Auctions Objects Opinions Research

The Luluwa workshop of the diamond shaped eyes

Luluwa figures from the workshop of the diamond shaped eyes. Height (left): 36 cm. Height (right): 37,5 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Luluwa figures from the workshop of the diamond shaped eyes. Height (left): 36 cm. Height (right): 37,5 cm. Images courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Browsing through the catalogue of the next Sotheby’s Paris sale, it’s evident how the estimates are again much steeper than with their New York colleagues. A good example are the two Luluwa figures illustrated above. Though they have a different patina, they are clearly from the same workshop and most likely even by the same hand. Note that the figure on the left was photographed from below, which gives a slightly different perspective (cf. the mouth). Both figures have large C-shaped eyes, diamond shaped eyes and only schematically rendered fingers. The overall composition is pratically identical. Besides the patination, the biggest difference is the scarification pattern on the forehead. Closer examination reveals other small differences. Personally, I am convinced they are by the same hand. Strangely enough, Sotheby’s doesn’t make any reference to the figure they sold six months ago in New York. Instead, we learn its style connects it with the Bakwa Ndoolo subgroup and that it is similar to a female figure from the Robert Reisdorff Collection, which was published by Olbrechts’ Plastiek van Kongo in 1946 (see below). This last figure does have much in common, like the C-shaped ears and diamond shaped eyes. Nevertheless its hands are much more realistically carved and the overall carving is much more crisp. Together with the body scarifications (absent in both Sotheby’s figures), I would dare to speculate the Reisdorff figure is an earlier generation of this style. So far the art history.

Luluwa figure. Ex collection Robert Reisdorff, Brussels, before 1920. Height: 45 cm.
Luluwa figure. Ex collection Robert Reisdorff, Brussels, before 1920. Height: 45 cm.

Now, concerning the estimates. The figure on the right was sold in New York last May for € 21K (est. € 9K-14K) (info)*. The one on the left, on the other hand, will be sold in Paris on 11 December, and has an estimate of € 60K-90K (info).  A six-fold increase ! Both figure never were published nor exhibited and the provenances are not so very different in ‘value’ (Pierre Dartevelle for the Paris figure and Paul Timmermans for New York) – though Timmermans was a Luluwa expert and published on the subject.

(* previously sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 8 May 1989. Lot 74. Sold for $ 13K)

I have labeled this atelier “The Luluwa workshop of the diamond shaped eyes”, though these typical eyes are possibly more a characteristic of a regional style. During Bruneaf 2011, Kellim Brown presented a group of six figures in this same style by a carver which he identified as Bakwa Ndolo (scroll down here for pictures). I still have to read his book on the subject (Southern Kasai Hands, Brussels 2011). The ears of the figures of this very productive artist are smaller than the artist under discussion here and the apron is clearly differently conceived. To finish, two more figures from the Luluwa master of the diamond shaped eyes.

Left picture courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren (#EO.0.0.43207); height: 40 cm. Right figure: YVRA #0000857).
Left picture courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren (#EO.0.0.43207); height: 40 cm. Right figure: YVRA #0000857.

Collecting, Sylvia Porter’s advice

Something I came across online; Sylvia Porter, one of the most successful financial columnists and writers in the US in the 20th century, once listed ten sound rules as a guide in art collecting (in Sylvia Porter’s New Money Book, 1979). More than 30 years later, they are still very relevant.

1. Study the field which interests you as much as possible.

2. Buy cautiously at first.

3. Make sure that your work of art has quality.

4. Deal with a top gallery or art dealer. Some dealers and major galleries will guarantee the authenticity of the art works they sell, so check this point as well.

5. Have an understanding with your dealer or gallery about trading up – so he’ll repurchase or resell your works as you have more money to invest in high quality art.

6. Do not buy art works just because they are a current rage.

7. Ask the advice of museum directors or curators whenever possible.

8. Decide upon your investing limit before you buy. If you fall in love with a more expensive object try to arrange for a time payment.

