How to value an African headrest

Dori RootenbergWhen a Shona headrest sold at a Suffolk auctioneers for £23,000 this summer it confirmed the strength of the tribal art sector. Antique Collecting asked New York expert Dori Rootenberg whether the market had come to a head

Q. What are the origins of Shona headrests, what geographical area are we referring to?

A. The Shona people are generally found in modern day Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia. Most southern African tribes used headrests, including the Zulu, Tsonga-Shangaan people etc. Due to wars, there was much migration. Also, many of the people were pastoralists or raised cattle and moved regularly. Thus, it is not easy to always have a clear distinction between the different ethnic groups.

Shona headrestWe do not know the exact origins of the headrests, however, it is assumed that sub-Saharan headrests followed the Egyptian tradition. Egyptian examples survived because they were made stone, unlike African headrests which were almost always made of wood. They were susceptible to the wetter sub-Saharan climate and the prevalence of termites.

Q. How can you age a headrest?

A. Most of the authentic headrests being sold at auction date from the late 19th century to first quarter of the 20th century. They are aged as follows:

Carefully noting the style and the patina. Comparing to similar examples in books and museums that have documented collection dates. Occasionally, a headrest may actually have a collection date or we know who collected the headrest and when he/she was in southern Africa. A fine example of this is our headrest from the Rev. AA Jaques, a Swiss missionary who was in southern Africa in the 19th century.

 Q. What is the collector looking for in acquiring a headrest? What makes one worth, say, £2,000 while another will go for £23,000?

 A. The most important factors are:



Patina – collectors like evidence of use

Good provenance (although this is rare to have)

Rarity (some types are more common than others)

Figurative element – if the headrest incorporates an animal or human element, it can add value compared to a purely non-figurative example.

This is an excerpt from a full article taken from the September issue of Antique Collecting. To read the full article take a look at our subscription options in both print and digital.

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