Discover Vintage America - AUGUST 2018

Buy royal commemoratives for love not value

Q: I am helping my friend get rid of some items because his mom died and there are some things I really have no idea what to do with. I am planning on starting an on-line store but he has masks from New Guinea that his dad got during WWII that is still bloody. I believe it is a genuine cannibal mask. Whenever we get anywhere near it you can feel a very negative vibe. Where do I even start?


A:  Shields bearing a large wooden face or mask, were commonly made by the Iatmul people of the Tambanum Village, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. The shields were erected in the center of the prow of large war canoes that were used in inter-village tribal wars. These wars took place along the middle and upper reaches of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. The canoes carried 20 to 30 warriors each with all of them paddling, and their spears at the ready as they went out on headhunting raids, which often resulted in battles on the water. The function of the canoe shield was to protect paddlers and warriors from the enemy spears.

The Germans established colonial posts in the lower Sepik River before World War I, effectively stopping these large-scale canoe raids, and the Australians, set up the small township of Ambunti in 1924, accomplished the same in the upper Sepik.

These canoe shields consisted of tough pieces of sago (a type of palm) spathe fixed to a tripartite frame of thick rattan, suggestive of a bird of prey descending with half-opened wings or a man with raised arms. The sago spathe was usually painted in a white pigment, with two large, black circles either side of the centrally affixed wooden mask. This whole protective and fear-inducing form was edged with thick cassowary feathers.

The Oceanic specialist Chris Boylan notes that the name of the canoe shield is Bowi Sabi and that the mask-like face is called Sabi (sometimes pronounced 'savi'). Scholars suggest that the canoe shields gave magical protection to the occupants of the canoe. Boylan was informed that the Sabi mask from this area (Tambanum) represents a powerful spirit called Sekundami, one of the most powerful of all Sepik spirit types, generally known as Waken spirits.

The canoe shield was mounted on cane legs, set into holes in the prow and reached almost to chest height. A strong and brave warrior would position himself immediately behind the shield, holding a paddle to knock away the on-coming enemy spears aimed at the standing paddlers in the canoe.

Most important, Boylan was informed, this warrior must also deflect any spears away from the mask, the Sabi. If the mask was hit by a spear it meant disaster and the attack was immediately called off and the crews of warriors retreated.

I do not think that this is a replica as you can see the marks left by carving the shield, more so on the inside than out. There are a large number of fakes on the market so look at the colors, look for tool marks and look for pieces of the old straw decoration.

As to the resale price, I put it in the $2,000 - $2,500 range. If it still had all of the decoration the value would increase by at least $1,000.

Note: All prices given are for sale in a private sale, antique shop or other resale outlet. Price is also dependent upon the geographic area in which you are selling. Auction value, selling to a dealer or pawnshop prices are about half or less of resale value.

Michelle Staley is a Lenexa, KS-based dealer and researcher with 35 years of experience in the antique trade. Send questions with photos to Michelle to Please keep queries to one question; questions without photos of the item may not be answered. Michelle is also available for consulting and extensive research work beyond this column. If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to for a one-on-one appraisal.