9. Spread your financial risks by buying a variety of art unless you are expert in a particular field.

10. Buy the best examples you can afford in any category.

Royal-Athena Galleries (where I found this list) added two other important rules:

11. Ask for the provenance of any potential acquisitions.

12. Do not buy objects that have been significantly restored.


The sculptor’s perspective

Image: BC.
Image: BC.

Earlier this year I took a sculpture class. The above head took me five months (and it’s not even nearly finished). But that was never my intention; my goal was to learn to see through the eye of a sculptor. I wanted a new perspective while evaluating African art, and I must say this course was a very enriching experience. I would advice it to everybody. For example, the feeling of actually trying to shape an eye, with all its difficulties and possibilities, stimulates you to look with a whole different perspective to all the following eyes you encounter. I now also understand the reason why collections formed by sculptors are always so strong; they easily spot the plastic qualities of African carvings. They recognize the struggle of a fellow artist of balancing the volumes and his pursuit to create a powerful sculpture. More than ever, the inventiveness and talent of so many anonymous African artists succeeds in impressing me. There’s a reason why they are often called ‘masters’.

Image: BC.
Songye figure. Image: BC.
News Opinions

A tale of a Borneo sculpture in Paris

Image courtesy of Galerie Schoffel-Valluet.
Image courtesy of Galerie Schoffel-Valluet.

Though not about African art, I just encountered a very informative analysis of the negative gossip surrounding the above Borneo sculpture during the last Parcours des Mondes in Paris. Read it here on the Mark Johnson’s Tribal Beat blog.

Prior to the opening of the 2013 Parcours des Mondes tribal art fair in Paris, it appeared a major controversy was brewing behind the scenes. Word was spreading fast and furious that a wood sculpture from Borneo Island offered by an important gallery as their key piece during the fair, was a forgery.

And so the tale begins.. a must-read even if you don’t really care about art from Borneo – the author makes some very good points about the trade in general.

News Opinions

Art experts and the fear of litigation

A reader alerted me of this interesting article in The Art Newspaper about art historians’ expert opinion and the fear of lawsuits.

The crisis around fake Abstract Expressionist works sold in New York—around 40 of which were handled by the now-defunct Knoedler Gallery — has sent shockwaves through the art market and is having a chilling effect on scholars.

As well as a federal investigation, there has been a slew of civil lawsuits. Most recently, a suit filed last month by the former director of the Knoedler Gallery, Ann Freedman, claims—in an effort to show that she was not negligent — that numerous experts accepted the authenticity of the works.

What is clear is that, with the financial and legal stakes at a record high, experts are more reluctant than ever to express their opinions freely. In a litigious art world, the fear of being dragged into court is real and growing.

Unfortunately, this self-censorship is also already present in the African art world. I know several stories that confirm this malicious trend.

Fairs Opinions

Specialist fairs and their future

As if something is in the air, in the spirit of my previous two posts, I just stumbled on an interesting article by David Moss on “niche” art fairs. Read it here (from the Antiques Trade Gazette – 24th March 2012). As Moss states correctly:

I think another blow to the bigger fairs was the development of dealer-inspired initiatives, where local and overseas specialists found it cheaper and just as profitable to mount city-wide festivals in their own and borrowed galleries. This is the case with Asian art in London and New York and with tribal art in Paris and Brussels.

And now also in New York, London & Amsterdam !

News Opinions

Museum Storage 2.0

An interesting article from the LA Times about the hidden collections of museums and ways to make them more accessible can be read here.

Behind an art museum’s gleaming galleries lies the off-limits and uninviting space that can hold as much as 95% of its collection: storage.

These spaces are often packed with hundreds or even thousands of paintings, decorative art objects and other artifacts that can languish, unappreciated and untouched by curators, for years. But as a way to bring art out from its underbelly and display more of a museum’s possessions, several institutions are embracing “visible storage” in public areas, exhibiting the art without the expense of a spacious, beautifully installed and curated show.

Govan is totally correct stating that “those objects are worthy for viewing and studying if not always for exhibitions. So you’re not contemplating a masterpiece, but maybe you’ll find value in comparing and contrasting different examples of vases” (or, for example, Kuba cups).

