in the top bowl section with the other creates a lot of force and betel mortars frequently show this tough labor.
This present beautiful betel mortar is from Umboi Island in the Huon Gulf area of Papua New Guinea. You can see the surfaces rounded by wear and the glossy golden-brown patina from handling. You can also see the loops of wire around both the top rim and base of the bowl—as the force of grinding has threatened to break the bowl away from the figure below.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #8--Provenance
Provenance is a complex and interesting subject worthy of its own essay. Here I just want to bring up some thoughts on how it relates to authenticity.
First it can document when something was collected, which of course the earlier the better—such as this Marquesas Islands tiki collected by American missionaries Richard and Clarissa Armstrong in 1833/34—the second earliest collected wooden tiki from the Marquesas Islands. Verifying provenance is greatly helped when you have photographic documentation as this image of their son William Nevins Armstrong—then Attorney General of the Kingdom of Hawaii shown with the family tiki at a dinner party after his and King Kalakaua’s trip around the world in 1881.
The best provenances are early and definitively documented such as this Papuan Gulf gope board acquired by the Pitt Rivers Museum in England on May 27, 1895 and beautifully painted in watercolor for the museum’s acquisition journal.
Similarly, here is another fine gope board collected by the young Dane explorer Rosenkrantz von Holstein-Rathlou in 1909 and published by him in 1914.
Obviously, what this does is concretely tie an object to a time and a place—which is critical. And in general the earlier the collection date the higher percentage chance on the object being authentic. While the flood of made-for-sale tourist pieces started in the 1960s in New Guinea that does not mean everything collected early is either good or authentic.
Here are three classic Lower Sepik River figures illustrated in Heinz Kelm’s critical three volume reference book “Kunst Vom Sepik.”
These three figures were collected very early—between 1910 and 1913 and all three, despite their early and prestigious provenances, were, at the time, recently made for sale and thus inauthentic. You can see they are clumsily constructed, lack any signs of traditional use, have no piercings and the painting is superficial.
Sometimes provenance is important because of the knowledge and taste of the original owner. William Oldman was a British collector and dealer active between the 1890s and the 1930s. He had renowned expertise of South Pacific material and was a specialist in Maori art. Thus Oceanic material from his collection is held in high regard because the early period he was collecting and the astuteness of his eye. This fantastic wooden head was acquired by Oldman in 1909 and is recorded in his acquisition journals held at the British Museum.
This Sepik Coastal mask is hardly a masterpiece—even its present owner acknowledges—but because of its provenance the mask’s importance skyrockets in the history of both Oceanic and Modern Art. It was owned by Andre Breton, the founder of the Surrealist Movement in 1924. In addition, the mask was photographed by the artist Man Ray (top right imags) and was included in the crucial 1926 exhibition “Tableaux de Man Ray et Objects des Iles” held at the Galerie Surrealiste in Paris which cemented Oceanic arts ties to modern art. While modern artists were instrumental to the acceptance of South Pacific objects as art and were well known for their wide-open aesthetic, they were not necessarily known for their connoisseurship or their knowledge of tribal art—bottom right image is Andre Breton’s wife Simon lounging in their Paris apartment with the Sepik mask on the wall behind. This Sepik Coastal mask happens to be authentic but its provenance doesn’t have much to do with it.
Here is an object I field collected around 2004 on one of the Schouten Islands off the north coast of Papua New Guinea at the mouth of the Sepik River. It is an ancient, pre-contact, stone-carved figure with a superb early style, a great aged glossy patina, pierced nose and ears, expected wear and damage and is 100% authentic even though the relatively recent collection date from an unknown guy from the Southern California suburbs, ex. merchant marine, fresh out of graduate school. The lesson here is that provenance can be important but it is silly to rely on someone else’s judgment with regards to age, quality and authenticity. Learn to judge for yourself.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #9--Integrity
What I mean by integrity is more of an overall impression of the object. We have been speaking of individual characteristics that by themselves can be critically important in judging authenticity. But integrity is about taking the sculpture as a whole and seeing that the piece is true to itself. Meaning, does the style of the carving fit with its apparent age? Is the wear and damage appropriate to the object’s function? Do the signs of ritual use confirm its cultural ideals? Take this ancient Washkuk, Nukuma culture, minja figure. Everything is in line here—the style of face and columns of black and white dentate designs are classic. That the triangles bend to the left towards the bottom is just the sort of quirk one would expect on an ancient pre-contact piece. Look at how the black pigments are so thick they are chipping off in slabs. See the pierced nose that has broken through the top, the right eye is larger as rats have gnawed the hole open. The raised ridge chin is crumbling apart from all the times feathers have been attached and scraped off for each ritual cycle. The age, style, surface condition and wear all correspond perfectly to an ancient authentic Washkuk minja sculpture.
