Tips of the Trade
This large Yipwon figure from the Upper Korewori River region of Papua New Guinea represents a life force.
The Siane people wore pieces such as this one during ceremonies involving thousands of people.
Surrealists loved the power visible in Oceanic art.
This paddle, from the Hermit Islands, was carved with rat's teeth.
In "Tips of the Trade," ANTIQUES ROADSHOW usually informs readers about the prizes and pitfalls of specific collecting areas. Sometimes, however, we come across a category of object with scant examples available to collect.
A primer on the powerful and often overlooked art of the South Seas
That's largely true of the traditional art of Oceania. ANTIQUES ROADSHOW featured this art from the South Pacific when it visited a collection at the St. Louis Art Museum. "These items are increasingly scarce," notes Michael Gunn, the museum's associate curator of Oceanic art, a vast catch basin that includes New Guinea, Micronesia, Polynesia and more. Supply is limited because islanders were often small groups who made few pieces. Tropical weather also rotted older pieces. Michael says that it's unusual for pre-contact Oceanic art—defined as art made before Europeans made contact with these islanders—to land on international auction blocks. Pieces that do reach the market often sell for five or even six figures.
Given the scarcity of these pieces, we asked Michael and ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser John Buxton, an antiques consultant from Dallas, Texas, to provide a primer, rather than collecting tips, about the powerful and often-overlooked art of the South Seas. Here's what they offered.
What is Authentic Art?
In terms of Oceanic art, so-called "authentic" art is "made for tribal use," John says, distinguishing it from art made for export and sale. John encountered an example of its opposite—inauthentic Oceanic art—at the Miami ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. He saw an orator's stool, which the owners referred to as "Freddy," made in the Middle Sepik River style of Papua New Guinea during the last few decades. Its features, including Freddy's face, eyes, and his privates, had "extraordinary exaggerations," John notes. "Modern copies are often over-sized and clumsy," he adds.
John believes that those unfamiliar with Oceanic art can feel the difference between old and new. "When you look at great old pieces, even the untrained eye can sense the dynamic life force," John explains. "The contemporary pieces are often dead, lifeless objects."
Oceanic art is often infused with ancestral spirits, as well as spirits of water, air and land. These spirits are contacted in ceremonies to ensure fertility, or invoke protection from famine, disease or enemies.
Sometimes these invocations serve extremely practical purposes. A colleague of Michael's witnessed a ceremony in Papua New Guinea where ancestral spirits were activated in a carved wooden crocodile. Men carrying the crocodile were then led, like people holding a divining rod are led, to the home of a local murderer. While on a recent visit to New Ireland, a South Seas island, Michael watched the local people use malagan art objects during a public ceremony to mark a transfer of land ownership. The art objects were witnesses to a legal transaction in the community.
"Authentic Oceanic art is not made for decoration," John explains. "It is made to be used as a tool in the culture." Adds Michael: "Traditionally, the people of Oceania did not make pictures of people or paint landscapes to make money. But since they realized that tourists would pay money for their art, this has changed.
Pre and Post "Contact"
Oceanic art can be divided between pieces made before contact with the West, which are more highly valued, and pieces made afterward. One of the pieces in the St. Louis Art Museum's collection is a paddle from the Hermit Islands carved with rat's teeth, the tools used to carve wood before metal tools were brought by Europeans 250 years ago. Notes John: "That paddle is absolutely exquisite."
Post-contact pieces are also valued. The first collectors were Western missionaries and traders who brought back pieces as curiosities in the mid-19th century. Oceanic art found its way into German museums and curiosity cabinets in the later decades of the century.
In the 20th century, Cubist painters, and especially Surrealists, were moved by the power of Oceanic abstractions, as they were by traditional African art. "If I were to say anything universal about Oceanic art, it's that it's abstract," says John of this extremely diverse art world, which has also evolved over time. "If you look at African art and Oceanic art, you see a much more stylized art form in the South Pacific," John explains. While at the Madison, Wisconsin, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, John saw a Dogon horse and rider replica from the Mali people of West Africa. In the statue, the horse resembled a horse and the rider resembled a rider.
"Traditional African art is much more accessible," explains John. "Oceanic art can be more subtle, certainly more elusive."
Today, collectors respect the right of Pacific cultures to hold on to the objects that are used in their culture, a right respected by an international UNESCO treaty now a quarter-century old. "We're careful to not remove essential cultural artifacts which are still used today," Michael says. "We record practices, we document them, but we leave the pieces where they are."
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Tribal Art category:
Navajo Chief's Blankets: Three Phases (Tucson, 2007)
Buying and Selling Native Artifacts
Collecting Kahina Dolls
Lakota Dictionary (Tampa, 2006)
Counting Coups (Counting What?) (Bismarck, 2006)
Safely Collecting Indian Artifacts
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.