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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals MagazineTribal Art > Feature: Pre-Columbian Art


Capturing the mystique of ancient artifacts

A representation of Huehueteotl, the wind god, circa 500-700

A representation of Huehueteotl, the wind god, circa 500-700 A.D.

The term "Pre-Columbian art" encompasses the entire oeuvre of the Western Hemisphere over a time span of 5,000 years.  The most commonly recognized examples from the (relatively brief) Inca civilization, the Maya culture of Mexico and Guatemala, and the various cultures of west Mexico only hint at this monumental collecting category.

Dig a little deeper, and you'll find metallurgy, textiles, ceramics, and wood and stone carvings from around 3,500 B.C. (the earliest known art forms, created by the Valdavia culture on the Ecuadorian coast) to the coming of Christopher Columbus.

Most of the cultures involved were animistic, believing that everything in nature was imbued with a soul or spirit.  They favored ornamentation in body painting and tattooing as well as decorating palaces, temples, and homes.

Art objects could be simultaneously utilitarian and spiritual; for example, a ceramic vessel made by the Mayan culture in Guatemala in the 6th century could be used in daily life and later placed in the tomb for use in the afterlife.  Western Mexican ceramic sculptures of females could represent either servants or concubines in the afterlife; the familiar burnished terra cotta Colima dogs (representing the Mexican hairless dog, bred as food) were often placed in tombs as fodder for the great beyond.


Fodder for the afterlife terra cotta Colima dog, circa 700 B.C. - 200 A.D.

The missionaries who arrived with Columbus destroyed a vast number of important pieces of this "pagan idolatry" in the name of Christianity. Surviving art runs the gamut from abstract to spiritual and mythological imagery to the pictorial rendering of historic events (a marriage, a birthing scene, scenes of war, or everyday occurrences).

The subject of Pre-Columbian artefacts is vast - experts need to have a grounding in Tribal Art, as well as the aspects that influenced it - Inca, Mayan, Mexican, as well as its later influences: Spanish, Christian, etc.

Next Page: Let's examine the subject of collecting Pre-Columbian art:

For price comparables, we recommend several reference books, to the right, as well as back issues of Christie's and Sotheby's auction catalogues for Pre-Columbian sales. When a catalogue is first issued, it will list an estimate; approximately a month after the auction you can get a "prices realized" list.




Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica
by John Clark

Maya Art and Architecture
by Mary Ellen Miller

Star Gods of the Maya:
Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars

by Susan Milbrath

The Maya:
Life, Myth and Art

by Timothy Laughton

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec
by Mary Ellen Miller

Art of the Andes:
From Chavin to Inca

by Rebecca Stone-Miller

Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World:
Ancient American Sources of Modern Art

by Barbara Braun

Pre-Columbian Art
by Esther Pasztory

Designs from Pre-Columbian Mexico
by Jorge Enciso

Ancient Peruvian Art:
An Annotated Bibliography

by Helaine Silverman

A Guide to Pre-Columbian Art
by Jean Paul Barbier

Pre-Columbian Art:
Investigations and Insights

by Hildegard Delgado Pang

The Official Guide to Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations
by Alex G. Malloy, Harmer Johnson

Searching for Ancient Egypt : Art, Architecture, and Artifacts from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
by University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology