When we began collecting Taiwanese aboriginal art, we didn’t ask ourselves many questions—our newfound passion outweighed reason. This didn’t last for long, fortunately, as it became obvious that we had to be particularly careful about quality.
By quality, we are talking not only about esthetic value, but also the rarity and provenance of each objects.
The real thing?
Authenticity is another critical issue in collecting Taiwanese aboriginal art. Aboriginal Taiwanese art is not necessarily well known as other forms of ethnic art, such as that from Africa or Oceania, so there are greater reasons for caution. How to define the authenticity of an object from the aboriginal people of Taiwan? One criterion is that the object must have formerly been used in a traditional context. Objects may have been initially borrowed from other cultures but must later have been adapted by the Taiwan aborigines. As traditions have largely disappeared, two significant dates are used to identify and evaluate the authenticity. The first of these is the departure of the Japanese from Taiwan in 1945. This does not mean that artifacts made after 1945 are inauthentic, but these objects have to be considered with the utmost caution. The second date is the beginning of the 1970s, a turning point in aboriginal life as the last roads linking the most remote villages were opened. That was the period when the last authentic old objects came down from the mountains.
The Tourist Trade
Objects made since the 1970s should be described as either contemporary art, with artworks signed and easily attributed to a named aboriginal artist, or as craftsmanship made for tourists or aborigines and characterized as a revival of traditions in a quest for local identity. The costumes, ornaments and accessories used in tourist shows have resulted in a ‘folklorization’ that has frustrated collectors with fakes made in Taiwan or abroad.
Taiwanese aboriginal art attracted early the interest of the Japanese colonial authorities. In order to develop the island at all levels and better control the Austronesians, the Japanese colonial administration imposed many changes. Aborigines were relocated from remote villages to new and easily accessible ones. Schools were set up and doctors were sent into aboriginal communities..
The mostly hunter/gatherer societies were gradually becoming sedentary and converted to modern agriculture. In the same spirit, the Japanese encouraged the development of craftsmanship as a basis for trade. As a result, in the 1930s and 40s, aboriginal artists began to produce craftwork for Japanese tourists and long term residents, very often police officers, teachers, civil servants who wanted to possess colonial souvenirs.
This is the first period of ‘fakery’, and these objects are sometimes of high quality, created by the master carvers of the time. Despite the fact that their styles were traditional, such artifacts were made for sale to outsiders. It is quite common to see these kinds of artifacts brought back from Japan these days, and they are not easy to distinguish from authentic pieces, but usually there is some proof of the fact that they were not intended for tribal use.
The second period of fakes is from the 1950s to 1960s when many United States military and advisory personnel were stationed on the island. They were a good consumer market for lower quality aboriginal artifacts, which, although not industrially produced, were nevertheless fakes. These objects are usually easier to discover as the style is ‘decadent’ and often betray a mix of different tribal styles.
Burnished to look old
The third period of fakes began in the 1970s, when the last roads linking even the most remote villages were constructed. Han Chinese in Taiwan began a rediscovery of their insular roots and developed a cultural movement of localization in opposition to the Sinicization of the post Chinese Civil War migrants.
In the process, a few private Taiwanese collectors of aboriginal artifacts emerged. Buying for their own collection or to resell at a profit, they created the demand and supply, thus igniting a small industry of fakes to compensate for the scarcity of authentic objects. Inspired by real artworks displayed in reference books, these new fakes were of good quality.
These were often burnished to look old and authentic and require the most critical discernment since it has now been 30 years that they have been produced and they have acquired the effects of natural age and patina.
The best way to identify these objects is to cultivate an experienced eye. It is strongly advised to be versed in the greatest number of books on the subject and see as many pictures of artworks as possible on the Internet or in museums. Even the best and most experienced eye can make mistakes. It is impossible to always be 100% sure, and it is well known that even the most prestigious museums have inadvertently purchased fakes. In this collection, we have tried our best to minimize the risk of mistaken authenticity.