The figurative flute stoppers from the Biwat people south of the Lower Sepik River are renowned for their power and presence. The very best account for some of the world’s masterpieces of Oceanic art. I consider the present one superb for its age and integrity. The smooth rounded surfaces attest to its pre-contact stone-tooled creation. But for our present conversation I want to draw your attention to the huge pierced septum, the numerous holes around the chin that held a human hair beard and most important the visible sufferings of a long ritual life—the scuff marks on the forehead, the broken ear and the missing arm. That the early figurative style of overly large head hung low over the torso, squat body and reaching arms coincide with its dry aged patinated surface and the predictable wear and damage all combine for a sense of integrity that leaves its authenticity never in doubt.
Again, what I am trying to illustrate with this figure is how a number of characteristics combine to create a strong sense of integrity for a piece that makes authenticity unquestionable. In this small and sweet Boiken figure fragment there is the all-important pierced ears and nose. The pigments are present and in the desired multiple layers. The expression is contemplative and understated. There is a lovely movement to the figure that is graceful and composed. Its authenticity is absolute.
Oceanic Art Authenticity Factor #10--Price
Does price really matter with regards to authenticity? Are all expensive pieces authentic? Absolutely not. First, Oceanic art is a broad category and includes hundreds if not thousands of object types where the vast majority of authentic examples can be acquired at very reasonable prices. Here are two I pulled from a lower-end auction website. Neither are masterpieces nor are especially old but both are 100% authentic pieces of Oceanic Art. The left is an Upper Sepik drum with a nicely carved base and on the right is a very common coastal Ramu River canoe prow.
But for the more desirable object types like figurative sculpture, masks and shields authentic examples usually sell for significantly higher prices than made-for-sale tourist items. Take these three Middle Sepik River suspension hooks as an example. On the left is a simple one, never used and never intended to be. There are no signs of wear, no lug on the reverse to hold it up—it is just a pleasing souvenir from someone’s trip up the Sepik River.
The middle example is different. While still quite crude and lacking of any grace it is authentic. The tags are hanging from the requisite lug on the backside and you can see wear at the base of the hooks where string bags had hung for many years. The patina is legitimate--dark in some places, lighter in others. It sold for a reasonable and relatively modest sum of $875. Now when we reach the realm of art the prices go up substantially. On the right is a pre-contact, stone-carved example dating from the 19th century of unquestionable authenticity and some real beauty. The face is sensitively rendered, the carved scroll designs are classic and most importantly the hook is large and elegant with significant wear and a glossy patina. This did not sell recently at an auction in Paris but in my opinion the estimate is very reasonable for an object of this age, authenticity and quality.
Let’s take a look at these three Coastal Sepik masks. The one on the left sold for a fairly steep price of $500 considering it is not authentic. I guess the thick pigmented surface fooled a collector into thinking it was potentially old and authentic—it is not. However, the middle one is quite nice, 100% authentic with pierced ears and nose, bits of glue remaining where shell or German porcelain ring eyes were attached, a legitimate brown patina over what was originally a reddish color. This is an early 20th century or before mask that is both classic and pleasingly expressive—quite a reasonable price at $3000.
The righthand mask is of course exceptional in both expression and execution. It is not pre-contact or stone-carved but is still late 19th century in my opinion. At this level authenticity is often a given and the price jump is purely one of age, rarity or aesthetic considerations.
I just want to use one final example to illustrate a trajectory that should be becoming clear by now. On the left is what we call an outright fake—not just something made for sale but something made to deceive. It has a thick gunky patina that is meant to fool a buyer into thinking the piece is old and genuine—it is not. This type of figure is carved quickly from a lightwood in the classic manner and then burned to smooth out the hard edges and then a series of coatings applied to artificially age the piece. Most reasonably knowledgeable collectors are privy to these shenanigans and thus its low $80 selling price.
In the middle is a perfectly authentic, early 20th century figure. You can see the pierced ears and the lack of patina around the waist—why less patina here? Because the figure would have been wearing a bark loin cloth so why paint underneath it? There are some nice sculptural qualities to the figure to go along with its age and authenticity and its $1350 price is very fair.
On the right is a superb pre-contact, stone-carved piece with both power and refinement that elevates it into the world-class realm and its $72,000 selling price is not surprising.
Yes, authenticity does matter. Yet, it may not matter to everyone all the time. Before I started in this business, I did some surf trips along the West African coast where I bought a number of unremarkable carvings from the local markets as mementos of my time there. I had these proudly displayed in my apartment as a student and I enjoyed them for what they were and the memories they brought. For many people this is as far as their collecting interest goes. And for the vast majority of collectors this is both sufficient and satisfying. Yet for some who delve deeper into the art and culture having a piece that is authentic, that was made and used in a traditional or ritual purpose is important. Having something that is a real piece of history, a fragment of a culture, a people, a belief system that often no longer exists means something. Authentic objects are visual reminders of the sometimes otherworldly differences between our societies yet at the same time they strongly reinforce our common concerns and humanity.
So, I hope you all strive for authenticity and that these comments help you both recognize and appreciate its significance in Oceanic Art.
19 November 2020