Tribal Goes Global

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Tribal Goes Global

Despite the relative newness of the category, the market for tribal art is increasingly mirroring that of Old Master paintings: A soft and difficult middle market is offset by rarity-fueled strength at the top end, where demand for museum-quality and important works outstrips supply.

“Someone recently wanted to introduce me to new buyers, but today, I am looking to meet new sellers,” says Didier Claes, a Brussels dealer specializing in African art, particularly from the former Belgian Congo. “If I have a great-quality object in the gallery, it barely stays there a day.”

The increasing appetite for masterworks, which comes even as tribal art is hit with controversies over fakes and restitution claims, can be seen most clearly at the auction houses. The number of lots offered by Christie’s and Sotheby’s in various-owner sales in Paris has roughly halved since 2005, while total sales results have steadily risen. Top lots now frequently break the million-dollar mark, pushing higher a field where most prices in galleries remain in the $20,000-to-$30,000 range.

“It really has become a fine art market, whereas before it was an antiques market,” explains Heinrich Schweizer, head of the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby’s in New York. “While in an antiques market, rarity and age are the most important factors, in a fine art market, artistic quality and art-historical relevance are the most important.”

“In the end, the market for African and Oceanic art isn’t so exotic,” notes Susan Kloman, the international head of the department at Christie’s. “It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it follows some of the trends that one sees with modern and Impressionist paintings, or postwar and contemporary art.”

Common ground is particularly evident in big-name, single-owner sales that have been the source of most tribal art records and where the market spike is most discernible.

The sale of the Hubert Goldet collection in 2001, the most important offering since the Helena Rubinstein collection was put in the block in New York in 1966, was tribal art’s big- league entry. Powered by objects from Gabon, Dogon statues from Mali, and a Congolese Nkondi fetish, the 644 lots —many with a past in prominent collections or museums— brought FF88.4 million ($15.7 million) under the hammer of François de Ricqlès, at the time an independent auctioneer and now president of Christie’s France. The top lot was an Ambete reliquary fetish that sold for FF15.4 million ($2.5 million).

The market rise was largely confirmed at the sale of the Pierre and Claude Vérité collection in June 2006, days before the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly, dedicated to tribal arts in the French capital. The holdings, built up since 1920 by a father-son dynasty of collectors-turned-dealers, totaled €44 million ($55.6 million) in a 514-lot sellout. Under Drouot’s red awnings, one record was followed by another. A 19-inch, kaolin-covered Fang Ngil mask from Gabon, which today remains the most expensive tribal art piece sold at auction, was hammered down at €5 million ($6.3 million). Passing through an important museum certainly did not hurt: The record-setting mask had appeared at MoMA in the controversial 1984 exhibition “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: The Affinity of Tribal and Modern Art.”

To bolster values with an air of important provenance, single-owner portions have since been wedged into larger sales, making for a trend of disjointed sell-through rates. At Christie’s in 2010, the African and Oceanic sale of 85 lots saw a sell-through of only 59 percent by lot, but 89 percent by value. Six works came from the collection of dealer Isidor Kahane, and all of those sold, accounting for just above €3.1 million ($4 million) of the sale’s total €4,115,250 ($5.4 million). A record was set for an Ivory Coast Baoulé mask at €983,400 ($1.3 million).

“We’ve been working with more tightly curated sales, going from 200 lots or more to an average of about 100 lots per sale, twice a year,” says Kloman of Christie’s. “And we’ve seen the average lot value increase, I would say tenfold over the last five years. It’s now somewhere between €35,000 and €45,500 ($58,500),” she adds. “We’re also seeing a slight trend toward the globalization of the marketplace. We’re seeing buyers from Asia and the Middle East whereas previously the market, especially the top, had been 50-50 between America and Europe—France and Belgium in particular.”

In recent years it is Sotheby’s, however, that has commanded the lion’s share of the African and Oceanic market, building curiosity and value with high-prestige sales and courting the fine art collectors who regularly travel to New York.

