As a boy, when Indiana farmers did their spring plowing, Rob Morgan would do some harvesting—his crop, Indian arrow points, turned up in the fields by the plow blade. That boyhood interest spread to Native American arts and crafts and to those made by early Central and South American indigenous people.
“One of the great appeals of these pieces is that while they were made for utilitarian purposes—to hold things or to be sharp—they are also beautiful They’d take a piece of flint or bone and make something artful and useful out of it,” said Morgan, who is WorthPoint’s Indiana Jones or at least its expert on pre-Columbian and Native American collectibles and antiques.
Tripod bowl with rattle legs from the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, located circa 1950
What started as a boyhood hunt, led Morgan in college to take courses in anthropology, and materials and methods of primitive art. What Morgan learned was that there were strong commonalities among indigenous cultures.
“In primitive societies, the needs were pretty much the same—food, clothing, shelter,” Morgan said, “and depending upon how they were able to organize socially, you have simpler or more complex pieces.”
Decoration also cuts across time and geography. “There is a universality of symbols and shapes that are used time and again. There are a lot of circles, crosses and spirals.” Many of these primitive symbols point toward the same thing—man trying to understand his world and the forces in it.
Small pre-Columbian Mayan portrait vase depicting an old god, or the god of fire, in reddish buff terra cotta
The same is true for many other ancient items. “A stone ax made a thousand years ago in North America and one made in South America are virtually identical,” Morgan said.
It begins to get interesting as cultures mature and circumstances promote the development of more advanced and permanent civilization. With civilization, you begin to see broadly held beliefs—religion, for instance—manifest itself in the “Art” of the society.
While once collecting Native American, Central American and South American art might have required trekking jungles, climbing into tombs and excavating lost cities, eBay has made it a lot easier. “Right now, there is a lot of art out there, and it is having the effect of diluting prices generally,” Morgan said. “If you study and know what to look for, you can find very good values. You also need to have some idea of the origin of pieces.”
With indigenous and historical art, this is a very big issue. “There is a moral dilemma in collecting material that you don’t face in collecting furniture or a piece of china,” Morgan said.
Some of the material popping up on the Internet is coming from, what Morgan calls, “the cleaning out of America’s attic.” These are pieces that a father or grandfather may have picked up in their travels. But then there are pieces that may come from looting and illicit trade.
Votive sculpture heads from the region of Teotihuacan, often broken and placed in fields to ensure fertility
“Authentication is a big issue,” Morgan said. “Can you establish that it has been in a collection for a number of years?” Another way of protecting oneself is to work through reputable online auction houses. “What we are striving for is an honest and open market,” Morgan said.
A careful and knowledgeable collector will also be alert to warning signs about certain pieces. For example, Morgan said that the most durable items tend to be ceramic, or made of stone or bone. “You can find pre-Columbian as far back as a couple of thousand years.” But when less durable items, such as woven baskets, wooden pieces, come on the market, a buyer should beware. It is more likely that these are freshly excavated. “It is no secret that a lot of sites in Peru are still being dug,” Morgan said.
Although the term pre-Columbian art denotes any object before 1492, the most widely collected period is from about 1800 B.C. to 1500 A.D. and includes the well-known cultures of Mexico, Central and South America, including the Maya, Aztec, Moche and Inca.
Small tripod bowl with alligator legs from the Chiriqui region of Costa Rica
There remain great opportunities for building a collection of striking and antique pieces, Morgan said. “These cultures are fascinating and well worth learning about. And if you know what you are looking at and are dogged, you can get value.” If you don’t want to become an expert, Morgan advises working with a reputable dealer or auction house.
“There are so many cultures, so many forms, the first thing to do is to try specializing and do your best to understand that culture, the specifics forms of ceramics that they produced,” Morgan said.
Bowl from Guanacaste province, Costa Rica, with human-effigy supports
Starting out doesn’t take huge amounts of money. There are small antique pieces—a small bowl that can be gotten for as low as $50. Decent ceramic starter pieces may run $200 to $300. “Don’t worry about a little damage, these pieces are old, and little wear or a couple of chips are perfectly acceptable”
“One of the misconceptions is that this art is ridiculously expensive, but it isn’t,” Morgan said. “It really depends on how much someone works at it. It truly is a treasure hunt, and the rewards can be big for the learned and determined collector.”