Collector’s Guide: African Tribal Masks

african fringed dance mask

Lot 147. A fringed dance mask, Bapende, Congo. Estimate: £400-£600.

The curated selection of African tribal masks offered in the auction of Tribal Art and Natural History on 27th March exemplify the styles and techniques of many different peoples originating from several Sub-Saharan countries of West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ahead of the sale, Head of Department Alice King shares her expertise on what to look out for when buying these pieces at auction and how to build a collection.

Masks have been a part of Sub-Saharan culture for centuries and are predominantly worn during social events and religious ceremonies, often as part of ritual dances. The design of the masks is often meant to convey specific symbolic meaning and the masks have purposes that differ according to tribe and ceremony, as does their style and decoration. Masks can vary widely, some being simply carved wood, others are more intricate and have painted elements and incorporate raffia and other materials.

The commercial popularity of masks amongst European and Western collectors has increased over the years, and this has in turn led to a rise in the production of masks that are made specifically to cater for a tourist market, which have never been used in a traditional ceremonial context.

‘Unfortunately, this type of production has existed for some years now which makes identifying such masks increasingly difficult. There are, however, some things to look out for when viewing masks that can assist a buyer in their decision-making.’ – Alice King

If the mask is predominantly wood, the patina of the surface can be an indicator of authenticity, particularly on the reverse of the mask. A less polished and slightly uneven surface on the reverse of a mask is often observed in older traditional masks. The working of the wood can also be indicative of the authenticity of a mask; it should have been clearly executed by hand. Any indication that mechanical tools have been used, for example if holes in the mask appear to have been made with an electric drill, should make a buyer wary.

It can also be a useful endeavour to do some research into the typical styles of masks from specific tribes so as to know what attributes to look for, as pieces made for the tourist market do not always reflect a close attention to detail and will conflate multiple tropes in one mask.

wood african tribal masks

Lot 152. A Chokwe Mask, Democratic Republic of Congo. Estimate: £100-£200.


‘There can be stylistic elements to look out for; for example helmet masks from the Mende people of Sierra Leone have large foreheads that symbolise wisdom, coupled with small mouths that symbolise humility, as exemplified in the two masks offered in the March 27th auction. Similarly, features to look for on masks from the Chokwe people of the Democratic Republic of Congo include carved scarification marks on the cheeks and forehead, the cruciform marking on the forehead being particularly associated with Chokwe masks.’ – Alice King

Provenance, where available, is another useful element to look at when buying tribal masks. If no provenance is provided, it is often worth enquiring how long a piece has been in the vendor’s collection as this will give an indication of the possible age of the piece.

‘Objects that have been deaccessioned from museums can also give buyers more confidence in what they might be buying.’ – Alice King

Bambara Chiwara Dance Headdress Lot 115. A Bambara Chiwara Dance Headdress, Mali. Provenance: Deaccessioned from the Museum of African Art,
Washington D.C. 1971 - 1972. Estimate: £600-£800.

The forthcoming sale offers two pieces that have been deaccessioned from the National Museum of African Art, Washington, including a fine example of a Bapende fringed dance mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which exemplifies the clear evidence of handmade craftsmanship that indicate the quality of masks. The second is an equally impressive piece, a Bambara Chiwara headdress from Mali, in the form of a female antelope with an infant on her back.