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How To Identify African Wood Carvings

African wood carvings are prized collector’s items; they are esteemed throughout the world, and adorn the shelves of museums and private collections all over the world. The trouble is knowing how to identify African wood carving that are original and authentic, so as not to fall victim to the fakes and imitators.

Regardless of whether one is paying a fortune for a supposed ancient piece of craft for the purpose of reselling later at a profit, or whether one is paying small change for something which will serve as a piece of decoration in one’s living room, the objective is the same- to ensure that the piece is really what they say it is.

How To Identify African Wood Carvings

African wood carvings have several markers with which they can easily be identified. An untrained eye may even be able to tell them apart from the wood carvings made in similar times, just by observing them closely.

However, to really identify the carving, and to satisfy oneself about its authenticity; the following are the things that you should look out for.

Examining Possible Uses Of The Carving

Ancient African wood carvings were rarely ornamental; they served practical purposes; sometimes in religious rites and celebrations, other times in warfare, and other times domestic purposes. Even the carved ivories were not altogether ornamental; they told you that you were in the presence of royalty.

Therefore; when presented with an item said to be an ancient piece of cultural heritage; it is important to ask oneself what role said item must have played in the culture. It is not a bad idea to directly ask the seller; “what was this used for?”

If no clear use is given, then it may be better to keep one’s suspicions very high.

Look Beyond What Is Shown

Wood carvings tend to have this polished, sparkling appearance on the front side; there is nothing wrong with this. But it is foolish to expect the glitter on the backside, or underside of the carving. For example a wooden mask may be shiny on the front side; but an artifact that has endured years of use in warfare, or ceremonial displays cannot have such a glitter on the downside.

When you factor in the fact that said item must have also exchanged hands several times, and must traveled from country to country before finally becoming available for purchase; you therefore expect to find a well-worn underside.

The same rule applies to statutes, idols, and venerated items, although the points of concern shifts to the base; where the item meets the ground.

 Understanding The Tribal Carvings

Every region in Africa has a type of wood carving or art with which it is usually associated, and with which it can be identified. Therefore when presented with a carving one should be told where it was found, and at what time.

A look at the features of the said carving should make it easier to identify the carving, as to whether it has the expected details of artwork coming from that particular region.

For example; among the Ashantis and Fantis of Ghana; statuettes are carried on the backs of young women who are expecting to become mothers. These small dolls are thought to promote fertility.

Even though there are many interpretations to this tribal carving, the general consensus is that they are maternal carvings. They usually have flattened and round heads, and outstretched arms like a mother reaching out to embrace her children.

Please be advised that these are highly valued family heirlooms; therefore you are more likely to stumble upon a mass produced copy rather than an original. Therefore, one must look for the signs of authenticity as stipulated in the subheadings above; such as looking at the underside for signs of wear.

Another important thing to keep in mind is the type of wood used.

Types Of Wood Used In African Carvings

Despite being attributed to having a distinct lack of technology, Africa has understood wood for generations. For example; while drums, flutes and balafons are made of softwoods which resonate sound beautifully, statutes, furniture, and masks are usually made of hardwood which can last forever.

Therefore, when buying a traditional African carving, it is important to know exactly what you are buying.

Types of wood mostly used include Iroko, Mahogany, and Ebony. These woods are known for their high density; the slow growing trees have the grains of the wood tightly packed together, and thus able to withstand heavy usage for many years.

If you find a wooden sculpture made of mango wood for instance; it is most likely a fake because mango was reportedly cultivated for the first time in Africa at around 1830 when it came from India.

However, depending on the age of the carving in particular it could well be authentic. It is important that even if a carving is originally an heirloom; used for religious or ceremonial purposes, it should at least be dated correctly.

It is therefore necessary gain some level of expertise in the types of wood such as Teak, Iroko, Mahogany and Ebony; so as to be able to recognize them, so that one can easily recognize quality African carvings, rather than fall victim to liars and crooks.

Have A General Knowledge Of African Carvings

Before venturing to pay money for any African carving it is important to have spent enough time studying them. A true opportunity will come; but it will most likely come to the person who appreciates African wood carvings, rather than the person who is only seeking for a business opportunity.

A lover of African carvings will in time develop a sixth sense; an intuitive knowledge of what genuine wood carvings from the continent look and feel like. Having acquired this skill; it is a lot easier to spot opportunity to make a bargain, and to avoid paying a lot of money for wooden junk.



Knowing how to identify African wood carvings comes down to a few factors; understanding wood quality; knowing the style of wood carvings predominant to each region, and understanding how they change from region to region.

It is very important to know how to spot a wood carving that was only recently made, as against an authentic item that was made centuries ago, by examining for signs of wear.

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