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Chirac’s Musée de l’Homme raises prices for primitive art

Fetish figures, tribal shields and masks command attention

The results of New York Tribal Antiques Show speak volumes about the state of this speciality. At the 8-11 October show in the 26th Street Armory, sales were brisk in a number of areas.

Ronald W. Dammann of Hollywood’s Stendhal Galleries reported selling a Mayan Teotihuacan tripod vessel for $45,000 as well as a Vera Cruz tripod plate for $9,000. Then London dealer Kevin Conru had an eight-inch long Easter Island figure snapped up for $38,000. Spencer Throckmorton sold a Central American stone hacha for $15,000, a Costa Rican metate for $8,000 and an Ibibio mask for under $5,000, said the New York dealer. James Willis of San Francisco wrote up an early Dogon mask for $35,000, said his assistant. Textiles were also among the sales at the seventy-six-dealer show.

It is not only in art fairs that tribal art scores, but also in the auction house. In September, a Baule mask from the estate of Dorothy Hirschorn sold at Sotheby’s New York for $60,250, more than eight times its low estimate.

Coming up on 22 November in New York is Sotheby’s African and Oceanic art sale. “The lead lot is quite simply a masterpiece of Maori sculpture, a patriarchal four-foot tall standing male figure from around 1800, which may top $1 million,” hopes Sotheby’s specialist Jean G. Fritts. Another lot on offer with a hefty estimate ($800,000-1.2 million) is a forty-seven-inch Kongo figure belonging to a small group of Nkisi carved along the Chiloango River in the later half of the nineteenth century. Sotheby’s London specialist Joselyne Timm calls the carving “one of the greatest African masterpieces to arrive at auction.” Evidence of the tribal art market moving to new and loftier levels can be seen in Sotheby’s decision to send the two figures along with other lots on a world tour, with stops in London, Zurich, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo and Los Angeles.

Simply put, New York has tribal art fever, with the Caskey show at the Armory, Sotheby’s forthcoming sale, and Doyle’s on 13 October. Over at the Museum of African Art, “Baule: African art/Western eyes” is drawing crowds.

There is change occurring in this long disregarded field, according to a number of dealers, including Spencer Throckmorton and Maureen Zarember. The catalyst is President of France Jacques Chirac’s testament to the millennium, the Musée de l’Homme, des Arts et des Civilisations, due to open in 2002. This museum dedicated to “les arts premiers” results from combining the ethnographic collection in the Musée de l’Homme with the African and Oceanic material in the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie. Moreover, an entire wing in the Louvre is slated to open next year.

What does this bold act mean? “It takes tribal works out of the esoteric field of ethnography and raises it onto a new and higher level, the platform of fine art,” explains Spencer Throckmorton. This will further solidify Paris’s position as the capital of tribal art with thirty galleries specialising in this area, and more than twenty galleries in Brussels, only a few hour’s drive away.

But both Parisian and Brussels galleries now see New York as a key outlet for their wares. In fact, galleries from both cities were represented at the Caskey tribal arts show. “Close to 15% of my clients are Americans,” reports Patrick Mesdagh of Brussels. And Edith Flak of Galerie Flak adds, “Americans are the fastest growing group of collectors, which is why we came from Paris.” Her comments are echoed by Paris dealer Christine Valluet who is showing at New York’s Tambaran Gallery. She is exhibiting Ivory Coast masks and Baule figures at $5,000-$25,000.

In fact, Mr Throckmorton, who counts twelve years running participation in the Winter Antiques Show, reports that his client base has increased more than 60% in the past five years.

With collectors growing in number, new kinds of clients enter the market. Artists have long admired primitive cultures. Recently, painter Brice Marden purchased a number of ancient stone celts, the symbolic jade stone that dates from the Neolithic period, says Spencer Throckmorton. The objects are pure in form, almost Brancusi-like and in colours from pale celadon to a deep hunter green. Generally, Mr Throckmorton’s clients for primitive art, who focus on pre-Columbian and Oceanic objects, also collect contemporary art.

Besides artists, a number of collectors are psychiatrists, reports Mr Throckmorton. “They want pieces that speak of primitive and basic instincts,” notes Ms Zarember. She sees a new breed of clients: “They’re very well read, come with a shopping list, and demand documented provenance.”

Baule and Benin pieces from Africa are at the top of the market. Top Oceanic pieces which are rare carry a great deal of cachet. At the same time, the market is getting broader and collectors’ tastes are changing. Tambaran’s Maureen Zarember says that “Clients are moving away from the pieces with classical features to less refined works that are raw and powerful.” She points to several West African fetish figures studded with nails and razors in her gallery on 82nd Street off Fifth Avenue, which she has run for more than two decades.

The biggest problem in this area is obtaining quality goods. There is a greater consciousness of quality, while quantity is diminishing. “Twenty years ago, you could spot great tribal treasures at Park Bernet and sell them in Europe,” notes Mr Throckmorton, “but that’s over now. It’s a more international market.”

“The very best pieces are from the old collections in Paris, Brussels and sometimes England,” says Maureen Tambaran who only purchases pieces with such a respected provenance. She shops in Europe, where there is a richer heritage of collecting dating back to the turn of the century. She has never been to Africa.

What is the market for mid-range works like? At Throckmorton’s, the under $5,000 range, sometimes termed decorator smalls, is slow. But Tara Finley says, “There’s definitely a growing middle market.” Time will tell or more exactly when the sales receipts for Doyles sale are completed.