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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine Tribal Art > Feature: Pre-Columbian Art

Introduction 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 $7,000-$8,000.

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
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 age.

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

The Maya:
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

Pre-Columbian Art
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

Pre-Columbian Art:
Investigations and Insights

by Hildegard Delgado Pang

The Official Guide to Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations
by Alex G. Malloy, Harmer Johnson

Searching 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 Anthropology