In 2007 it offered the Saul and Marsha Stanoff collection, a vast ensemble of important African, Oceanic, pre-Columbian, and Native American works that doubled its pre-sale estimate, bringing in $11,907,100 with 78 of 80 lots sold. The most expensive lot, a slim and hunching Chinesco seated figure (ca. 100 b.c.–a.d. 250) from western Mexico, sold for $1,720,000, roughly 10 times its low estimate. A puffy-cheeked Bamum headcrest from Cameroon, previously in the collection of painter and African art enthusiast Maurice de Vlaminck, brought $1,608,000.

Cue 2011 and another spike came, courtesy of the Robert Rubin collection, which totaled $11,742,188 in a sale at Sotheby’s. Though slightly less than the Stanoff sale, with 47 of 50 lots selling, the top brought significantly more: A Songye male power figure went for $2,098,500 against a high estimate of just $250,000, an auction record for the Congolese group.

“We have spent a lot of time working to identify a specific aesthetic of African art that appeals to this very eclectic, universal, or global art collector community,” says Schweizer of Sotheby’s, adding that sales in the past five years have totaled roughly $120 million in Paris and $150 million in New York. Of the New York tally, $50 million was brought in through private sales, significantly boosting Sotheby’s general 2012 tally of $906.5 million in such transactions “We found ourselves in a position to have access to fantastic artworks and at the same time to collectors who were hungry for top quality. We work very closely with several collectors and develop strategies to build their collections,” Schweizer says. “We are proactive rather than reactive in private sales.”

Some dealers have taken a page from the Sotheby’s playbook. “When I started in the market in 1980, there were only one or two people dealing in Oceanic art. Only one person specialized in it, and he was mostly specialized in New Guinea art,” says Paris-based Oceanic art dealer Anthony Meyer. “I literally had no competition, and I had to struggle to make people look at what I was doing. I did so by raising the prices to substantially higher than what was available on the market — and that brought people to the door, made them open their eyes.”

Indeed, several gallerists are encountering more collectors looking for an investment. “We are seeing the disappearance of the classic doctor, lawyer, or merchant who has been buying for 40 years, regularly adding pieces to his collection,” says Meyer, noting the type’s replacement by new movers, flush with cash. “They understand big numbers. But the problem becomes that they need to see big numbers to think that a work is viable. If you say it’s worth a million, their ears prick up. If you say a thousand, they’re not interested.”

The coming of younger dealers may be helping to push interest. TEFAF’s Showcase sector, giving younger galleries a first shot, has been a rite of passage for Claes, Galerie 1492’s Yannick Durand from Paris, Cologne’s Dierk Dierking, and this year Lucas Ratton of Paris (grandnephew of famed French collector-dealer Charles Ratton), who showed an almost Cubist, 19th-century wooden Keaka sculpture from Nigeria and a delicately colorful Luba fetish. “We are showing different pieces than the established dealers, which awakens curiosity,” says Ratton, who, in 2011 partnered with the Galerie Vallois to match traditional African works with contemporary creations by Benin artist Dominique Zinkpé for the Parcours des Mondes, Paris’s annual gallery-based tribal art week.

In Brussels, tribal dealers open up their spaces to visiting colleagues for the twice- yearly BRUNEAF. At this year’s summer edition, taking place June 5– 9, Claes will present a pouting, hatted Lwalwa nkaki (men’s mask) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pierre Dartevelle, a veteran Brussels dealer who is passing his gallery on to his daughter Valérie and has recently taken an interest in archaeological material, will offer a small Nigerian Ife head, a selection of Azande objects, and items from the Karamojong people of Uganda.

