Collectors News

RIP George Ortiz

Photo courtesy of Gaechter&Clahsen.
Photo courtesy of Gaechter&Clahsen.

George Ortiz, born May 10 1927, died October 8 2013. Read his obituary here.

It was two brilliant dealers who introduced Ortiz to the other great theme of the collection: African art — Charles Ratton in Paris and John Hewett in London . Hewett enjoyed what he called “George moments”, when the collector’s passion burst forth with the force of a hurricane. One such moment was in 1967, when Hewett invited Ortiz to dinner and put a Benin bronze head on the table. The price was a then astronomical £20,000 — but Ortiz bought it and named it “Bulgy Eyes”. He believed that it was the strongest work of art he owned.

For my post about “Bulgy Eyes”, click here. To read more about what Hewett called “George moments”, click here.

For Ortiz, art was the answer to Gauguin’s question: ‘Who are we, where have we come from, and where are we going?’

Museums Objects Research

Object of the day: a Kongo-Vili figure

Kongo-Vili figure; height: 38,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#71.1930.29.322).
Kongo-Vili figure; height: 38,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#71.1930.29.322).

The variations in African art never fail to suprise. By coincidence I just found this funny Kongo-Vili figure with its head turned slightly sidewards. It was donated to the Musée de l’Homme by Stéphan Chauvet in 1930. I had never encountered this particular position of the hands before; it certainly had a meaning. I would guess this figure was never used, though the face got painted, there’s one metal nail inserted in the chest and traces of a round fetish box on the torso remain?

The Musée du quai Branly holds 267.417 objects (236.509 from the old Musée de l’Homme and 22 740 from the Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie) – not only African of course. Additionally, since 1998 the museum has acquired 8168 objects. It’s not clear how many items are already in their online database, but surely enough to have lots of fun. You can search the digital collections of the Musée du quai Branly here. Type a keyword in the Saisir la recherche box below the Sélectionner un critère de recherche tab. The acquisition date itself is never listed, but one can deduce it from the inventory number.

Trivia of the day: Stéphan Chauvet was the author of the first illustrated compendium of information about Easter Island, L’Île de Pâques et Ses Mystères (1935), you can find a translation of it here, a must read for the armchair traveller.

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.


Visiting Frieze (Masters)

Frieze Masters tents in Hyde Park. Image: BC.
Frieze Masters tents in Regent’s Park. Image: BC.

I found this article in the Financial Times on how to navigate the Friezes by Peter Aspden very entertaining.

1. Act rich. For all their democratic brio, people who sell art are only really interested in people who can afford to buy it. The average price of an artwork at Frieze is £20,000, which is more than an Alfa Romeo. But acting rich is not as easy as it used to be. Pressed jeans and Tod’s loafers are a uniform of the past. Assume a casual, studied air. When confronted by a work designed to make you laugh, don’t laugh. Haughty disdain goes a long way, although if you can match that of the gallerist, you are made of ice. Don’t be embarrassed to ask the price of anything but never, ever, mention any currency denomination (see point two).

2. So you quite like the look of something, and you ask how much it costs. “Two,” may be the reply. The air of vagueness is a test. You will know, from your studies of the artist in question, whether that means £2 (no), £200 (unlikely), £200,000, or £2m. But if the gallerist’s assistant is American, she (almost always a she) may be talking dollars. Don’t ask. Make a rough calculation in your head that covers all possible options. Any physical reaction is ill-advised, other than the barely perceptible raising of an eyebrow. Finally, ask if she will accept roubles. You’re on the front foot now.

Personally, I had almost bought a late Willem de Kooning painting which was in the range of 7 to 9 (million dollars I guess), but unfortunately it was already sold. Concerning ethnographic art, Donald Ellis, Galerie Meyer and Entwistle were present at Frieze Masters, but most of the material on view had already been exposed during Parcours des Mondes – nevertheless a fun fair to visit.


