NEW YORK – Pre-Columbian art is a collective term that describes the architecture, art and crafts of the native peoples of North, South and Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean dating from the second millennium B.C. to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and subsequent European conquests of the early 16th century. That’s a broad swath of history, not just in terms of time but geography as well; Pre-Columbian art was produced from Chile up to what is now New Mexico.
Since many Pre-Columbian cultures didn’t have writing systems, they used visual art to express their views of the cosmos, religion, philosophy and the world. They produced a wide array of visual arts, to include painting on textiles, hides, rock and cave surfaces, bodies (especially faces), ceramics, and architectural features (including interior murals, wood panels and other available surfaces). Fortunately, many of these artifacts survive and are highly collectible today.
The Pre-Columbian cultures included the following:
- The Olmec civilization, which flourished around 500-400 B.C. They produced jade figurines and created heavy-featured colossal heads, 6½ feet tall, that still stand today.
- The Mayans (circa 200-950 A.D.), whose art focused on rain, agriculture and fertility, in images in relief and surface decoration, plus sculpture, often with hieroglyphic text.
- The Toltecs, a culture that dominated the Post-Classic period (10th-12th centuries A.D.). They built huge, block-like sculptures, like the freestanding columns at Tula, Mexico.
- The Mixtecs, who developed a style of painting called Mixtec-Puebla, as seen in their murals and manuscripts, where all space is covered by flat figures in geometric designs.
- The Aztec culture in Mexico, which produced dramatically expressive artworks, such as the decorated skulls of captives and stone sculpture; naturalism was a recurring theme.
- The Chavin culture (1000 B.C. to 300 B.C.), which produced small-scale pottery, often human in shape with animal features (especially jaguars), spectacular murals and carvings.
- The Paracas culture, also of Peru, most noted today for their elaborate textiles, some as long as 90 feet, which were primarily used for burial wraps for Paracas mummy bundles.
- The Nazca people (A.D. 200 to the mid-eighth century), whose ceramics depicted abstract animal and human motifs, some of the most beautiful polychrome ceramics in the Andes.
- The Moche, who flourished about A.D. 100-800 and were among the best artisans of the Pre-Columbian world, producing delightful portrait vases, metallurgy and architecture.
- The Wari (or Huari) Empire, in the Andes region, noted for their stone architecture and sculpture, but best known for their large ceramics, many depicting the Andes staff god.
- The Tiwanaku Empire, in what is now Bolivia (A.D. 375 to A.D. 700), famous for its Gate of the Sun, which depicts a large image of the staff god flanked by religious symbols.
- The Chimu people of Peru (A.D. 700 to A.D. 900), who produced excellent portrait and decorative works in metal (some in gold but mostly silver); also known for featherwork.
- The Inca Empire in Peru, which produced many gold and silver sculptures, large ceramic vessels covered in geometric designs and tunics and textiles containing similar motifs.
Bob Dodge, founding director of Artemis Gallery Ancient Art in Louisville, Colorado, said Pre-Columbian art appeals to a large segment of the art and antique collecting universe. “For many, Pre-Columbian art complements their antiquities, ethnographic/tribal objects and even modern art,” he said. “There are examples, such as ceramics from the Chavin culture of Peru, dating to around 900 B.C., that one would swear is Cubist and inspired Picasso. And who knows, maybe it did.”
Of course, Dodge said, other collectors specialize exclusively in Pre-Columbian art. “The reasons are many,” he said, “but in conversations I’ve had with collectors, something I often hear is, ‘Classical antiquities are refined but Pre-Columbian art is powerful.’”
The fact is, Pre-Columbian art varies dramatically from region to region. “Objects from the Mayan region are completely unique from objects found in western Mexico,” Dodge observed. “Peruvian objects are dissimilar to pieces found in Colombia or Ecuador – but in every region of the Western hemisphere one can find objects that showed every bit of artistic skill that you would see in the finest Egyptian, Greek or Roman antiquity.”
Dodge continued, “The subjects and emotions found in every art style – love, hate, fear, sex/eroticism, religion, death, birth and even a profound sense of humor – can be seen in Pre-Columbian art. They are just shown in a different style than we were used to from the ‘Western’ cultures.”
And, he said, affordability is and always has been a big advantage of collecting Pre-Columbian art versus classical antiquities. “While masterpieces of Pre-Columbian art can fetch six figures at major auction houses, one can still find superb examples under $10,000 and build an impressive collection while never paying more than $2,000 per piece. There are pieces in my personal collection that I acquired for under $1,000 that are among my all-time favorites.”
Like with many genres of collectible, there are trends in collection interest in Pre-Columbian art. “It seems some of the Peruvian cultures, Chavin in particular, are quite hot,” Dodge reported. “The Chavin of northern Peru are one of the earlier cultures found in the Pre-Columbian world. They descended into the Moche, who ultimately descended into the Inca – of course conquered by the Spanish around 1532. Other Peruvian cultures like the Chancay and Nazca are also seeing increased interest of late. We also find objects of jade being eagerly sought-after with much interest coming from collectors in China.”
Dodge said certain regions are always in high demand. “Maya ceramics are always in style, as are good examples from the regions of Colima in Mexico, Cocle in Panama, Inca from Peru, Aztec from central Mexico, stone objects from Veracruz and gold and silver from any region.”
As for market demand for Pre-Columbian art (as well as most forms of ancient art over the last five to 10 years) has been steady, Dodge said, but attributed much of that to his gallery’s growth and expansion. “Sadly,” he said, “I think the trend for the foreseeable future is a steady decline as the collector base ages. The typical collector is over 60 years old – with the average age certainly in the 70s. These older buyers are not being replaced with a younger buyer – at least not right now.”
Dodge added, “What we have seen is that typically younger people today have the resources to buy, just not the interest. They prefer experiences to objects. They aren’t looking to fill their houses up with pieces of art or history. We have obtained literally hundreds of collections where the owner has died and the surviving children have no interest in anything in the collection. We find it sad, and not just from a potential revenue perspective.”
Anyone considering collecting Pre-Columbian art need to be mindful that condition reports for just about any object are essential. This is especially true for ceramics, but even applies to stone pieces.