A Guide to Ethnographic Tribal Art and Collectibles at Estate Sales

By Pascale Saliba

Ethnographic art objects and collectibles are often found at estate sales across the country.  Identifying and pricing tribal art items aren’t as simple as looking for similar items recently sold online.

Use this guide to help you identify, research, price and sell ethnographic art and collectibles.

Ethnographic Art Origin

Identifying the region an ethnographic art object came from will help you streamline your research strategy.  There are many categories that primitive art falls under, here are the common ones:

Oceanic or Pacific Tribal Art

Tribal Art originated in the Pacific Islands including Papua New Guinea.

African Ethnographic Art

Art that came from Africa but does not include ancient Egyptian art.

Native Art

This type of art identifies objects that come from North America and Canada.

Tribal Art

Most commonly referred to as Aboriginal art and comes from Australia.

Asian Ethnographic Art

This is old art, most often comes from Indonesia but includes other Asian areas such as China, Japan, and other countries in the region.

Popular Ethnographic Collectibles

The objects can be a variety of things, from pottery to sculptures, wall carvings, clothing, and masks.  The most popular among collectors are sculptures and masks.

Materials Used in Ethnographic Objects

Ethnographic art objects are made of natural materials.

The items are often considered ceremonial or religious.  They originate from rural areas and are handmade using materials found in nature such as leaves, animal teeth, wood, clay, natural hyde, and bone.

The culture is reflected in each art piece, and they represent something.  Masks, for example, were used for ceremonial gatherings, etc…

The attraction to these art pieces by many collectors is because they’re hand made by indigenous people and they are labor-intensive.

Researching Cultural Art Objects

In our modern culture, there are many other names to identify ethnographic art objects, here is a shortlist of the most commonly used names.

  • Ancient Art
  • Folk Art
  • Tribal Art
  • Self-Taught Art
  • Primitive Art
  • Culture Art
  • Heritage Art

These terms will help you on your journey when researching possible cultural type objects at an estate sale.

Cultural objects are not only sought after by collectors, but some can also be worth a lot of money and strike the interest of universities, and museums.

It’s easy to mistake a common souvenir item for an authentic old ethnographic object, so doing your homework is a must.

Since there is so much to learn, the most important factor to focus on is understanding whether a piece is truly indigenous or made at a later date to be sold to tourists.

Some items are made to look old, but the high-value items are truly old and were not made to sell, but rather to use.

Most ethnographic art collectors tend to focus on one area of tribal art.  The same applies to many appraisers.  They tend to specialize in art that came from a particular region.

Photo Credit: Amy Gonia Childers – Brick Road Estate Sales and Liquidation. Tumwater, Washington

How to Identify Origin on Ethnographic Objects?

Some tribal art objects are extremely easy to identify while others are not.

Carvings, Sculptures, wall masks, and items that are human-like will commonly be made to represent the tribal culture itself.

Pay attention to small details.  If the sculpture looks old, it probably is, but when you come across a true ethnographic art object, it will stand out.

We spoke to Tami Dickason, owner of an ethnographic art gallery in Newport Beach CA.  The items in her gallery are amazing and quite unique.

Dickason buys her items from sellers nationwide.  Her gallery is sought after by collectors worldwide due to the wide range of ethnographic art objects she has.

Dickason made it clear that most experts in the ethnographic industry will specialize in one particular area of ethnographic art, therefore it’s important to have contact with multiple experts that can help you when you need assistance identifying an object.

We asked Dickason:

“What are some key identifiers experts like you rely on to tell the difference between an authentic ethnographic art object and items that are produced as replicas?”

Dickason said: “Replicas are mass-produced tourist items that can sometimes be decades old, or even made in the same way as the original item.”

She continues, “For me, experience and intuition are key.  My first impression or gut reaction sets the tone for how much time I will spend scrutinizing the item to confirm if it’s original or not.”

When it comes to ethnographic objects, this intuition is developed from years of doing business and trading in ethnographic art.

Most dealers will rely on a library of reference books, auction catalogs, and online research.

Ethnographic Art Resources

If you come across an item that you believe is an original tribal art item and has ethnographic value, here are a few resources that will help you research and possibly price the item accordingly.

Primitive Art Found at Estate Sales

Not every estate sale you stage and price will have valuable and rare primitive items.

Most of the folk-art items found at estate sales include statues, rugs, paintings, and actual tools.

Not all primitive art objects are easy to identify and price.  If it looks odd, and you have a gut feeling you want to dig further, it’s worth your time.  Never guess!  Inexperienced sellers misidentify and under price items all the time.

Like the experts, you must also rely on your intuition and gut feeling.  If you’re unsure of something, first ask the other estate sale professionals in our private Facebook group by posting a photo, or contact a local dealer that specializes in primitive art.

