China not ready for TEFAF

TEFAF just released this press statement:

In March 2013 TEFAF announced that it had entered into exclusive discussions with Sotheby’s to explore the possibility of developing a high-end art fair in China via Sotheby’s Joint Venture in Beijing with GeHua. Over the past few months TEFAF, with Sotheby’s assistance, was able to develop a detailed proposal for exhibitors to consider, which had the support and co-operation of the Chinese authorities and fulfilled all the local requirements.

Although the art market in China is growing rapidly and there is considerable belief in its potential, the feedback from many dealers indicates that the majority feels that exhibiting in mainland China is something that they would consider at a later date. While the interest in and the appetite for Western art is undoubtedly growing, there is a belief that the market for many of the specialisations represented at Maastricht is still evolving.

The Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees of TEFAF Maastricht have therefore reluctantly concluded that a high-end art fair, as presently envisaged, in Beijing is not viable at the current time.


The viewing days of the African art sales in Paris at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s last week coincided with the Asian art auctions. Wandering around in those crowded rooms, surrounded by many very professional looking teams of Chinese buyers, it was clear to me that the interest of the Chinese still mainly is their own cultural heritage. I didn’t see any of them looking at the African art..


UPDATE: Bendor Grosvenor of added an interesting issue to this story:

This project was a joint venture with Sotheby’s. However, I hear it’s that element of the venture which caused concern, especially amongst potentially participating dealers, rather than any feeling that no Chinese punters would turn up. Sotheby’s were insisting that all sales made at the fair go through them, with a commission payable. Hardly an incentive for independent dealers whose biggest competition is the auction houses.

Auctions News

Auction results: Sotheby’s, Paris, 11 December 2013

Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

With a total result of € 3,2 million (only taking in consideration the African art and including the buyer’s premium) against a combined low and high estimate of € 2,1 & € 3 million, Sotheby’s Paris African art sale did very well. From the 72 African lots, 47 (or 65 %) were sold, that’s 5% more than Christie’s yesterday. Though Sotheby’s thus roughly sold the same percentage objects as Christie’s, the difference in quality (and value) was of course quite obvious. 7 lots were sold under the low estimate, 22 between the low and high estimate and 18 above the high estimate. Note that excluding the premium, a lot more items would be listed as sold under the low estimate – after all, these estimates are based on the hammer price (as explained in my previous post). 25 objects (35%) failed to find a buyer. Again, increasing number of objects are selling below their estimates, or not selling at all. Two African lots were withdrawn: the legged Dan stool (lot 38) and the seated Teke figure (lot 96).

The top lot was the Fang figure (est. € 500K-700K), which sold at € 1,44 million (incl. premium) – almost as much as the whole Christie’s auction the previous day. Another important object, the Guillaume Kota-Shamaye reliquary figure performed as expected at € 530K (est. € 150K-200K). In 1965 it was sold at auction for FF 9K, which after inflation and conversion is € 11,5K now – a perfect example how the prices of African art (at least the top segment) have sky-rocketed.

A curious suprise was the Fon recade, estimated already quite high at € 4K-6K, it sold for € 16K. Bidding on the anthromorphic Dan spoon (est. € 70K-100K) started at the low reserve price of € 28K, but even then failed to attract a bid. The previously discussed Luluwa figure (lot 87) not suprisingly also failed to sell.

A personal favourite was the ivory St. Anthony, selling at € 70K (est. € 30K-40K); it doesn’t get better than this. On the other hand, the Guro zamble mask didn’t even attract a single bid at € 4,5K – notwithstanding that especially in profile this was a wonderful mask. The sale’s bargain was a powerful, small Zande figure, which sold for a mere € 24K. Personally, I thought it was the winner of the sale. During the preview, the 19,5 cm figure was, even at a 10 meter distance, still radiating power. Published by Burssens and collected between 1925 and 1940, this ancient statue definitely deserved more.

Auctions Opinions

The fiction of hammer prices

Apologies that I only reported the hammer prices in my previous review of the Christie’s sale. They of course mean very little. What matters is the total amount the buyer pays. Nevertheless the hammer price is useful if you’re comparing the price paid to the estimate, since the estimate is for the hammer price !

Felix Salmon makes some interesting points about auction hammer prices in this blog post.

