FORENSICS APPLIED TO AFRICAN ART:
We utilize a variety of forensic techniques to determine the age and authenticity of African art sculptures. These are some of the many techniques we utilize in appraising African art; honed and developed through thirty years of extensive travel in Africa and experience with the art.
DETERMINATION OF USE-HANDLING and AGE – and all qualities related to the existence of the piece of wood – made for a specific purpose – during its history in Africa, and its post history out of Africa.
An analysis of whether the piece of wood has some of the “31 Wood Conditions,” (listed in “Surfaces” book) related to the piece’s function or presence in its society. It would indicate the piece’s presence in Africa and what happened to it during its lifetime there.
And conversely, the sculpture might have wood conditions that look artificially produced to simulate age and usage; such signs as:
In either the wrong places, with the wrong motion, with the wrong pressure or the wrong size or appearance.
WRONG PATINA IN BACK-INSIDE OF A MASK
Too heavy or too light, in the wrong directions, patina on the wrong areas; or in the case of a figure, on the wrong places, not built up over time. Some patinas are caused by man’s artificial hand motion rather than a natural buildup over years. Some hands go back and forth; some round and round. Nature doesn’t produce patinas in such an orderly – repetitive manner.
The artificial patina made by a repetitive motion of man’s hand rather than by the accidental, varied, time-related qualities made over time by the great variety of nature’s conditions, e.g., cold, heat, falling, dirt, water, smoke, insects, fading by sun and air, etc, etc.
On both masks and statues erosions can be produced by a variety of conditions, and with many variations, but they might have been artificially made; not by insects, etc. but by man, machines,(tools-drills, etc) and substances; all rather than by the natural processes of time-nature Sometimes pieces are put in the rain or puddles for months and years to appear old; others put on top of a termite next to produce quickly “aged” results.
Then, more subtly, some pigments such as laundry bluing are used instead of indigo; blackboard chalk used instead of kaolin; commercial browns instead of earth pigments, etc, etc.
There are ways of judging if small pin holes on the surface are made artificially or indeed do indicate powder post beetle borings. Also the Surface Borer’s tracks can be simulated by tools. The differences can be subtle.
The repetitive motion of man’s HAND patina can be traced to it’s circular or up and down motions; not mimicking the accidental, time-related built-up patina made over time by natural events. 2 and 3-dimensions vs the 4th dimension –“time)- Patinas are built up over time. They are, under a microscope, composed of the 4th dimension- “time.” They build up, one over the other, which can be observed under a microscope but can also be discerned by the naked, trained eye. Are these qualities present in the piece? Man-made built up patinas lack the qualities of time. They lack the endless variations of hills and valleys; time’s buildup. They are made quickly without one event happening on/over the other, i.e. a piece being rubbed by contact with the body, then getting dirty by resting for months in a secret society house, then being rained on, then bitten by bugs, then recoated with a fresh symbolic pigmentation, eventually patined by a face again and repaired because of a break. (see Donna Page’s chapter 6 in “Surfaces” book.) Does this all happen on the piece being observed? Did its “events” happen over time?
And, finally, did the sculpture just come out of Africa or does it exhibit qualities of having been resting in an out of Africa environment? – ((basing, numbering of the piece, accumulation of Western dust, restoration, cleaning, lack of odor, etc, etc.)
Nature and man have two different handwritings. Sometimes one can tell what hand or workshop worked on a particular piece because of the consistency of man’s “handwriting,” and the techniques used. The forensic observations do not take into account the carving qualities, the logic of a piece’s form, the function, etc. That is reserved for another area of African art observation and evaluation.
OTHER ASPECTS OF APPRAISING SCULPTURES.
Then, of course, there is the appearance of similar pieces in the Afr. Art literature, a similar piece having been exhibited, a known hand, book material on such pieces or that piece itself, provenance, auction results of similar pieces, rarity, etc, etc. I have enclosed a page on such evaluations, but it is the “forensics” that remains the most elusive and that is why an appraiser prefers to see the piece in person to make a more secure judgment on the age and authenticity of the sculpture.
Over the last few years I have seen about 5 examples of the same rare type of mask from the Ivory Coast. They were all good carvings, and all excellently patined. So excellently that they were all patined the same way, same pigments used on them, same rubbed patinas on the back, same on the ends of the small ears. and the insides all had a most convincing face patina – except for the fact that the face wear (sweat and dirt and rubbing) all occurred in exactly the same spots on the inside of the mask, far more inside the mask than a face could touch-reach. So, it was obvious they were not only made in the same workshop in the same period, but were made by the same hand. Seeing only one example I might have passed it as real but it was not possible when one saw all 5 (and for that matter even one with the exact, same qualities, in a recent auction catalogue from the same period (one that got past the auction experts).
In conclusion, the forensics applied to African art is an “instinctive” reaction by most experts and collectors of African art, but it is believed that it can reach a “science” by application of the above and awareness of the 32 Wood Conditions in the “Surfaces” book. (listed on this website)