Rely on the references we provided above, if you didn’t have any luck getting answers from other estate sale professionals.

Common Ethnographic Art at Estate Sales

There are various items you could run into at estate sales that could be considered ethnographic art, on your journey to establish whether they’re old or new, here are a few of the items you should pay attention to:

African Art

Collectors covet carved wood figures and statues.  Keep an eye out for wood carvings that are dark, have split in the wood, considered heavy based on size or have oil oozing from the wood, could possibly be very old and worth researching further.

African carved figures are quite popular; however, the value can vary tremendously because there are also many newer versions of the originals.

Ethnographic Art Mask
19th-century mask by the Gabonese Fang people sold for more than $7.5 million in an auction. Photo: AtlantaBlackStar.com

Native American Art

These items can be display items, clothing, rugs, blankets, etc… they often use thread, leather, feathers, and beads.

Native American art is also quite popular among collectors.  Use your gut feeling, if it looks old it doesn’t always mean it is.

There are many art galleries in your local areas that specialize in native American Art, adding their contact to your list will help you as you come across a possibly valuable art piece.

Sotheby’s has sold over 2 million dollars in a single month under the Native American Art category alone.

Native American Indian Tribal Art
Native Navajo Rug
Sold by Sotheby’s for $250,000

North West Coast and Canadian Art

NW Coast art objects are colorful, they include both wall art, figures, masks, along with small display carved items.  They are handmade using natural materials such as bone, leather, wood, and beads.

They often depict birds and animals in the carvings.

There is often a confusion between native American Art and North West Coast Art.  Using online reference libraries, local auction houses, and dealers as a resource will prove fruitful while you’re researching.

Example of North West Art Haida Mask Photo: Pinterest

Aboriginal Tribal Art

You may not run into too many pieces that are of aboriginal origin, but if you do, the item style generally stands out.  There aren’t many collectors that favor this type of art, but the collectors that do are quite passionate about their collection, and generally stick to this type of art only.

Even newer aboriginal art can be a collectible, they are generally religious, or have a meaning.  The art generally comes in the form of wall art, masks, and even sculptures that depict a mix of human and animal in their form.

Ethnographic Art Wall Mask
Middle Sepik River Carving – Papua New Guinea
Photo: Londoncoin.com

Pricing Ethnographic Art

This is not an easy task for anyone in the estate sale industry unless they are experienced in this area themselves.  You have a short period of time to stage, research, price, and sell the entire contents of a home.

Time is not the only constraint.  Finding a collector locally is also difficult.

Avid collectors of this type of art are willing to pay top dollar for them, the goal is to get the item in front of the right buyer.

Even if an item is valuable, you may not be able to sell it at an on-site estate sale easily, the online selling option may be a better route to take in order to fetch good value for your estate sale client.

Don’t guess the price!  Rely on a professional that’s experienced in primitive art to establish a price if you suspect you’re holding a valuable object.

Art museums, dealers, and resellers score underpriced ethnographic art objects often.

As an estate sale professional, your job is to fetch the highest price possible for your client.  Due diligence and proper identification is a must.

Selling Ethnographic Art

A local dealer may be willing to pay you a good price for certain items, and it’s much more than you would fetch at an estate sale because they have specific collectors that will buy it from them.

The odds of a particular collector showing up at the estate sale and paying a high price for the item is quite rare.

Consider listing smaller sized items online to reach collectors worldwide.

Advertising the estate sale via social media may also get you the attention you need to sell such unique items.

Ethnographic art collectors are quite passionate and do search the internet to find their next prize.

In Summary

As an estate sale professional, your job is to empty the home in a matter of days, over the course of holding estate sales, you will gain a lot of experience on various types of items.

The common everyday items are easy to price based on comparisons, however when it comes to special items such as gemstones in estate jewelry, and tribal art items, it’s quite difficult to gain that experience if you aren’t regularly selling those items or have an independent experience relating to these types of items.

This type of art is even more difficult to study because there are so many regions and variations, but you don’t want to leave money on the table by under or overpricing estate sale items.

In this case, you have no choice but to build a good contact list, and a large library of reference books to rely on.

Expand Your Knowledge

Use online research tools such as Google Images, and Google search to further educate yourself.  Begin by searching for art by region to get comfortable with the different styles.

At a minimum, learn to differentiate the different types of cultural art by region.

How EstateSales.org Can Help?

We brought the professionals in the estate sale industry together in one platform for you to rely on.  Visit our private Facebook Group dedicated to the estate sale and auction professionals.  Ask them by posting a picture.

Want to reach a wider audience?  List your sale online with us and reach other areas beyond your local area.

Sell your item online via our online estate sale auction where you can reach avid collectors worldwide that are looking for specific items in the ethnographic primitive art category.