A pre 1967 Ashanti spoon (Kulango spoons revisited, part 2)

Following my request for “Kulango” spoons that arrived in Europe before 1987 (read the original post here), I received pictures from a reader of a spoon (see below, height: 27 cm) which arrived in a German monastery in 1967. It was collected before that date and it’s condition clearly shows it was probably already a couple of decades in use before it was collected. The inventory card – which clearly identifies it as Ashanti – also stated this spoon was used as a pestle. At present, the oldest documented example !

Image courtesy of Grace Collection.
Image courtesy of the Grace Collection of African Art.

“Nok. Origin of African Sculpture” at the Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main

Nok. Ein Ursprung afrikanischer Skulptur

With its exhibition Nok. Origin of African Sculpture, running from 30 October 2013 to 23 February 2014, the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung presents over one hundred sculptures and fragments excavated in Nok territory by the archaeologists of Frankfurt’s Goethe University. They will be displayed in a dialogue with objects from Ancient Egypt and Greek-Roman Antiquity from the collections of the Liebieghaus. More info here and here. A comprehensive catalogue will be published by Africa Magna Verlag to accompany the exhibition (c. 292 pages, c. 170 color and 55 black-and-white illustrations as well as 51 plates).

I am very curious about the research results of this long-term (8 years to be exact) excavation project of Frankfurt’s Goethe University. Besides the very few scientific studies after Fagg’s pioneering efforts (Fagg 1972, Jemkur 1992, Tylecote 1975), it are the first seriously documented excavations ever. Peter Breuning’s article in the autumn 2012 issue of Tribal Art Magazine definitely awakened my interest. It, for example, clearly stated that not one of the excavated terracotta figures was found intact – quite a contrast with what one tends to encounter in galleries.

Excavation of a landfill and recovery of large parts of sculptures of the Nok culture. Photo courtesy of Goethe University Frankfurt.
Excavation of a landfill and recovery of large parts of sculptures of the Nok culture. Photo courtesy of Goethe University Frankfurt.
Nok sculpture - Fragment of a human torso, Terracotta, 1000 BC Reference Dogon Daji in Nigeria, excavation in 2011. Photo courtesy of Goethe University Frankfurt.
Nok sculpture – Fragment of a human torso, Terracotta, 1000 BC. Dogon Daji in Nigeria, excavation in 2011. Photo courtesy of Goethe University Frankfurt.
Illegal excavation site. Looters ransacked the ground after Nok sculptures. Such sites are easy to find because the holes are not filled. Photo courtesy of Goethe University Frankfurt.
Illegal excavation site. Looters ransacked the ground after Nok sculptures. Such sites are easy to find because the holes are not filled. Photo courtesy of Goethe University Frankfurt.
Auctions News

Sleeper of the year

Kongo sleeper 1

Sleeper. When an item is sold at auction without the auctioneers having an appreciation of the true nature of the object.

The biggest sleeper of the year might have been sold this week in Liège, Belgium (info). This cross-legged Kongo figure, with the hand supporting the chin, turned up at a small auction but apparently failed to go unnoticed, being sold for € 198.000 (premium included). The original estimate isn’t listed on the website anymore, but I suspect it being a couple of thousand euros. This figure is from the same hand as the paternity figure from the Vérité collection (Paris, 17-18 June 2006, lot 236) and from the same workshop as numerous known other examples. Unfortunately, the right cheek and hand are a bit damaged. It shows that even at the smallest auctions, the time of being the only interested party lays far behind us – this result equals the price one would pay in Paris or New York. In the same sale, a small Songye figure was hammered for € 31.200 (info). In my opinion, both prices are a bit too high and I suspect bidders got carried away since they were so enthusiast about their discovery.

Update: a reader informed the estimate was € 1800-2000.

Update II: another reader writes:

The piece might have been a sleeper, the Brussels dealers who were competing for it were definitely very awake !

Kongo sleeper

News Publications

International Tribal Art Book Prize 2013

International Tribal Art Book Prize

Every year, the International Tribal Art Book Prize is awarded to two art books in the field of tribal art, one in English and one in French. The award highlights the quality, diversity and richness of publishing in the field of tribal arts. The two winning books of the fifth edition will be awarded in Paris on December 6th, 2013, selected amongst the books on Tribal Art published between October 2012 and September 2013.

