wood carving of a horse head from India
October 2, 2011 12:58 PM   Subscribe

My friend just bought a wood carving of a horse head (Pictures: 1, 2, 3, 4). It's supposedly from India and about 200-300 years old. Furthermore, the seller told us people used to hang them in pairs on the sides of their door as a status symbol (hence the wrought iron nail through the chest).

We can't seem to find any information about it though. Has anyone of you ever seen something like this? And if so, can you tell us what it is?

Any information would be appreciated.
posted by mahershalal to Media & Arts (5 answers total)
India has workshops that "antique" recently carved items and sell them to people keen on old stuff, just saying. I know this because I had friends who ran an import business and were well aware of the techniques.
posted by zadcat at 1:05 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Mmm-hmmm..." That's the noise that I start with as a long-time antique dealer and former auction house appraiser who'd see such things brought in and hear such stories told. Though Asian Art is not my area of expertise, I worked along side our auction house's experts and with a few dealers, and if I were at an estate or road show and I had to collect the information and photos to pass to the expert in that department to appraise, I'd consider what I know as much as what I've been told. Then, I'd ask questions gently: "Okay, and where did he purchase this?" "And, what exactly does the receipt say?" and "What were the terms of the sale?" "Any chance the dealer mentioned any provenance - where he got it from?"

Because I would bet that if there was a receipt (which, likely, there wouldn't be for a cash deal - which is how these things are done) it will not say anything as specific as even "circa 1710-1810". If it came from an auction house, the information would be there in the catalogue, and on the receipt; and you could ask the head of the department anything. It's only as good as what is in writing.

Because, you see, you aren't supposed to export antiques from India. So, when and how did it come to be there? There are very few registered antiques dealers there with well-documented antiques, yet somehow the world is full of imported Indian things that may or may not be antiques. Their rules are pretty strict.

But doing some detective work and considering lots of things, don't forget, that was also a tumultuous, pre-industrial time in that country. And, say, looking at the few images of homes from that time that are available online don't prove the claim that was made about its purpose, though they don't deny it...it's just not something that is featured enough to become referenced. If you were to look at other East Indian horses, this style is close...ish... buuuut....

So, say he is indeed an old "rafter tail", then look at the item itself. What tools made it? Are there any modern tool marks like a drill or dremel could make? Why is it SO worn, when other, similar things have survived in better condition?

It's a lot to ponder. I'm not saying I know; I'm saying, it doesn't necessarily ring true and in poking around to write this, nothing said "jackpot". I'd say send the images to an auction house that has an Asian Arts Department (like Waddington's here in Toronto). They can give a verbal opinion at no cost or obligation, usually.
posted by peagood at 3:32 PM on October 2, 2011 [6 favorites]

Anything that is over 100 years old is, in effect, banned from being exported from India by law (thanks to Google - The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972). Such export is very tightly regulated and the chances of getting a genuine antique - without also having all the necessary information already with it in a glossy catalogue - are virtually nonexistent.

Regardless of whether it is a genuine antique, it is possible that the rest of the story of how these sort of things were used is true. I'd suggest approaching the closest museum or university department that has some expertise in Indian art. Good luck!
posted by vidur at 4:38 PM on October 2, 2011

Best answer: Ack, and I forgot to mention this: The patina is all wrong, unless there's some viable reason due to how it's been stored since it was removed as an architectural artifact. It's evenly worn all over, front and both sides, top and bottom - inside the mouth and under the chin... and strangely shiny and dark on the protruding knobby thingy that would most likely have been bashed or chipped over time - unless that's been touched often while it was hanging, and the oil from peoples' hands has made it dark. Regardless of that, the wear is too even, especially including the back. That's just wrong. Unless the side not shown, the underneath in this picture, is radically different, telling me it was laying on that side for some of those hundreds of years taking all of that "aging" - an item hanging next to a door or even on a rafter would have different wear patterns, most significantly there being a difference in the parts that were not as exposed. That's just common sense, not antique dealer hoodoo.
posted by peagood at 6:50 PM on October 2, 2011

An indian artefact of that age may have been taken home as a souveneir but a Brit prior to the export ban, fwiw. They weren't exactly delicate about grabbing what they fancied at that point in history.

That said, peagood's appraisal of the overall bad state of the item rings true to me. And why is that big nail at the back bent over so neatly? If it were nailed into a rafter to hold it in place, it would either be straight or not there at all.
posted by Jilder at 8:10 PM on October 2, 2011

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