While BRUNEAF tends to be comparatively conservative, with dealers staying within their specialties, some upcoming sales appear to further the largest trends. On June 19 in Paris, Christie’s will offer its latest big-name ensemble and a fresh example of cross-collecting, with 20 African works from the holdings of Celeste and Armand Bartos, pieces that the philanthropist couple previously kept alongside Warhol flowers, Calder mobiles, and dizzying Frank Stella patterns. Among the lots will be an undulating Baga snake figure from the Republic of Guinea, estimated at $1,042,620 to $1,563,940. On June 18, Sotheby’s will anchor its Paris sale with Congolese items from the collection of Françoise and Jean Corlay, centered on Songye figures, along with a Yaka headrest from the Bela Hein collection.

Hoping to woo collectors, auction houses and dealers have increasingly turned up the volume on provenance. And while absence of provenance worries critics who are concerned about the illegitimate export of cultural treasures, abundance can also be treacherous. Sales sheets supply long lists of previous owner-collectors, often unknown names, and dealers caution against treating this as proof of authenticity.

“Provenance has become a cure-all for everybody’s ailments,” suggests Meyer, who says he has seen clients turn down excellent pieces for lack of a proven track record. “People are buying objects based purely on the story. They have to take a step back and realize that it’s a delightful story — but it’s only a story. What counts is this: Is the piece authentic, is the piece of quality, is it the piece that I want? And then you ask who owned it previously.”

“Works that sell for a couple of million dollars usually are not unknown works,” notes Schweizer. “An ideal scenario is to have a field photograph taken by the collector, which is like a photo of a painting, if not in Braque’s or Picasso’s studio, then at least in Kahnweiler’s or Vollard’s apartment.”

In the absence of provenance, the layman collector must rely on trust and hence would be wise to select a dealer before choosing a piece. “You need to work with a dealer who’s not necessarily immune from being wrong — but, the day that he is, will admit his mistakes,” suggests Claes. “As in all domains, there are excellent dealers, middling dealers, bad dealers, and very bad dealers. We have our own little groups of hoodlums and tricksters.”

The vetting of tribal art dealers at Maastricht’s TEFAF and other fairs becomes all the more important for the market. According to Claes, last year’s Biennale des Antiquaires found no issues, while at BRAFA this year, three objects were removed among seven dealers and their 150 works. One was determined to be fake, and two were deemed of unsatisfactory quality.

Teams of fellow dealers and outside experts are charged with the vetting. Claes is on the committee at BRAFA, where African arts are a particular strength. Among the mood-lit highlights this year, Serge Schoffel showed a wall of Bete masks from Ivory Coast, an ensemble of spiritual warrior faces that had taken eight years to gather. Parisian stalwart Alain de Monbrison brought a curving Mangbetu slit drum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while Brussels colleague Adrian Schlag showed a voluptuous-lipped Dan mask from Liberia.

“The problem of fakes strikes the entire art world. African art is not spared, but we must keep it in perspective,” says Claes, noting recent controversies surrounding fakes of Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé designs in France and the Wolfgang Beltracchi modern painting forgery scandal that touched auction houses as well as dealers in Germany. “We should look at the positive side and see that once there is a problem, it’s immediately recognized. I think that in tribal art, we manage to have a slightly better grasp of it than in other fields.” Still, whereas vetting at top fairs provides a measure of control, open-gallery events like BRUNEAF and the Parcours des Mondes, which takes place in Paris each September, rely on trust in the dealers.

BRUNEAF, for its part, is seeing a different problem. It warned attendees last year to watch out for “hucksters” and for nonmember dealers tagging onto the event unofficially.

Western contact with Africa’s enormous populace stretches back as far as the 16th
century. With social and religious change in the 19th century, works began to leave the continent. Colonization and exploration lasted well into the middle of the 20th century, keeping up the flow of pieces.

