Determining Age of an Antique Mask
To many African mask enthusiasts, every bit of information about each mask or sculpture within their collection is important. A trustworthy, authentic mask seller should provide some verification of information (i.e. country of origin, date/age, tribal correspondence) at the time of sale. While a large percentage of people collect African and world masks for cultural or tribal significance, some are in the market for aged, vintage or antique masks-as this can more than triple a mask's worth at auction.
An African mask certainly doesn't have to be old or antique to be valuable to a collector. Lovers of Africa and its heritage often seek out custom-made new masks or recently made masks based on a desire for an artifact from a particular place, tribe, or tradition.
But even recently-made African masks tend to look rugged, old, or weathered-often inciting a feeling of discovery in a buyer that the mask might be an ancient artifact. Just because a mask looks old doesn't mean it's an antique. And all antique masks don't look weathered, either.
The elements can have a number of "aging" effects on new masks or sculptures-particularly African wooden masks or those plated with metals. Water, for example, can rot a wooden mask within only a matter of years. Air can tarnish or oxidize certain metals, contributing to a vintage appearance. Sunlight can also prematurely age wood. Extreme heat or cold can cause a cracking, weathered effect that makes a mask appear antique, when in actuality it is only a decade or more old. To the opposite effect, good care of a wooden or metal mask or sculpture can preserve the condition of an African mask for years and even centuries.
Determining age of an African Mask or sculpture can be an important factor in its market value if the collector is interested in the piece for trading or profiting. The science, however, can be tricky. Even seasoned experts often have trouble sorting replicas from originals, as many conduct only "surface tests." While the science of determining age is still developing, there is some technology that can authenticate a mask as vintage, antique or ancient.
It is important to understand that the overwhelming majority of African masks on the market have been produced within the last 75 years. If you stumble upon a claim (especially outside the museum collection market) that a particular African mask is older than 70 years, you can have a spectrographic test performed ($200-$400), to confirm (with 90% accuracy) if the piece is an authentic antique mask or simply a vintage or modern replica.
Even if you find yourself with a modern or replicated African mask, chances are your piece is still valuable due to a niche popularity, unique handcrafted nature and an historical significance in a growing area of Anthropological study.
If knowing with absolute certainty the history of a mask is important, though, you might forget searching for antiques and hire a craftsman yourself: watching him carve it might be the only way to have the complete factual history of a piece within your African mask collection.