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Tribal art attracts Modern collectors

A new breed of buyer is crossing over from modern and contemporary art and acquiring the top pieces in every field

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Once considered outside of the mainstream, tribal art is increasingly being accepted as an art form in its own right, a position that can only be helped by the inclusion of three tribal art dealers at Frieze Masters this year.

The Paris-based Oceanic art dealer Anthony Meyer, who is bringing a selection of Oceanic and Inuit objects (priced from the low thousands to more than £100,000) to Frieze Masters, says the new fair could potentially “recreate a new tribal art market in London”. The reason for this? A new wave of collectors are crossing over from other genres, particularly Modern and contemporary art, and acquiring the top works in every field. “We are looking at the heavy hitters who are buying Dan Flavin or Cy Twombly or Old Master paintings,” Meyer says.

Susan Kloman, the international head of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s, says the phenomenon of super-rich collectors crossing over from Modern and contemporary to tribal art has really come to the fore over the past five or six years. In May, Christie’s sale of the art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, which included 36 lots from the collection of the late Ernst Beyeler, one of Europe’s pre-eminent Modern art dealers, totaled $1.6m—four times the estimated total. According to Kloman, all the top lots including two objects that set world records—a Bidjogo mask, which went for $266,500 (est $8,000-$12,000), and an Aboriginal shield, which sold for $116,500 (est $3,000-$5,000)—were bought by Christie’s biggest buyers of Modern and contemporary art. The tribal art sale was scheduled right after the post-war sale that day.

Lance Entwistle, who has been dealing in African and Oceanic art for 40 years and will be exhibiting at Frieze Masters, says auction houses have been instrumental in the recent surge in crossover collecting. “Contemporary and Modern art is once again the way in [to tribal art],” he says. “That’s partly a consequence of the cross-marketing that auction houses do.”

The relationship between tribal art and Modern and contemporary art, however, is nothing new. During the early 20th century, so-called “primitive art” was made popular by avant-garde artists. Following their lead, collectors too turned to tribal art. “In the early 20th century, collecting was driven by the interests of artists who were inspired by tribal art,” says Entwistle.

After the Second World War, tribal art began to be collected in its own right. “Following the war and the fall of colonialism, more material became available,” says Kristina van Dyke, the former curator of African art at the Menil Collection, the majority of which was amassed by Jean and Dominique de Menil between the 1950s and 1970s and includes 1,000 African objects as well as pockets of pre-Columbian and Oceanic art. The De Menils also formed a vast collection of Modern art, with a focus on Surrealism, as well as acquiring antiquities and Byzantine works. “The De Menils were very open minded collectors, they collected everything at the same time,” says Van Dyke.

Kloman describes collectors such as the De Menils and Nelson Rockefeller, who donated 3,300 works of tribal art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1969, as “enlightened” collectors. “This second generation of collectors were real connoisseurs, they were buying in a lot of different areas and tended to have an interest in antiquities, Medieval art, African art and Old Masters, and maybe some Modern art,” she says. According to Kloman, this type of collector is emerging once again alongside the new breed of super-rich collector, but they are being led by taste rather than quality or price. “The ‘enlightened’ collector is different to the Medici-style collector who is just interested in the masterpiece market,” she says.

While the market for tribal art resides mainly in Europe and the US, over the past four years there has been a rise in collectors from Asia and the Middle East buying tribal art. Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, who was named last year as one of the world’s top ten collectors by Artnews, started collecting African and Oceanic art in 2009. Al-Thani also collects across the art historical board, including Islamic art, Egyptian and Roman antiquities, vintage photography and 18th-century French furniture. Of his diverse collection, the Sheikh says: “Art is representative of all humanity, art is without nationality and radiates a timeless beauty.”

As the art market as a whole adjusts to the arrival of collectors from emerging markets such as the Middle East and Russia, the tribal art market too is undergoing a shift. “The change [in collector] is partly about what is available on the market, there’s a shrinking supply so the works have become more expensive and out of reach,” Van Dyke says. “The collector base has diminished and so have funding resources. But I don’t see this new breed of collector as a positive or negative shift. The field now really has to address where the base of support is coming from.”

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