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Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Face value: Masks have been important in every culture sincepre-historic times. Their attraction continues for collectors aroundthe world

protection by Rodrigo Adonis
protection, a photo by Rodrigo Adonis on Flickr.
Masks are ever-fascinating objects that serve many functions. Consider the following:

* Transformation: A mask makes the wearer into someone or something else.

* Protection: Masks can confer both spiritual and physical protection.

* Punishment: Masks may be used as badges of shame or wrong-doing.

* Disguise: For serious purposes or just for fun, masks can conceal the wearer's identity.

* Identification: Some masks are symbols of status, or of membership in a special group.


Collectors in this category include people who spend a few dollars on newly made tourist masks simply because they like the way they look; connoisseurs who might spend tens of thousands of dollars for rare vintage and antique examples; and ethnographers and anthropologists who acquire masks for information about history and culture of societies around the world.

The best place to learn about a subject is by talking with experts and by looking at the best of the best. To that end, we traveled to the San Francisco Tribal & Textile Art Show, a three-day annual event considered by dealers and collectors alike to be the best of its kind in the country. Specialist dealers from 12 different nations bring treasures from every corner of the globe. It's an unequalled opportunity for a close-up look at this fast-growing and fast-changing area of collecting.



There are few genuinely antique (more than 100 years old) masks on the market. This rarity especially comes into play with masks from Africa. Missionaries, colonists, and early traders scooped up many masks by the early 20th century. Large numbers of other masks from Africa have been destroyed by time and decay, war and dislocation.

In some cases, ancient masks have survived because they were made of durable materials such as metal or stone instead of the more common, more fragile wood or fiber.


An especially interesting and attractive Nigerian mask, older than most examples available today, was a helmet mask (worn on top of the dancer's head rather than over the face) from the Gelede society. This women's group honors the mother, especially as manifested in female ancestors and the goddess Orisha. Their masks are often intricately carved and richly symbolic.


Long-time dealer Peter-Michael Boyd was happy to pass along insider information that helps to make sense of a collecting area in flux.

Younger collectors, Boyd says, are just beginning to find their way into this field, which is seeing a revival after two earlier high-interest collecting periods: the 1920s and '30s (when artists like Picasso raised awareness of the power and appeal of so-called "primitive" art) and the mid-1960s through the '80s (when Africa and the Pacific Islands became more accessible and older material continued to appear from Africa).

Boyd notes that the field of tribal art in general is one where there's much to learn for both dealers and collectors. Yet early literature is hard to access because it's largely in German, French, and Dutch, the great colonial powers in Africa, and much of the Pacific. So it's especially important to buy from experienced specialists who stand behind the objects they sell.


For beginning collectors with a limited budget, several experts recommend masks from Mexico and Guatemala. Modestly priced authentic masks are still available. The Central American tradition is long and ongoing, and there are many areas that have produced masks.

Dance or pageant masks are a major tradition in Central America. The Spanish conquistadors prohibited the traditional performances rooted in pre-Christian beliefs, but missionaries decided to adapt these ancient rituals to reinforce Catholicism.

The first pageant allowed in Mexico was based on the Spanish defeat of the Muslim Moors from North Africa, a process that stretched from the 8th to the 15th centuries. Cristianos y Moros festivals with elaborate masks and costumes have been widely popular in Central America (and also in Spain) ever since.


Balinese and Javanese masks are also fairly plentiful. More recent but still authentic examples can be found because the Indonesian mask-making and wearing traditions are still very much alive.

This category offers variety and plenty of opportunities to acquire objects of lasting interest and value--as long as you're willing to do the essential homework.


Jane Viator is a writer and decorative arts consultant based in Walnut Creek Calif. Last month, she wrote about American Art-Union works, and in our February 2012 issue, she covered presidential autographs.


Viator, Jane

Source Citation
Viator, Jane. "Face value: Masks have been important in every culture since pre-historic times. Their attraction continues for collectors around the world." Antiques Roadshow Insider Apr. 2012: 11+. Home Improvement Collection. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.
Document URL

Gale Document Number: GALE|A286116010

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