How to Collect Pre-Columbian Art

Howard Nowes - 11/12/2005

A Quick Primer...

If you have the "bug" to collect; here are a few simple tips to remember. First, educate yourself. Read as much as you can on the subject and see where your mind draws you. Once you have a bit of education, try to establish your yearly budget and a big picture for your collection goals. Think about a long-term plan and write a wish list that you don't necessarily need to follow but your tastes will mature and change and having a "wish-list" will keep you on track. You know your yearly budget, always reach for the best pieces you can afford. You may not immediately have a large collection but quality speaks volumes over quantity. This business is riddled with forgeries, pastiches, overly restored pieces and the deceptive dealers who sell them! If you are using the Internet and buying from a photo, try to use a credit card with a fraud protection plan or a third party escrow account. Make sure you trust the source of the object, meaning the dealer or auction house you are acquiring the object from and get a written, dated and signed invoice with a guarantee of authenticity. Ask for a clear description of the condition in writing ahead of time. Condition affects the price of an object so make sure you understand the extent. If it is pottery, it is a good idea to spray the object with tap water but before you do, make sure it is a fired surface with no fugitive (unfired) pigment. Restored areas have a different rate of absorption so when wet; it is easier to see the "fill". While restoration does not destroy the value of an object , it may effect it and a legitimate dealer will explain the subtle difference to you.

Real or Fake?

It may take some time handling antiquities before you are comfortable yourself with authenticity. Once you are, trust your gut. Often your first impression of an object, regardless of scientific evidence will be the best judge. Antiquities are often lighter in weight then a modern forgery. When wet, clay has a deep dank odorous smell which can only come from centuries of being buried. Pours clay objects buried for long periods of time also attract a slow growing microscopic fungus called a dendrite. Also oxidation reaction occurs and leaves magenese deposits. Both these deposits can be painted on so it a good idea to learn what the real surface looks like under magnification. An ultraviolet-or black light will show areas of repainting when the object is viewed under this spectrum of light. Keep the room dark and keep turning on the room light during the examination. If the object has obvious repairs or differences, they will be much less visible in the room light and seem to disappear before your eyes as the light changes. Thermoluminescence testing is a scientific technique which is invaluable for archaeologists in the dating works of art. If an object is of high value and you can not tell if it is real, you may want to have a thermoluminescence test performed. The laboratory will need to take one or more core sample(s) of the object and subject to analysis. It works on the principal that molecules in the object store up radiation as they age and when these exposed to an energy source such as heat, there is a certain point where the object gives off a measurable degree of light which reveal the age. Once you have your genuine artifacts, make sure they are in a safe and secure enviornment like in a display case, away from direct sunlight, high humidity or excessive heat. It is a good idea to start a card catalog or computer database and keep provenance (history) and a photograph for each object. This will make the task of future generations who care for these objects easier. It is also a good idea to occasionally share your collection with other collectors, curators and dealers for feedback as to quality, authenticity and correctness.

Correctness of Collecting

In the U.S. while one will see a symbolic relationship between collectors, dealers and scholars in most antique and fine art fields, there is a line being drawn between scholars and collector/dealers in the field of ancient Pre-Columbian art collecting All people have something they collect; it is a pleasurable pursuit after all. The problem is that a good deal of the artifacts on the open market may have been looted from their sites, thus robbing the archaeologist of the historical context. The UNESCO treaty in 1972 prohibits exportation of cultural patrimony (excavated art objects). Anything proven to be collected before then is a legally acquired art object. Today, collectors aggressively collect and presume they are innocent, acquiring "old collection" artifacts; while the academic world assumes the dealers and collectors are guilty of fueling the demand for illicit artifacts. This presumption limits the input of many archaeologist and scholars who do not want to be associated with material in exhibitions that they have not seen before. This in turn makes the important collectors in the field more private about their new acquisitions and society suffers because instead of the world having knowledge of amazing objects, everyone is hypersensitive on the issue of provenance and the important finds remain behind closed doors.

Today with high speed computers and the internet, information is at one's fingertips. Hopefully with technology and respectful parties willing to share information, we can put an end to the looting of historical digs and cultural sites while building on our knowledge base and allowing important collections to be shared with the public.

Pre-Columbian Art in Context

The highly refined and well known style of ancient Western art often overshadows the art objects produced by the native Pre Columbian Indians. In the past, schools taught Biblical, Greek and Roman Art because so much is known about these cultures through almost 100 years of study. Only as of the last 30 years has great strides been made in the archaeology of the Pre Columbian world and because of all the new information being disseminated through books and courses, new interest in collecting ensues.

