How to Value: Pre-Columbian Art

Learn about valuing Pre-Columbian art, with ValueMyStuff and our antiques experts. With this article, our experts will guide you on what to look out for.

Pre-Columbian Art

Pre-Columbian art has been sold on the western art market since the 19th century and has been increasing in popularity to collectors globally over the last 50 years, as values continue to rise. Many pieces have great historical value for what they tell us about societies whose histories have since been dominated by empire, as well as for their well-recognised decorative appeal. With this, however, has come a degree of controversy and concerns about theft, forgery and the rightful place of such artworks.

Age and Materials

The first step to take in valuing any piece of pre-Columbian art is undoubtedly to establish its date and place of origin. While many of us may not be aware of the rich history of Central America, the specific origins of the piece are crucial to establishing how rare a piece might be, or its historical significance. It must be remembered that from the Olmec to the Inca pre-Columbian art spans a period as vast as 3.5 thousand years, making some of the latest ‘antiquities’ closer to the present day than to the earliest examples! Material is the other aspect that contributes to the rarity of an object, as pre-Columbian societies utilised metals, textiles and other natural materials in both everyday and ceremonial items. Gold and other precious metals are found in high status pieces such as regalia and so are usually valuable, but this can also be the case for textiles the best of which are highly valuable and were seen as such in their own time. Jades are a particular speciality of Mesoamerican societies such as the Olmec and the Maya. With some pre-Columbian art, such as high-quality textiles, it is worth considering how labour-intensive production was, as well as the intrinsic value of the materials. Materials are also used to date and place pieces as, for example, the majority of surviving textiles come from the Andes mountains, and metalwork only flourished in the later periods of Mesoamerica.

Authenticity and Controversy

The size, tactility and style of much pre-Columbian art has both made it desirable as an art form and opened it to forgery. The appeal of large pieces and of the highly stylised forms and decorations of art such as that of Mezcala has generated controversy over some high-profile sales over the past decade. The opinion of an expert is essential in confirming the authenticity of any piece of pre-Columbian art, especially as so much of what has found its way to Europe and America is 20th century tourist-ware designed to imitate, and sometimes sold as, ancient finds. Experts will examine whether aspects like the material, wear, decoration and form fit with other examples known to be genuine. Issues sometimes arise when a piece is found be exceptional in some way, perhaps through being unusually large, or detailed, or in immaculate condition. While pre-Columbian art might be open to controversy and forgery, Central America’s ancient treasures are more than worth it to its many passionate collectors across the world.

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