Is it authentic or not?

When you buy at a flea market or on eBay, there is often no information as to origin and no guarantee of authenticity. This can be a major concern in today’s marketplace as there are so many fakes and reproductions.

There are various degrees of authenticity: used authentic, new authentic, decorative, reproduction, fake, and junk, in descending order of desirability. (See the side-bar “Different Degrees of Authenticity” for more information.)

David Mattern, a mask collector and friend, advises to always check the back of masks for signs of wear: “Face mask wear occurs on the sides. Most masks fit rather snugly and the bouncing up and down causes polishing from friction and body oil at the point of contact. The head sweats profusely so there are areas where sweat stains or very fine salt crystals can be observed. Dancers drool can cause stains, especially with masks having a bite bar or bite rope. Finally, wear on the fastening holes suggests usage.” All of these signs can be detected by looking at the back of a mask—something you can’t do with a photo or museum display.

Determining authenticity can be very difficult. Most African masks are fakes. Making them has been a industry there since colonial days when it was discovered that European collectors were willing to pay good money for traditional designs that looked old and used. Today there are plenty of professional carvers in Africa who learned the skills of making old-looking reproductions from their fathers and grandfathers. They are very good at what they do!

Authenticity is not the only characteristic the mask collector needs to consider. Age, rarity, condition, craftsmanship, and other qualitative factors could all be important—and will influence the price. If a mask measures up well to all of these, chances are you will have to pay a lot for it. The good news is that these high-quality pieces will most likely appreciate in value. Fakes, reproductions, tourist junk, and authentic-but-inferior masks are not a good investment.

That doesn’t mean one must collect as an investment. In fact, most collectors only buy what they like. It simply wouldn’t be as much fun to do otherwise.

Different Degrees of Authenticity

1. Authentic Used—This is what most serious collectors and museums are looking for– masks that were truly used in ceremonies and celebrations. Signs of wear, age, damage, repairs, and repainting can make the mask even more desirable. However, collectors should be careful. Used masks can be faked, and though a quick “antiquing” job with tinted varnish is easy to detect, the more sophisticated forgeries require closer inspection. West Africans have been faking masks and other traditional sculpture for more than 100 years and they have become very good at it.

2. Authentic New—Same as the above, but never used. In other words, a mask that could have been used, but was sold instead. It may show some signs of age from being stored or displayed improperly. It will be culturally correct and is usually in good condition.

3. Decorative—This term is used to describe new masks that were made for tourists and collectors. Sometimes they are well made and quite inventive. For example, Mexican carvers often make a few non-traditional designs for the market after they have satisfied the needs of their village, bringing them extra money and the fun of creative expression.

4. Reproduction—Copies of traditional designs abound. For example, many of the West African masks available today are copies. However, they may deviate in materials and production technique, be artificially aged, and quite likely come from a shop far away from the appropriate village. I have a Northwest Coast Indian reproduction that was carved in Indonesia.

5. Fake—Same as the above, but these masks are misrepresented as authentic. When carefully done, these reproductions can be hard to tell from the real thing. Sometimes they even show up at the big auction houses. Before paying a lot for any mask, do your best to verify its authenticity.

6. Airport Art—Also called tourist art, junk and worse, they include Mexican masks with bats and bugs on them, sharp-toothed ghouls from the Philippines, flat-faced black women carved in Haiti, and much more. Most collectors avoid them, though they can provide exotic decoration.