"As a collector, I can offer this advice: buy the best that you can afford rather than look for bargains. There's no point in accumulating lesser quality works." Mort Dimondstein
"Rule Number 1. Any artifact purchased as a bargain is by definition a fake." Michael Hamson
Buying authentic tribal art always involves risk. Established dealers, vetted fairs and appraised auctions are safer and more regulated than unknown or uncontrolled sources but they are still not risk free. Buying on the internet has disadvantages but the level of risk can be greatly reduced by using common sense.
The greatest disadvantage of the internet is that photographs and limited descriptions must substitute for the physical handling of objects and face to face conversation with the seller. But traditional galleries also have problems and disadvantages: unwelcoming, uncommunicative owners and intimidating atmospheres are hardly unknown.
Buying on the internet demands a different approach. The following considerations can help minimize the risks.
The points are obvious, especially in hindsight.
Always be honest with yourself about your knowledge, awareness of the market, collecting experience, financial resources and motivation.
Take your time. Ignore the nagging feeling that other collectors are looking at the same piece at the same time. Never rush into a sale.
Does photographic resolution allow for detailed examination? Are all sides of the piece shown? Is there a close up view? If the photographs are of poor quality and the views limited then there is every reason to mistrust the dealer and suspect the piece.
Copy the photographs and run them through a few changes in your photo programme: sometimes things show up that you hadn’t noticed.
Look at the piece objectively. Determine its quality by evaluating likely authenticity, condition, aesthetics, special attributes and signs of age with regard to cultural use and context.
How accurate or full is the given description? Is it merely copied from a well-know reference book or a reputable website?
Is the piece a good example of its kind? Is it too much of a bargain? Is the piece of a type that is commonly copied and reproduced? Does the piece look like an amalgam of styles?
Examine the dealer’s other pieces. What is your feeling about the overall quality, description and presentation of the objects?
Compare the piece to as many others of its type that you can find. Try and find a better example on a reputable site. Does the piece under consideration still look good? If not, why not?
Research and comparison is especially important if the type of piece or its originating culture is new to you.
Is the price given? Is it reasonable? Is there a similar piece on another site? Why is it more/less expensive?
Be reasonably patient if you have to email for a price. Remember time differences.
What terms are used by the dealer to describe the object? Any given description is bound by trade description legislation in
Remember that buying on the internet gives the same rights as buying in a shop. Legally there is no such thing as caveat emptor: it is not a seller's defence against misdescription.
Examine the veracity of any provenance. Pay no attention to vague phrases such as ‘From an old, established collection.’ or ‘Bought at a well-known auction house.’ It might be true but it counts for nothing: dealers should state provenance in detail or make no mention of it. Dealers should not use provenance as a lure. Be especially suspicious of provenance ‘being released’ - or some such phrase - after the sale.
If the provenance is attractive don’t allow it to affect your appraisal of the piece on its own terms.
Is the dealer known to you? Have you bought from them before? Should you be buying from them again?
Does the website give a physical address, fax number and/or telephone number?
What reputation does the gallery or individual have? Can you find out? Are they members of a trade organization? Does it exist? Run the gallery name through a search engine and see what comes up.
How did you find the gallery? Was it on the first few pages of a search or on page 20? Web presence is not everything but it is a sign of traffic which tends to mean returning interest. If you found it via a link do you trust the referrer?
Does the dealer operate a sales policy? Some reputable galleries don’t, but they should. Is the policy clear and detailed and fair to both sides, especially with regard to shipping costs, viewing period, payment method and returns procedure, including costs of return?
What secure payment methods are offered?
Does the gallery carry a privacy statement?
If the gallery has a links page check the links out and see if they are reciprocal.
Is there a posted list of references from happy buyers? Always a bad sign.
Does the dealer also trade on eBay? Look at their feedback score.
Has the piece been on the dealer’s site for some time? What reasons might there be?
Sometimes you might think that the dealer knows less than you. You might think that the piece is wrongly attributed or that something of importance has been missed. It does happen but most times it doesn’t mean much and sometimes – especially on an auction site - it is a ploy.
Make your judgement. Come to a conclusion and make a decision. Remember that the asking price is often negotiable. If you don’t buy it then save the money towards a better piece.
Always remember that good dealers regularly have unfortunate experiences with bad buyers. Developing a trusting on-line relationship requires clarity, consistency and courtesy on both sides. Good dealers value good buyers.