Is Tribal Art a Good Investment?


Tribal art has been topping the charts financially at art auctions in recent years. This suggests that investing in tribal art is a very good idea.

Unlike most Western art, which is for decorative or commemorative purposes, most tribal or “primitive” art was and is made for ceremonial or other functional purposes. This type of art is usually hand carved totems or statues of human or animal figures or masks. Many works of tribal art directly reflect the belief systems of the cultures that created them.

Many forms of tribal art from Africa are objects involved with magic. The Songye tribe is known for their ancestor fetish carvings, carvings of ancestral figures to help with childbirth, and all other aspects of daily life. Even commonplace items like serving spoons and other eating utensils were often elaborately carved into human or animal images by tribal people such as the Songye tribe of Africa.

Many Items from Nature Are Used in African Art, Including Human Skin in the Past

A large bulk of primitive art is made from hand-carved wood. African art is the most popular form of primitive art worldwide. Many tribes used lots of items from nature into their art. Some of the more interesting pieces will include things like beads, shells, animal bones and skin, and in the case of some older items the skin of a human enemy.

Tribes of the Cameroon regions of Africa such as the Ekoi made many of these ‘skin masks’ though most made since the 19th century are made from leopard skin rather than human. The Cameroon tribes were also known for have a high regard for colored beads and many of their works of art included the use of lots of these beads. Still other tribes carved things from ivory or even cast them in bronze or copper. It depended on the level of technology available to a given tribe.

Most Primitive Art Had a Magical or Religious Purpose

Masks were almost always made for a variety of ceremonies and ceremonial dances. The Dan tribes were particularly famous for their ceremonial masks. The Songye produce a great many of the more interesting fetish statues and ancestral guardian figures. Themes such as birth, death, war, and success at hunting and crop production were all the subjects and purposes of their elaborate art. Many artists within a tribe were also most likely a Shaman or worked with and for the tribal Shaman to produce art objects to fill a particular purpose. Most primitive people believed in some form of animism, and in sympathetic magic, which could also be called representational magic, the object made in other words could through magical means become what it represents. An ancestral statue for instance can become at least a temporary home for the spirit of an ancestor in which to reside. Thus it can become an object of personal or tribal protection.

Primitive Art Can Be Identified by the Tribe that Produced It

Even though tribal art may look alike to the untrained eye, different regions of the world have distinctive artistic styles that set them apart from other areas that produce tribal art. On the African continent alone there are dozens of regions with hundreds of tribes that have distinctive styles associated with their artwork. Though most people think “African” when they think primitive art, the field encompasses Polynesian primitive art, and Native American as well as many other primitive cultures throughout the world.

African Art Has Become Popular with Designers

Largely due to the colorful and exotic nature of tribal art, in recent decades it has grown in popularity with Interior Designers. The prices for tribal art sold at major auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christies have soared in recent years. The ROI (return on investment) for tribal art can be considerable. One case in point was a Cameroon work known as the Bangwa Queen bought in the 1890s by a man named Gustave Conrau and in recent times that work of art sold for 3.4 million dollars. I do not know what Mr. Conrau originally paid for the queen, but I am going to bet it was a much lower price in the 1890s.

In the years 2008 and 2009 both Sotheby’s and Christie’s saw prices for tribal art soaring beyond original pre-auction estimates by several million dollars. Many of these objects started out as museum quality pieces and their value as such only increases over time. Even tiny, fairly modern pieces of tribal art can be valued in the thousands with many going well into six figures.
Art of Any Kind Can Be a Very Profitable Investment

Primitive art is one of the fastest growing trends in art investing today. So getting started collecting tribal art to own for a while and sell for a profit at a future date is a pretty good idea for the savvy investor. Historically art has never gone down in value, famous iconic works of art like the Mona Lisa have only increased in value over the years. As primitive and African art are all unique items and as true artisans are producing fewer and fewer such items in the modern age, the older pieces are skyrocketing in value. Do a bit of research and know what you are doing when you start down this path of investing, but from a pure ROI standpoint it would be hard to go wrong investing in tribal art.