You can vote here, unfortunately you can only choose from a preselected list of 3 English and 3 French books. Voting runs from October 15th through November 15th, 2013. The result will count as one vote within the jury. My ere ibeji book was also considered, but unfortunately not selected among the final three by the jury; find it here in the list.

Bertrand Goy’s Côte d’Ivoire. Premiers regards sur la sculpture 1850 – 1935 is definitely my favourite book in the list, a must read.

Côte d'Ivoire. Premiers regards sur la sculpture 1850 - 1935

Auctions News

Auction news: Bonhams, New York, 14 November 2013

Baga headdress. Wood, brass, metal, height 119.5cm. Est $ 400,000-600,000. Photo courtesy of Bonhams.
Baga headdress. Wood, brass, metal, height 119.5cm. Est $ 400,000-600,000. Photo courtesy of Bonhams.

Part of the New York Tribal Art Week in November, Bonhams just anounced some highlights of its upcoming sale. The above Baga mask is the auction’s top lot (est. $400,000-600,000). In 2008 it was exhibited in New York at L&M Arts Gallery by Bernard de Grunne. In my humble opinion the estimate is a bit too steep, but we don’t know what the consignor paid for it of course. The size and monumentality of these headdresses, together with the fact that Picasso had one, might also have somewhat to do with it. Christie’s sold a similar Baga headdress for € 120K in 2007 (info), but the headdress they offered last june (Est. € 400-800K) from the Art Institute of Chicago failed to sell. I think that if you’re patient and are willing to spend some time going through the smaller auctions in France, you’ll be able to find a top example for a lot less – for example this headdress that was sold by Millon & Associes in 2012 for € 250K (sixteen times the estimate!).

Additional news from the pressrelease (concerning the featured African art):

Also of interest is the Evan Maurer Headrest Collection, comprised of a variety of exceptional African headrests. Maurer, the current Director Emeritus of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, carefully assembled some of the finest examples from all over the continent. Of particular note is a South African Zulu headrest (est. $10,000-15,000) and a rare, figural Twa headrest from Rwanda/Burundi (est. $8,000-12,000). One of just a few known examples of the only sculptural form they produce, the Twa are pygmies who live among the Kuba and Mongo peoples.

We also read the Baga headdress is similar to examples in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the African Museum of Art at the Smithsonian Institute, and the Yale University Art Gallery. In my view it’s closest to the headdress in The Baltimore Museum of Art, which was photographed in situ by Beatrice Appia in 1938 in Monchon (Bulunits region) – see below.

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly.
Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly.
Exhibtions News

Fowler at Fifty

Fowler at fifty

To celebrate its fiftieth birthday, UCLA’s Fowler Museum is organizing nine (!) mini-shows, each dedicated to a particular strength of the museum’s collection and approached in a different way. They will fill the museum with more than 1000 pieces, the majority never exhibited before. As Fowler director Marla C. Berns states in this article in the Los Angeles Times: “The great thing about the Fowler is that we can pretty much do what we want. But not without a lot of thought.” Click here for an overview of the exhibitions. “Double Fortune, Double Trouble” might be the funniest title for an exhibitions on ere ibeji ever.

The museum, then called “the Laboratory of Ethnic Arts and Technology”, was founded in 1963 by Franklin D. Murphy, chancellor of UCLA from 1960 to 1968 and chairman and chief executive of Times Mirror Co., the former parent company of the Los Angeles Times, from 1968 to 1980.

The Fowler has obviously grown and expanded its reach over the last half-century. But its mission and values haven’t changed, Berns says. “When this museum was founded, it was called a laboratory. I would say that we are still a laboratory. The idea that this is a place to test and experiment and look at new approaches is as true today as it was then.”

New World Wunderkammer - installation photo courtesy of Joshua White /
New World Wunderkammer – installation photo courtesy of Joshua White /