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Frequently Asked Questions
An Interview with
Mona Gavigan

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The gallery began as "Volta Place", so named for its location on Volta Place in Georgetown. Upon relocating, the name AFFRICA was chosen.

AFFRICA not only provided some interesting graphic design options; this distinctive spelling also evokes the sense of time long past.  The double-f spelling –"Affrica" – can be traced to several of the earliest surviving maps from the dawn of the age of exploration.


"Here", as AFFRICA at Dupont Circle – since l986; as Volta Place in Georgetown, from l979 to l986.  This is usually an indirect question.

More than twenty years ago, a New York African art dealer said this was his most Frequently Asked Question. When he could say five years, he sensed approval; when he could say seven, he sensed confidence that "he must be okay or he could not have lasted so long!"

During the Gallery’s 20th Anniversary year, answering this question by recounting that dealer's commment seems to have even greater signifigance.

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I don’t go to Africa.


Ritual masks and figures are most often found in collections, sometimes from early in this century, but more often from those assembled ca. 1950 though the 1970’s.

Many objects found in AFFRICA could not be found in Africa.

More than 95% of what is offered to AFFRICA is rejected because artistry and authenticity are lacking.

The Fakes, Fakers and
Fakery issue of
african arts UCLA


Authentic traditional African art is that which was made and used.  As to defining art – fortunately that hasn't been an FAQ...

Much of what is identified as "African art" is half right, or all wrong.

Most of what is classified as "African art" WAS made in Africa – but more often not for use in Africa.  African curios and copies have been made for centuries. Markets for African objects as collectible art, or as exotic and fashionable curios and accessories, prompted a huge industry of African exports, especially in the latter part of this century. Some of these export curios were not even made in Africa.

More on copies and fakes: If a piece has been copied, and is sold as such, it is an "authentic" copy or replica; if such a piece were altered to appear old and used, and sold as such, it is a fake. Many pieces precisely crafted to mimic old classic art are nearly impossible for casual buyers and sellers to detect.  And often, old pieces of wood or ivory, or authentic (but mediocre) objects, are enhanced and recarved.

Sellers of such forgeries may not knowingly be doing so; they may believe their sources who may also have been deceived. Certainly, there are unscrupulous sellers, but many assume they are selling authentic pieces.  Provenance should also be carefully considered – that a piece was in a collection or publication does not assure authenticity or value.


Some choose to buy copies knowing that originals are not obtainable.  However, if authenticity is not of concern, cost should be.  A copy purchased in Africa for $25.00 or so might retail in America, Europe or upscale African tourist shops for $250.00. If a seller represents it as authentic, the selling price could be closer to $2500.

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AFFRICA sells traditional authentic African art: In nearly twenty years, only several Chiwaras have been sold through this gallery - and at least several hundred have been rejected for not meeting Affrica’s criteria. Not only is this antelope headcrest from Mali the most requested object here – it has probably been the most popular African image of collectors and decorators everywhere for decades as the most recognized – and copied African image. Thousands have been made, and continue to be made for export.

A good (not great) Chiwara, could sell for about $2500; if it were great, it could be $25,000. Fine examples can sell from $7500 to $18,000.  Most copies are priced between $250. and $1500. Although buyers and sellers of authentic African art place no value on such pieces, they are appraised, reluctantly, as decorative or study pieces valued from $350 to $450. It is unwise to spend more for copies; they don"t go up in value, and in fact often become less valuable as more are produced.

Few "great " old Chiwaras have come out of Africa in recent decades. By 1960, only several villages were using Chiwara as a religious symbol ceremonially danced a few times each year (Reference, P.J. Imperato). Photographs of Chiwaras in use (some staged even then for photographers) appeared in magazines and early African art books. Copies influenced by some of those photos were made to meet the market demand. Collectors usually presumed then, as now, all were actually danced.

Staged masquerades using new Chiwaras sometimes are danced for, and sold to, tourists after one performance. These and other masks danced for tourists, and those made directly for sale, rarely portray inspiration or originality, although carvers may introduce fanciful touches having no traditional precedent. Many are carved far from their origin in both place and form. Some are made much larger than could ever have been practically danced. Others made in South and East Africa may be of colorful woods or even stone, in highly stylized forms.

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Many going to Africa for travel or assignment assume they can acquire African art similar to what is seen in museums and galleries. If that were so, dealers and curators would be going there too. Most fine old traditional carvings have already been taken out of Africa. Attempts to save what remains have been made through international laws and agreements signed by the United States and many African nations.

Even so, numerous excavated ancient terracottas, especially from Mali, Niger and Nigeria, come on the market, as do antique works in metal from many places in Africa. They are liable to be confiscated upon departure, or arrival in the States.

Contemporary art and regional traditional crafts like basketry, beadwork and textiles can be found, among them transitional pieces innovatively incorporating outside influence and materials. Some of these have already become modern collectibles.

Objects made for sale as curios and replicas are plentiful and inexpensive, but fine rare old pieces found in Africa can sell for as much as – if not more than – similar pieces found in western markets where they may not be rare; Yoruba Ibedji (twin) figures from Nigeria are such examples. Old used objects lacking artistry, or those severely damaged, have little monetary value.

