A Collector’s Guide to the Tribal Art Market

Estimated to sell for just £60-100, this rare 19th century necklace or tabua from Mangaia in the southern Cook Islands sold to a French dealer at £99,000 (plus buyer’s premium) at Ewbank’s of Send in Surrey on December 1. It is fashioned from marine ivory (sperm whale teeth) suspended from woven coconut fibres or sennit bound with human hair.

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.

At their Neuilly-sur-Seine saleroom, the French auction house Aguttes will auction a large collection of Hawaiian art collected over a period of 20 years by dealer Rainer Werner Bock. The three-day sale includes items of great historic interest including both a spear (estimate €68,000-75,000) and a flag from the Hawaiian monarchic period (estimate €12,000-15,000), collected by Captain Cook during his third expedition in 1779-80. Pictured here is a bi-facial ironwood war club or ?U?U – a form unique to the Marquesas Islands (estimate €75 000-85,000).

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.

An Austral Islands ‘paddle’ sold for £7000 (plus buyer’s premium) at Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury in March 2017. Many of these profusely carved totems were made in workshops as trade goods until c.1842 after which time European disease had wiped out the carvers.

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.

A 3ft 3in (1m) wide Santa Cruz currency roll or tevau sold for £18,000 (plus buyer’s premium) at Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury in March. In the Solomon Islands these precious rolls of scarlet honeyeater feathers acted as security for large transactions.

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.

At Christie’s in Paris on April 4 this 18th century Dogon mask carries and estimate of €2.5m-3.5m.

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.

Estimated at just £50-100, this 19in (47cm) long Maori putorino or bugle flute sold to a French dealer for £140,000 (plus buyer’s premium) at John Nicholson’s of Haslemere, Surrey on February 23. A similar putorino, attributed to the southern or eastern region of New Zealand’s North Island sold for €90,000 as part of the Murray Frum’s collection of Oceanic art sold by Sotheby’s Paris in 2014.

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.

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The 2016 Art and Antiques Trade: New Threats to An Old Profession
Post-Brexit Art Market: Keep Calm, Carry On and Negotiate Hard
Antiquities: Old values hold firm in market under siege

About the Author:

Roland Arkell is the Contributing Editor at ATG Media. For almost two decades, Roland has been writing about the British and international art and antiques market for Antiques Trade Gazette, the leading publication for serious buyers and sellers of art and antiques.