Pre Columbian of course refers to a time before Columbus wandered off the spice route and discovered America. Here he found a different continent with tribal Indian rituals and the earth with an abundance of natural resources. The Spanish conquistadors then came to colonize Central and South America as well as Mexico. You may be familiar with the term Mesoamerica, Middle America, Amerindian, and the New World in referring to the areas of these Indian cultures. Excellent records survive from 16th Century explorers and clergymen so we know how different these societies would have seemed to the Western explorers. Each culture had quite a shock when confronted with the other. The Spaniards could not comprehend the bloody human sacrifices of the Aztec Indians and the natives could not understand why their beautiful gold adornments were systematically melted down into small ingots and carried off by sea.

The indigenous cultures of the new world developed independently of each other and despite the lack of technology in the new world, the range of expression from their pottery to intricate textiles to objects in gold, silver and copper is of a very high aesthetic. Although pottery is the most abundant find in the New World, the availability of gold made it possible for a wide output of adornment. An alloy called "tumbaga" was also worked. This alloy consisted of a copper core with a gilt surface that would resemble pure gold. Metalwork was cast, embossed, incised, painted and even inlaid with shells or semi-precious stones.

The more well know and sought after Pr Columbian collectables come from the highly developed areas of Mexico and Peru. In Mexico we have the Olmec, the Maya culture of the Yucatan, the Aztecs and the great artistic centers of Monte Alban, Teotihuacan and Vera Cruz. Early on in the Pre-Classic period are beautiful little clay figurines, mainly of women, which are wonderful in their expressive exaggerated plastic form. In the Classic Era, the Mayans developed a complex written language and a high degree of understanding of planetary motion. Also the architecture of their cities is as marvelous as architecture of western classical civilizations. With regard to religion, the Mayan Indians believed that the universe was composed of the heavens, the earth's surface, and an underworld. The boundaries between the worlds of nature and the supernatural were not sharply defined and the pre-Columbian religious leaders were essentially shamans, people who were believed to be capable of moving back and forth between the earthly and supernatural realms. This travel between realms was often associated with hallucinatory trances. Most poignant is the fact that the culture was infused in ritual and there was always a need for major and minor decorative arts to identify your position in society and aid in rituals. Thus the output of carved stone and painted pottery was well refined. The Maya's even played a sacred ball game which many today believe was a sort of symbolic warfare. . Jade was a precious and deeply symbolic stone found in many burials sites. Because of its deep lustrous color and scarceness, jade was equated with water and life and the powers of rebirth. A beautiful smooth Jade necklace or intricately carved figural pectoral is wonder to behold because of the delicacy achieved despite the immense hardness of the stone.

The Maya Indians believed in an afterlife and spent a good deal of time preparing graves with goods to comfort the deceased and aid in the journey to the underworld. Besides clay figures, we find stone figures, masks, censors, precious metals, shells and pottery bowls and cylinders painted with meaningful scenes and inscriptions concerning the aristocracy.

Peru is a geographically diverse country with a long ocean coast, deserts and mountain highlands. As rich as the geography is, so are the natural resources like wool, stone, metal and clay. We have the Chavin, Salinar, Vicus, Nazca, Paracas, Huari, Moche, Chimu, Chancay and Inca cultures to name a few. Pre-Classic or Formative Era, Ca. 1000 BC, consisted of sedentary agricultural peoples and we have the Olmec in Mexico and the Chavin in Peru. The next phase or "horizon" is the Classic Period, Ca. 30 BC to 600 AD which has the Mayan and the Moche in Peru. It almost seems like we know the ancient Peruvians better in death then in life because of all the mummy bundles that have been found and annualized. The Climate of Peru is extremely dry and has preserved cloth and mummies, like in Egypt for thousands of years. Buried in desert tombs, mummies wrapped in cloth have been excavated wearing colorful mantles made of cotton, alpaca, llama and volcano wool. Ancient textiles are generally collected as panels, as they did not loom garments. The tapestries themselves are a marvel of technology from an interlocking warp and weft to fabrics with cross-knit loop stitches or a technique which incorporates two layers of warp called Double Cloth. The ceramics of Peru are equally famous. Used to hold a strong fermented beer, they fashioned their drinking vessels into expressive figural forms and painted them with bold and vivid colors.

In Ecuador around 3000 to 2500 BC we have the Valdivia Culture producing the first representative human forms molded in clay and these abstract soft stone slabs carved with abstract figural details. You may have heard of the small red clay burnished figurine referred to, as "the Venus of the New World" because of it is the earliest datable pottery figural form found in the New World. Ecuador has many other cultural phases and is influenced greatly by Peru in trade.


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