Should ritual objects still be in use, they are likely to be recent and of lessor quality than early collected pieces . Old traditional objects such as masks and charms have long been sought by middle-men aware of international market values. Some of the savvy African dealers are paid retaining fees by western dealers to find fine old objects, thereby making it even more difficult to find treasures in the market places. Also, many African dealers are Muslim. By removing these symbols, pathways are further cleared for religious conversions. Africa has been the birthplace of many belief systems. Now, two-thirds of its population practice Islam and Christianity, religions not born there. Most converts do not retain traditional religious symbols. As Africans have moved from villages to urban areas, they have also tended to adapt western culture and medicine.

An excellent book on this subject, African Art in Transit by Christopher B. Steiner, is listed in the Resource Center page, part of this site.

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Selectively. More often, consultations. After reviewing a collection, it may be decided only those pieces exceeding a certain value will require written evaluations.  There is a minimum consulting fee which can be applied to the cost of a written appraisal.  No part of any fee is based upon a percentage of the appraised value.

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Provenance – documented collection history – can give added value to an object.  Such information can include field photographs; records of exhibitions, catalogues, or publication of photographs of an object in books or journals. 

Pieces from distinguished collectors, ethnographers, dealers, artists and celebrities are often valued more for that association.

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Visit museums with fine old African pieces – such as the Metropolitan in New York – and do so as often as you can.  Investigate local museums.  Some museums exhibit objects for ethnographic or other studies which may not have artistic merit; but. particularly for those with early collection dates, the objects provide an excellent opportunity to study the differences between early and late originals, and copies.

Begin reading, and preferably, building, a library of African art books written and edited by recognized authorities.  If you know your style preferences, then focus upon acquiring style-specific books. Numerous books with "African Art" in their titles may contain few, if any fine pieces. Some may include inferior and faked pieces; some are vanity press; some may have been intended to serve as sales catalogues.  Look for museum exhibition catalogues, especially those with field collection data and entry dates. Many titles, often limited to print runs of no more than l000 copies, are out of print.  Please refer to Affrica’s Resource Center for titles and sources for books.

Research availability and prices before choosing to acquire one of those well-known masterpieces repeatedly published and exhibited. Some may be unique, or one of only a few known examples.  Because they have been published for so long and frequently, they are also the most likely models for copies.

If you have access to an African art library, review auction catalogues of the past few decades.  To help get a sense of prices, you can also visit galleries and auction houses.  (Most of us have a story of an early price-asking experience...getting a reply like, "It’s 6," leaving one to ponder, "600? 6000?"  Or, to have assumed it’s "600" and learn it’s "6000", after saying "I’ll take it"!)

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Collectors usually have limited budgets, and often prefer to begin with pieces priced in the hundreds to few thousand range.  Dealers realize this.  Novices should not feel – nor be made to feel – uncomfortable with their chosen range. Rather than be dismayed to find a masterpiece is not within the realm of possibility, consider other African collectibles.  Perhaps a fine Dogon figure is not affordable, but a fine figurative door lock might be.  Perhaps figures of lessor-known neighboring Voltaic peoples with similar stylistic features may appeal to you.  Many utilitarian pieces such as containers, furniture, textiles, currency and implements are priced from a few to several hundred dollars. Small ritual figurative pieces are also available in this range, as well as some miniature masks from the Guinea Coast.

The advice most given by connoisseurs to beginners is to acquire one quality piece instead of several lessor ones whose collective cost may equal that one piece.  There is often an addictive nature in the beginning stage of collecting, with a rush and need for immediate satisfaction/acquistion. What may provide immediate satisfaction in the early phase may not be satisfying later.  Deaccessioning mediocre pieces or copies is difficult; they rarely can be traded-up for better objects.  It is better to budget for quality over quantity.  Most galleries will work with collectors on a payment plan.

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It is not unusual for those unaccustomed to frequenting them to initially feel intimidated –regrettably.  Many gallery owners and staff were once novice collectors with experiences not to be wished upon any one, especially not potential collectors!   Consider introducing yourself and stating your collection interest. If you aren’t at ease doing so, consider going to gallery openings, often listed locally and nationally.  Sign the guest book to receive invitations. In many cities, galleries coordinate openings on the same evening; in Washington, D.C., they are scheduled on ten first Fridays of the year. Many galleries participate in Tribal Art Fairs held in large cities, most notably New York, San Francisco, Paris, and Brussels.  Joint gallery openings are scheduled to coincide with major tribal art auctions in New York, Paris and Brussels. Listings can be found in quarterlies listed in Affrica’s Resource Center, as well as in national and international arts publications.

Unlike museums, gallery objects may be handled, giving novices a hands-on experience. If you don’t see what is of interest to you on display, inquire. Galleries have many objects not exhibited.

If you have started a collection without soliciting any professional advice, please consider doing so.  Perhaps you can contact a museum with an African collection that offers vetting or can recommend appraisers.  (Museum personnel can often identify or authenticate objects, but are not permitted to assess monetary value.)

Above all, enjoy!   Enjoy searching for, and finding objects, as well as books, museums, galleries, dealers, and fellow collectors. (And, by all means, avoid that which makes you uncomfortable or prevents you from enjoying your passion for African art.)


Focus on the object.  That an object can be appreciated so far removed from its origin and context and can cause us to pause and pay attention –to me, this is primary.  Pay attention to what holds your attention.

My favorite quotation regarding collectibles came from a dealer in antiquities who said, "There are only two kinds: those you covet; those you do not."

Wishing that your explorations lead to finding coveted objects to which you may return repeatedly, and that you always see and be moved by them as if for the first time – whether in books, museums, or your own special space.

Mona Gavigan, Gallery AFFRICA

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