How do you make sure that you don't get taken when you start buying tribal art? At least, how do you recoup if you do get taken?
First. Know who you are buying from. We live in a fly-by-night world. Buying from a stranger or someone with an uncertain reputation is asking for disappointment. You are left without recourse if you have been told something that isn't accurate.
Check out the seller. Is he a member of a professional organization such as the Indian Arts and Crafts Association, the Antique Tribal Arts Dealers Association or even a local Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau. You also can search the dealer's name and you may find web sites that praise or complain about him or her.
Second. It is not unreasonable to ask for references, especially if you are considering an expensive piece. The experience of other buyers can give you a feel for the legitimacy of the person you are buying from. But be fair and check more than one so you don't make your decision on the basis a single disgruntled customer or vendor.
Third. Know your subject matter. The internet is filled with sources of information about tribal art. There are more discussion groups, blogs and web pages with background information than can be listed here. Just Google some terms like tribal art, African art, tribal masks, Native American art, Zuni art, etc. Read the sites and learn. You will be amazed at quickly you can become familiar with the field.
Fourth. Know the provenance. Unless you are buying directly from a contemporary artist, you have a right to know who owned the item before the seller and who owned it before that. If you can get a contact name and number, it's all the better.
When you get the provenance, check it out. Don't just take the seller's word for it. Even if a previous owner has past to attic in the sky, secondary research with auction catalogs and other editorial material can help you identify or confirm previous owners.
Fifth. Check comparative prices. Another boon from the internet: it is possible to compare prices for similar items. I say similar because there almost never are exact duplicates of tribal art objects. Almost by definition, each item is one of a kind. But you can get some feeling for value by looking at how similar objects are described and priced.
This advice may strike you as peculiar coming from a person that sells on line through sites such as Native-JewelryLink, which sells the very items it is encouraging you to shop around for. In fact, we are not unique. Most dealers in tribal art are happy to have you compare their offerings and prices with each other. The more you know, the better buyer you will be. And the more you will value the companies you buy from.
Sixth. Be very skeptical at auctions. Whether live or online, most auctions are "as-is" sales, with the exception of outright fraud. Even then, good luck if you bought something that turns out be different than it was described. Few things in life, are as final as the auctioneer's hammer.
On the other hand, if you are comfortable with your judgments and ability to separate the phony and fake from the real and valuable, auctions are excellent places to find good pieces at bargain prices. Just don't be intimidated by the auctioneer or the appearance of quality and authenticity. See key #2.
Seventh. Don't buy without a formal, detailed receipt or certificate of authenticity from the seller. Sure certificates can be faked. After all, they really are nothing more than the word of the seller. But at least they are the written word. Few sellers will commit outright lies to paper. If you must take or send the item back, you have a document to back up your claim. The certificate also will help if you take the item to third party for an opinion. You will not be in the position of having to remember exactly what you were told.
Eighth. Don't buy online unless the seller has an inspection and return policy. It doesn't have to be for along period. Seven to 10 days should be adequate for you to hold the object in your hand, see its true condition, feel its texture, measure its size and so forth.
There is nothing wrong with showing your purchase to other authorities. Let them tell you what they think of it before you show them any documentation. If they dispute what you were told, don't be reluctant to tell the original seller and ask to return it. But don't be cowed into sending something back that you actually like simply because someone else doesn't think it is so hot. (And always remember that other dealers have an interest in proving how "smart" they are, and separating you from what you like.)
Ninth. Don't buy for investment alone. Any piece art, tribal or fine, may appreciate over time and may be easy to liquidate for cash. Or not. The most successful collectors and dealers I know only buy items that they would be content to keep in their permanent collection if they fail to sell.
There are few things as frustrating in the art world as buying something you don't love in the expectation that someone else will love it and buy it. When they don't, you have to look at each day.