to Pre Columbian Art
Feature Article Series:
Native American & Other Ethnographic Art: An Overview
Capturing the mystique of ancient artifacts
Part 1: Introduction to Pre Columbian Art
Part 2: Below
So, let's examine the vast subject of collecting Pre-Columbian art:
- Major auctions, galleries, and established private dealers are the
best sources for Pre-Columbian art.
- When buying from a dealer, research his or her reputation and
longevity. Established dealers will stand behind what they sell, and
are often more amenable to having pieces verified by outside experts.
- At major auction houses, if one can document the fact that a piece
is not what it was reported to be, they will refund your money.
- When buying from a private individual, flea market, antique store,
or country auction there really is no recourse. You better know what you're buying; if it seems too good
to be true, it probably is.
In this steadily rising market, As with any collectible, values are
based on supply and demand. In every category
you'll find Grade A to Grade D.
This vessel depicts a Maya lord wearing a Jaguar skin costume, circa 500-800 A.D.
You can buy an authentic Pre-Columbian
head for $10 that's very beautiful, but relatively insignificant in the
scale of things. At the upper extreme, pieces of Pre-Columbian art have
sold privately for more than a million dollars.
As a general rule, a 6-inch Colima dog is worth around $600, while a
24-inch dog might go for $5,000. Size is less important than quality
and condition. An ugly, poorly crafted
Colima dog in poor condition is worth maybe $300. Yet a Colima dog wearing
a human mask, dancing, or nursing a pup could be worth
For price comparables, we recommend several reference
books, to the right, as well as back issues of Christie's and Sotheby's auction
catalogues for Pre-Columbian sales. When a catalogue is first issued, it
will list an estimate; approximately a month after the auction you can get
a "prices realized" list.
To find a specialist in your area, contact a local museum, or visit the
Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association web site at http://www.atada.org/
Fakes can — and have — fooled many people, including museum curators. Faked ceramic figurines by the famous Mexican forger Larra ended up
in every major museum, and reproductions made
years ago for the tourist trade often get peoples' hopes up.
Experts need to be aware of what they don't know; no one can
possibly know everything. As with any field,
there are generalists, but there are also specialists — say, someone
who's devoted their time to the study of the ceramics of a given culture
in northern Peru over a 300-year period.
Vessel depicting Maya daily life, circa 500-700 A.D.
Authentication is extremely
difficult and very specialized, because we're not dealing with a single
field — we're dealing with 5,000 years, five or six different mediums.
In addition to scientific testing methods,
general dating is done on a stylistic basis. For example, we know that the Colima dogs were created between
200 B.C. and 200 A.D. A certain type of Mayan vessel would have been
created between 500 A.D. to 700 A.D. Then the question becomes whether the
piece is what it ought to be. An expert can analyze the surface of the
object, looking for signs of real age as opposed to manufactured
These objects are a few thousands years old, so the norm is that the
pieces have been buried, broken, and put back together. Repair is
accepted, and often a restorer will carefully fill in those cracks,
especially in a prominent area. Restoration is common, but be
careful about over-restoration, where only a small portion of the piece is
authentic. As far as care, do as little
as possible, just dust it. The less these pieces are touched and messed
with, the better.
Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica
by John Clark
Maya Art and Architecture
by Mary Ellen Miller
Star Gods of the Maya:
Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars
by Susan Milbrath
Life, Myth and Art
by Timothy Laughton
The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec
by Mary Ellen Miller
Art of the Andes:
From Chavin to Inca
by Rebecca Stone-Miller
Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World:
Ancient American Sources of Modern Art
by Barbara Braun
by Esther Pasztory
Designs from Pre-Columbian Mexico
by Jorge Enciso
Ancient Peruvian Art:
An Annotated Bibliography
by Helaine Silverman
A Guide to Pre-Columbian Art
by Jean Paul Barbier
Investigations and Insights
by Hildegard Delgado Pang
Official Guide to Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations
by Alex G. Malloy, Harmer Johnson
for Ancient Egypt : Art, Architecture, and Artifacts from the University
of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
by University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and