Learn about pre-Columbian art, and the history of it, with our ValueMyStuff valuations and appraisals experts. Find out how it has developed over the years.
On the face of it, pieces for sale on the pre-Columbian art market might appear more like artefacts and relics than pieces of art. However, art and archaeology are not always so well delineated and many of today’s art experts and collectors have a great appreciation for the modern decorative value of pre-Columbian art, as well as its historical value.
Understanding pre-Columbian art means understanding the history of the region in question. While the category combines an enormous three-and-a-half-thousand-year period of a vast region into one type of art, there are many different histories of Central and South America that contribute to the art in question. Generally, historians divide the histories of Mesoamerica (from Mexico to Costa Rica) from the Andean civilisations (from Colombia to Chile) whose societies remained politically and culturally isolated from each other before the Spanish conquests of the 16th century. Perhaps the most significant distinction for historians is that the Andean civilisations, despite their highly developed societies, never used written language and instead communicated with knotted strings known as quipu whereas Mesoamerican peoples largely used glyphs and symbols.
The oldest recognised major civilisation in Mesoamerica is known as the Olmec from southern Mexico, whose art is highly prized today. The colossal head sculptures of the Olmec are amongst the most iconic of Mesoamerica, but also of great significance are their highly stylised jade works such as face-masks and ‘celts’ (axe head-like ritual objects). The Mezcala and Maya cultures overlapped during what is known as the ‘classic period’ in the Guerrero and Maya regions of Mesoamerica. The art of the Mezcala, such as their temple models, is also highly sought after and their style appears to have been influenced by the earlier Olmec. Carving and sculpture were specialities of the Maya, not only in stone but also wood and ceramics; the Maya have also left behind brilliant murals and decorative ceramic items. Aztec culture appeared later, in the post-classic period, and rose to amazing cultural significance in only 200 years. A huge range of Aztec art can be appreciated because of how much survives. Unlike earlier civilisations, for which stone is almost the only medium to have survived the centuries, Aztec ceramics, featherwork, paintings and even music and poetry can still be studied and appreciated today.
Like the Mezcala and the Maya, the Inca of South America were also influenced by the art of the civilisations which came before them such as the Nazca and Tiwanaku. Although they were isolated from their contemporaries in Mesoamerica, the Inca share characteristics with those civilisations such as monumental building projects and the reverence of rich textiles as high-status objects. The Inca were an all-conquering civilisation and, in the process, proliferated their checkerboard-decoration, motifs and forms throughout the Pacific littoral and the Andes. In addition, the Inca worked with all sorts of metals, both precious and non-precious, for ceremonial and luxury items for a wealthy nobility. The relative wealth of material from Inca culture makes it one of the more accessible areas of pre-Columbian art to collectors but no less intriguing and decorative.