The mask might have been Michael Sinelli’s first, but one was all it took for a decades-long passion to begin.
Sinelli was on a trip with his wife in Mexico when their bus stopped by the highway. Sinelli noticed locals selling folk art and he spotted a Cortes Mask from a Conquest Dance Drama. He liked it, so he bought it.
“I so loved that mask that every time we went back to Mexico I pursued masks,” he said.
Almost 30 years later, Sinelli’s collection of Central American tribal dance masks now nears 40 pieces. Many will be featured at the Bloomfield Township Public Library this October.
On display will be small masks – one is about six inches tall – Sinelli said it was probably for a child celebrating Carnaval in Mexico – to giant masks used for the Dance of the Giants.
There’s also a few Day of the Dead masks, some resembling those worn by Mexican wrestlers when they enter the ring.
This will be the first time Sinelli has these items on display, at least in a library. Anyone who visited his Birmingham home – he and wife recently moved to a condo in Bloomfield Hills – saw the masks around the walls of his living room, with the African masks in the living room.
“I think it’s nice to finally be able to share them with the public,” Sinelli said.
He’s shared other collections with the public recently, including his collection of Caldecott award-winning children’s books at the library in February.
That collection has over 600 items and is full of first printing, first editions, and began after Sinelli read a book review on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
What caught his eye was a particular review about the illustrator, who studied the physical anatomy of dwarves to complete the illustrations.
“It started my road to ruin,” he laughed. “Here I am, a full, grown, male adult buying children’s books for the artwork. Who does that? Well, there are a lot of people who do that.”
Like those hoping to collect Caldecott Medal winners. Last time he checked, Sinelli had eight Caldecott gold medal winners and around 15 silver winners.
Even though it’s great to have award-winning items in his collections, to him collecting is more about the beauty in the items. He collects everything from photographic portraits, with a collection in the thousands, to musical instruments and ethnographic art pieces.
“It’s nice to feather your nest with beautiful things, whatever that beautiful thing is to you,” he said.
Sinelli – who began collecting as a child during trips to the antique shop with his mother, who collected Victorian Brilliant Period Glass – emphasized that point again and again: collect what you love.
“Start with what grabs you, what moves you, what sings to you,” Sinelli said.
Also, do lots of research if you’re going to start collecting, that way you can find items everywhere. Sinelli said items worth finding are everywhere, not just at antique shops.
One of his most recent finds is a perfect example. While in central Michigan, Sinelli found a Steuben Glass cup for 50 cents in a thrift shop. Now, he drinks water out of it.
“I often tell friends who collect that you never buy a piece of glass or china from someone who specializes in it because you’re going to pay too much for it,” he said. “You want to know what it is...you want to find that plate at a store that sells fishing gear.”
Photo: Laurie Tennent