The Tribal Art Market Takes Centre Stage
In recent months, the UK’s regional salerooms have been treated to a generous handful of five and six-figure bids for unappreciated masterworks of Aboriginal and Oceanian art. Auctioneers and vendors are quickly discovering that Europe’s country houses, furnished with the routine period objects that no longer generate great excitement, can occasionally yield valuable souvenirs of a colonial past. Tribal art, it seems, is on a roll.
The History of Tribal Art Collection
The collecting of tribal art or ethnographica has a history as old as the voyages of Captain Cook. But it has been turbo-charged by the worldwide reach of the internet. Not only is the search engine the source of once hard-to-find information in once little understood fields, it has also proved the perfect medium for connecting enthusiasts in Continental Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand with their far-flung quarry.
Oceanic and African art in particular has long been embraced by a coterie of academics and collectors who cherish its originality and quality. But in recent years, interest has grown among interior decorators and the sort of money-no-object collector who previously focused only on the blue-chip brand names of Western art.
With the advent of the international art fair in particular it has been easier to make plain the close relationship that exists between tribal art and the ‘pioneers’ of the European modern movement.
Christie’s Plays the Commercial Game
Christie’s sale last May titled Evolution of Form: African & Oceanic Art at The Genesis of Modernism played an intriguing commercial game, placing Baioma carvings from New Guinea on view alongside a Jean Dubuffet and a $2m Baule female figure from the Ivory Coast next to a Modigliani portrait. All successful bidders at the sale were described by the auctioneers as ‘cross-over collectors’ with two regular clients for modern art making their first ever purchases in the field of ethnographic art.
Challenges of the Tribal Art Market
Like all markets, tribal art has its unique set of challenges. Some items include the sort of materials that are no longer easily traded – notably elephant and marine ivory, tortoiseshell, shell and exotic bird feathers – while the subject can occasionally prove culturally sensitive. It was no coincidence that when last year Salisbury auctioneers Woolley & Wallis were asked to sell a Benin bronze oba, the seven-figure transaction was made privately.
Above all, precise dating can be difficult and copies from multiple periods abound. As a general rule, there is a gulf in prices – and interest – between those pieces that were created for use in a domestic or ceremonial capacity and those that were produced purely for the tourist trade. For this reason, there is a huge premium to be placed on an old provenance.
Opportunities in the Market
With genuine objects in short supply (much entered institutional collections in the 20th century) there are those who believe prices still have some way to go as the tribal art market slowly but surely moves from the scholarly periphery towards the mainstream. A test comes at Christie’s in Paris on April 4 when an 18th century Dogon mask with a 70-year collecting history carries an estimate of €2.5m-3.5m.
Discovered in Africa in the 1950s, this celebrated piece was acquired first by the Parisian art dealer René Rasmussen and later in the 1960s by the cosmetics magnate and collector Gaston de Havenon (1904-93). At a landmark auction at Drouot in 1994, when de Havenon’s collection was sold, the mask was acquired by an American collector, whose family have consigned it for sale.
Traditional Selling Centres
France and Belgium are the traditional selling centres for tribal (particularly African) art with the BRUNEAF (Brussels Non European Art Fair) the annual showpiece. Next slated for June 7-11, it takes the form of a trail around the galleries of the Sablon area where many dealers are based with others arriving from further afield to hold exhibitions. The subject is vast (simply learn the art of all the indigenous cultures of the world and you have it covered) so it is natural that many seek to specialise.
In the UK, the number of dealers and specialist sales are much smaller but, with all the correct demographics in place, London has at least the potential to become a market centre. Now in its third year, the Tribal Art London initiative (September 5-9) is helping with exposure although a spanner in the works could be Brexit. If there is one collecting area that demands the free circulation of goods between countries, it’s this one.