The volume of work allowed curious Europeans and Americans to become familiar with and acquire African art, but major institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum, the Louvre, and the de Young, took a lesser interest before the 1970s and 80s. Whereas Old Masters, antiquities, and modern art masterpieces were acquired by, and have largely stayed in, museums, African and Oceanic works either were overlooked or passed through ethnographic museums that later deaccessioned key pieces. “You have a very large proportion of masterpieces, relative to the total corpus in existence, still in private hands,” says Schweizer.

Oceanic art has had a much more limited window of opportunity. In Oceanic art, Melanesian has caught up with Polynesian, but the field has lagged behind African
art, chiefly through supply shortages. Small populations produced smaller bodies of work. Contact with the Polynesian islands was by and large made only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Three-quarters of the roughly 5,000 people indigenous to Micronesia’s Nukuoro islands, north of Papua New Guinea, died from smallpox and other diseases borne by Western visitors or were converted to Christianity, notes Schweizer. Missionaries burned much of their religious art.

“Now you have a surviving corpus of 36 sculptures, 30 of which are in museums. Six remain in private hands,” he adds. “These sculptures count among the most prestigious works in Oceanic art. They mirror the aesthetic of a Brancusi sculpture, and the last one that sold fetched around $7 million.” The work in question, a female figure previously in the Leipzig Museum für Völkerkunde, sold privately.

“They lost the eye, the hand, or the will to make these works,” Meyer says of the Oceanic peoples. “African art is coming out of living cultures. In Polynesia and Micronesia, the carvers just weren’t there anymore, whereas in Africa, carving has continued, even if only to make works for the market.”

In pre-Columbian art, the best-known cultures continue to command the higher prices, with Olmec and Maya joined by Inca works and pieces by other Andean peoples. Ancient Brazilian pieces are gaining traction, part of a new tendency to look toward lesser- known cultures, says Stacy Goodman, senior consultant for pre-Columbian art at Sotheby’s. She adds that the average price of pre-Columbian art has risen at a slower pace than African or Oceanic material.

Still, Sotheby’s set a world record for a pre-Columbian sale this past March with its auction of items from the renowned Barbier-Mueller collection, gathered after the Barcelona museum bearing the name of the collector family closed in 2012 and the Spanish city could not find the funds to acquire the 330 or so works.

A Chupícuaro Venus figure led the sale at €2,001,500 ($2.6 million), a record for a Mexican ceramic, followed by a Tarascan flying duck at €1,609,500 ($2.1 million). But the total of €10,296,000 ($13.3 million), with 166 lots failing among the 313 offered, came in significantly below the pre-sale estimate of €13 million to €17 million ($17–22 million), making for what Guillaume Cerutti, the president of Sotheby’s France, in a statement termed “good considering the context in which the sale unfolded.”

That sale was but one of the latest to be targeted by foreign countries or tribal groups claiming that works had been pillaged or faked. Challenged by what eventually became a quartet of nations — Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica — Sotheby’s denied impropriety.

Challenges like these have remained particular to the pre-Columbian market, largely because fewer African works have come from the heritage sites or archeological excavations that are most tightly protected. African artists would sometimes do double duty, making works for use in their villages and others for the market. “When you traveled in Africa, you’d see 100 objects, and perhaps two of them were any good,” says Dartevelle, the Brussels dealer. “After the 1950s, there was still a production of objects, though they were not ancient or colonial-era works. But they were authentic nonetheless. Authenticity is difficult; you can end up denying the entirety of African art.”

The controversies appear to have done little damage to the market. With generational change, the collectors of the 1960s and 70s are leaving their holdings to children and grandchildren, in a bullish market where selling can be attractive. Dealers and auction houses alike expect major collections to come to market in the next decade, creating new spikes.

“It’s really happening now,” suggests Schweizer. “What we are seeing today, I think, is just the beginning of a broad revaluation of the market. Strong prices, or prices that appear to be strong, are bringing out really great works, resulting in still stronger prices—and this cycle will continue for quite some time.”


see the pdf versions of this article : “Tribal Goes Global” appeared in print in the June 2013 issue of Art+Auction.

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