Visitors of the MAS in Antwerp can already experience something similar..

MAS Kijkdepot Bruno Claessens 1
MAS Kijkdepot Bruno Claessens 2
MAS Kijkdepot Bruno Claessens 3

See the full article for more examples here.

News Opinions

A new perspective on the importance of provenance

An interesting article by Souren Melikian in The New York Times (here) discusses the current state of the market for antiquities. It brings anecdotal evidence that the prices paid for antiquities continue to reflect not only the intrinsic value of the object, but the quality of its history as well. The article highlights the importance of a pre-1970 history for antiquities at recent auctions in Paris and New York. Unprovenanced objects are not selling.

The reason for this discrepancy lies in the Unesco convention adopted in 1970 to safeguard the buried heritage of mankind and shield standing monuments from looting. While many countries, including the United States, did not sign up, the convention is effectively being implemented by international institutions and, increasingly, by prudent collectors and dealers, fearful that the legitimate ownership of their acquisitions may be challenged in the future. As a result, important works of art that can be proved to have reached the market before 1970 shoot to vertiginous levels, while those that cannot fail to sell with increasing frequency.

Though this upheaval might be an indicator of things to come, the market for antiquities is of course different than the African art market. At the moment, it might be the most relevant for terracotta objects from Nigeria and Mali. Lastly, there are nuances in the quality of the documentation that establishes the presence of objects in the market prior to 1970. Private Collection, before 1970 still seems to set at rest most of the collectors (for now).


Tribalmania’s interview with Heinrich Schweizer

Heinrich Schweizer Tribalmania

Last December, Michael Auliso published a very informative interview with Sotheby’s NY’s Department Head African & Oceanic art, Heinrich Schweizer, on his website. This 10-page interview (at least if you print it) is a must read. It offers a rare glimpse of one of the keyplayers view on the current state of the African art market. The first few questions concern Schweizer’s personal story. A second part treats his first years at Sotheby’s, explaining the change he helped effectuate at the Department and the early signs of the giant leap the market would soon take.

Spring 2007, we presented the Saul and Marcia Stanoff Collection together with a few masterpieces deaccessioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. This auction broke all records and generated $25 million – half the sum that the Vérité sale had totaled but with only one quarter of lots. That sale of May 2007 was the true turning point in the market, marking the beginning of a new era. The quality of the works on offer was so great that it attracted the interest of art collectors outside the African and Oceanic art field, who, for the first time, entered the market on a broad front. Our cultivation and continuous expansion of this collector group led to the reassessment of the top of the market in our category that we have been witnessing in the last five years up through today.

Following a praiseworthy denouncing of the usage of the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ (daring on a website called Tribalmania), Schweizer explains this evolution further.

I think that the art market in general in the 21st century is becoming less compartmentalized by regions or categories of artworks. There is one category that everybody wants: the universal masterpiece, the artwork that defies categorization and transcends regional styles and eras. Once you are discussing such an artwork, it doesn’t matter whether the work is African or Oceanic, 500 years old or 50 years old. We’ve seen a number of such works in the past two years going for very strong prices at auction. One great example would be our Hungana Ivory Pendant which we sold in Paris last year (December 14, 2011, lot 64). It had an estimate of 30-50,000 Euros and was sought-after by a dozen of bidders, eventually selling for over one million dollars to a client who was bidding with me on the phone. It didn’t sell for that much because it was an “ivory” or a “miniature”, or an “amulet” or “Congolese”. Of course it could be categorized in all those terms, but it was much more than that. In the end it sold for an outstanding price because the artist had created a sculpture that carried so much dignity and spirituality that it became accessible to a very broad audience reaching far beyond the limits of the traditional African Art market.

.. with prices going far beyond the regular limits too!

