A Beginner’s Guide
Find what you like and go for it
An all-encompassing collection such as this may not be best for everyone. Most collectors choose to specialize. While I do not necessarily practice what I preach, I would urge the beginning collector of masks to focus on a particular region or type.
When selecting an area of interest, keep in mind that some categories are more accessible and therefore more affordable. For example, Mexican masks are plentiful, but those of Northwest Coast Native Americans are quite scarce; original movie monster mask are hard to find, but reproductions of the same characters can be readily purchased.
Most of the masks in this collection are from areas that still produce a lot of folk art. Few could be considered rare or old. In fact, Masks from Around the World includes many items you could buy on the Internet for less than $50 each, so one doesn’t have to spend a lot of money.
For more on ways to organize your collection, please read my article called Organizing Mexican Masks.
Begin by researching
The best investment a new collector can make is in a library. Some excellent books are out of print but are usually available on eBay or from specialized book dealers. Here are some for your consideration:
Masks- Faces of Culture by John Nunley
The Letts Guide to Collecting Masks by Timothy Teuten
Masks and the Art of Expression by John Mack
Musee International du Carnaval et du Masque by Michel Revelard
Masks of the World by Douglas Congdon-Martin
Go to museums. Check the Internet for sites on masks and tribal art. If you live near a large urban area, try to visit art auctions, shops, galleries, or other collectors. The nice thing about the latter group is they will allow you to get close to masks and actually handle them. Also, you’ll be conversing with people who know a lot about the field and will share their knowledge. The more one studies books and actually handles masks, the better one becomes at identifying masks worth purchasing.
You’re now ready to start collecting. You could go back to those shops, galleries, and museum stores that sell masks. They will be glad to see you and your checkbook, and you can probably count on them for quality and authenticity.
There are more affordable alternatives. Flea markets and yard sales can be a source for occasional good buys. I’ve spent many weekends searching these venues. Back in the 1970s, tribal art was unappreciated in rural Pennsylvania and dealers would sell those “ugly masks” for very little money. Not any more.
Save money and shoe leather
The market for masks and other tribal art has grown. Those unappreciative dealers are now asking high prices for their masks. This was becoming a problem for me, and then I discovered eBay.
I’ve been buying and selling on the Internet ever since, and I highly recommend it to you as well. It is like a giant, worldwide flea market that specializes in whatever you want. You can review hundreds of masks in an hour, instead of walking an entire weekend just to see three or four.
EBay can be risky. You must base your decision to purchase on a small photograph and a written description. Another problem with eBay is that great deals are scarce. That’s because there are plenty of other collectors online who are looking for the same deals as you. The only time I ever get a bargain is when a mask is listed under the wrong category and I am lucky enough to stumble upon it.
Why do people collect masks?
Masks are a blend of painting and sculpture that dramatically reflect the creativity of different cultures. That’s what appealed to me when I started picking up ethnic masks at flea markets twenty years ago. These unexpected forms, colors, and textures were very exciting.
But another person might point out that masks, which serve as symbols in rites of passage and in festivals of renewal, tell you much about the culture from which they come. This collection—with its more than 300 examples from Europe, Africa, India, China, Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Americas—offers a unique perspective on the people who make the masks and the societies that use them.
The collector will find that masks are beautiful objects of art in their own right, as well as fascinating statements about the people and places from which they come.