Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Tribal Art - Where was it made?

I find myself lately checking everything I buy for the “Made in” label.

From shoes to shirts to shorts, I want to know if they were made in America and, if not, where they were made.

I have my own standards about what countries of origin I choose to support with my purchases. I would not ask anyone to make the same decisions. But, I do encourage everyone to be aware of where an item they are buying was made. Then do as you choose.

As far as tribal art is concerned, the same procedure should be followed. It will not be quite as easy because labeling is not as consistent among tribal art objects.

It is, nevertheless, important to try to learn where that object of your artistic affection was created.

Despite laws to the contrary, “Indian-like” items continue to find their way into the United States. Some times they are identified with slightly misleading terms such as “Native-American-style” or “Native-made” (native of what country?).

Mind you, this is not to denigrate the artistry of creators in other countries. Just as faux Rolex watches may be fine pieces of work, they are not true Rolexes. Promoting them as such is selling something to buyers that is not what they think it is.

When it comes to tribal art, there is a premium price willingly paid for the pedigree of an item actually made by a tribal member, in a tribal tradition. Whether it’s Native American, African tribal, Inuit or Australian Aboriginal, a copy made to look like a genuine item and represented as such, is a form of theft.

Unfortunately, when a buyer is misled, they may never realize that what they have is a replica, not the real thing. They may even, innocently or knowingly, resell the item with the same erroneous provenance. In the world of fine arts, periodically a Masters painting emerges as having been a copy. Tracking down the original source of the fake can result in some recompense for buyers down the line. It is, however, more difficult to do this in a field where thousands of items come out of the shadows on a regular basis.

So, how can you protect yourself?

First and second, only do business with someone you know, trust and who has a reputation for standing behind what they sell.

Third, ask. Don’t be reluctant to ask the seller up front and forcefully whether or not the item is authentic, where the seller acquired it and if he or she knows its history. If you don’t get a straight answer, be warned.

Fourth, be suspicious of a price that seems too low. Few words are more proven than the old axioms, “you get what you pay for” and “if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.”

Fifth, if you think you are about to be taken, turn to experts. Ask if you can show the item to another authority. And don’t settle for one opinion. Tribal art dealers are notoriously competitive. They are not beyond “trashing” a potential purchase so that they can sell you something instead. Corroborate any opinion.

Sixth, if you do get taken, try to return the item for a refund. If you get a hard time, threaten to go to the BBB or the Indian Arts and Crafts Association or your State’s Attorney General. As a last resort, actually complain to those authorities.

Finally, use the internet to spread the word about fraudulent practitioners. There are a number of Web sites that encourage reviews of quality and service. Just be sure to speak only facts and avoid slams and insults that could lead to a defamation suit.

A few words about signatures.

Signatures are an important way to determine the authenticity of a work of art. Yet, not all artists sign their work. Some do. Some don’t. Antiques often were not signed. Occasionally, a signature is added to look-alike to try to pass it off as the real work of an artist.

Anyone who has watched Antiques Roadshow on Public Television knows how often a Tiffany signed item turns not to be a Tiffany product.

With or without a signature, get a written assurance of the seller as to the origin of the item. Ask for a Certificate of Authenticity. You are entitled to it as part of your purchase.


A crass commercial notation: At all of our Web sites -,, and - we guarantee the authenticity of everything we sell. Our motto is, "It is what we tell you it is or you get your purchase price back when you return it."

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