The current market shows a clear, strong interest in top quality artworks from canonic African styles, especially those that are well-documented by virtue of their inclusion in important publications and exhibitions. If you go back 30 years, auctions were much larger, often comprising between 300 and 400 works of mixed quality. Back then, knowledgeable dealers would sometimes come to the auction to advise their clients, but mostly to pick out the best works for themselves. Today the auction houses are selling directly to the world’s most important collectors. It is a big change.

Which is totally correct. I know many older collectors who have never bought at auction, while almost all younger collectors regularly attend sales. The opposite is true for dealers. Where many nowadays claim that auctions are too expensive,  they used to score at least a part of their inventory there.

Subsequently, Auliso asked the question that has been on everybody’s lips the last years: Some of my dealer colleagues have the perception that Sotheby’s is consciously taking away their clients, thus hurting their business. Your thoughts on that notion?

Schweizer: I strongly disagree with this idea because it is not well-informed. The truth is that the international auction houses are persistently producing new collectors. We are introducing people to African and Oceanic Art who could never have imagined they would be attracted to this field. I would say that 50 percent of our clients have been in the market for 10 years or more, and 50 percent have joined the market more recently. Many of the newer collectors have developed a great passion for this field. Newer collectors often start out at auction because they appreciate the level of expertise, compliance standards and transparency of pricing. But with time they gain confidence in their own judgment, start going to fairs and venture into the gallery world where they also start buying. In the end, these new collectors strengthen the market and everyone benefits.

Unfortunately the taste of these collectors is a bit high level for most galleries of course. Another argument would be the current state of the economy. Historically, during recession, auction houses have always done better than dealers.

The last part of the interview deals with the creation of “The African and Oceanic Fine Art Market”, created for new eclectic collectors with deep pockets.

The massive participation of seasoned fine art collectors in our sales is consistently producing new records at Sotheby’s. A fine art collector spending 20 million dollars for a European Master has usually no problem placing a 200,000 dollar bid in an African and Oceanic art sale even if this means 100,000 dollars more than a previous record.


If you as a seller want to capitalize on the difference between the traditional market and the new market, you are best advised to use Sotheby’s as a “bridge” where your property can walk from one side to the other.

This should explain the unprecedented openess shown in this interview. We’ve learned a lot about Heinrich Schweizer, Sotheby’s last decade’s evolution and their view on the market, but in the end they are – as are all dealers – always on the hunt to find great pieces. And one could thus contextualise this interview as an open sollicitation to have your objects sold by them, preferably the masterpieces of course.

Read the full interview here!

Opinions Research

Museums and image reproduction fees

An interesting article by Jane Masséglia on museums charging reproduction fees can be found here.

Anyone with experience of the process of acquiring photographs from museum files or archives will know how varied, complex and financially horrifying it can be.

Recently I had the pleasure myself to clear the rights of four old field-photos for an upcoming publication about a private collection of African art. One museum in the UK’s image service demanded £ 75,- for each image and permission to reproduce it. A second museum asked € 100,- for each photo, while communication went painstakingly slow (four weeks and counting). In both cases the field-photos were almost a century old, made by early explorers and ending up in the museum by donation.

A small fee of course might not sound unreasonable. Museums need funds, after all. But what if this commercial attitude leads researchers to decide they can’t afford to discuss a particular photo? Then, of course, there is the bigger question of access. Do museums in receipt of public funds have a responsibility to make their holdings available for research? And in recovering the cost of digitising and administering their holdings, should they be allowed to make a profit from charging non-commercial users? Or are they right that if researchers are looking to get ahead by using their holdings, they should, like the keyring-makers and poster-printers, have to pay for them? But even if we accept that argument, the issue remains of how museums could have arrived at such vastly differing fees for the same service.

Luckily a new wind is going through museum land and more and more institutions are offering high-resolution pictures of objects in their collection free of charge; a fine examples being the Rijksmuseum in The Netherlands. Another noteworthy project is Artstor’s Images for Academic Publishing program, making publication-quality images from many bigger institutions (like the Metropolitan) available for use in scholarly publications free of charge. “Sharing is what museums need to learn to do”, as Deborah Ziska, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery of Art stated in a related New York Times article. I couldn’t agree more!