The auction is mechanism for determining a buyer and a price, it just happens to be full of psychological tricks designed to make the final price as high as possible. One of those  tricks is the hammer price, which is substantially lower than the final price paid: it makes you feel like you’re bidding less than you actually are.

And, sounding slightly familiar..

There’s also the endowment effect, as explained by Don Thompson: Each bidder starts with a top price in mind. When he momentarily becomes the high bidder, there is an “endowment effect.” He will pay more not to give up the painting, not to lose. Amid the tension of the auction, his reference point has changed to “I should win, this painting should be mine.” He is aware of the regret he would feel at losing what has become “his”.

Auctions News

Auction results: Christie’s, Paris, 10 December 2013

Image courtesy of Christie's.
Image courtesy of Christie’s.

As the following statistics clearly illustrate, today’s sale at Christie’s Paris (info) was anything but a success. While the combined low estimate was € 1,9 million, the sale made only € 1,3 million, far beneath the total high estimate of € 3 million – counting only the African art and excluding the buyer’s premium. Only 53 or 60% of the African objects were sold. 24 lots sold under the low estimate (that’s 45% of the sold lots), 16 between the low and high estimate and only 13 above expectations. From the 88 African art lots, one lot was withdrawn: the Luba staff (lot 105). From the remaining 87 objects, 34 failed to sell – that’s almost 40 %. Three of the more important objects that didn’t sell were the ivory Yoruba equestrian figure (lot 43) (est. € 50K-70K), the black Punu mask (est. € 100K-150K) and the smiling Fang head from Arman (est. € 200K-300K).

From the major pieces, the cover lot, a Dogon figure, was sold for € 250K after only two bids, that’s € 50K under the low estimate. After the Fiji head, it was second most expensive object in the sale. The Duala mask also was sold below the low estimate at € 135K (after four bids). Only the first Punu mask (lot 49) was sold (for € 145K, with an estimate of € 150K-250K). Again, like Allan Stone’s kifwebe mask, illustrating an African mask with works by Picasso that have nothing to do with the item for sale, proved rather unsuccessful – as shown by the Luluwa mask (lot 91) – sold for € 40K (est. € 50K-80K). Talking about Allan Stone, I thought the Songye figure (lot 102) definitely deserved more than € 65K. Lastly, the ivory Kongo staff finial sold for €80K (est. € 100K-150K). In 2002, it had been sold (at that time attached to a wooden staff) by Sotheby’s NY for $ 10K.

Though not numerous, there were some suprises: a Bamana antelope headdress sold for € 17K, with an estimate of € 4K-6K. A Kuba cup from the Schwob collection (ex Jeanne Walschot) was hammered down at € 16K (est. € 3K-5K). Though the face was slightly tilted, the cup not circular at the top and obviously not in a pristine condition, it showed great age and decades of usage. A Luba figure from a known hand tripled its lowest estimate, selling for € 36K. Selling well above the expectations, and justly, was a compelling Vili figure (lot 110) – esimated € 15K to € 20K, it was sold for € 90K. Most of the people I talked with agreed this was a great figure. The low estimate thus definitely attracted some additional interest, generating in this nice result.

From my personal favourite objects the stylized Senufo helmet mask exchanged hands for only € 12K and a Ligbi mask, which I consider to be one of the best around, failed to attract a single bid at € 20K – too unknown maybe; I don’t know.


Now also on twitter

A short service notice, you can now follow me & this blog on Twitter here.

Apologies for the poor service last week; the upcomming auctions demanded all my attention.


Warren Buffet’s advice on collecting

After reading Sylvia Porter’s advice on collecting, a reader informed me about an online article (here) with Warren Buffet’s advice on collecting coins. Buffet’s wisdom is of course also applicable to the collecting of any other kind of art. In 1998 and 1990, the author of the article, Scott Tilson (a coin collector) and Jim Halperin (the chairman of Heritage Auctions) even paid $20,000 to have lunch with Mr. Buffett. Here’s what Buffet has repeatedly said publicly, and to Scott Tilson personally, about what it takes to succeed in any market and how Tilson applied it to today’s rare coin market:

1. Specialize. Define your circle of competence and collect inside it.

Don’t try to be a jack-of-all-trades. Specialize on one or two specific areas and find out everything you can about them. Buy the book before you buy the coin.

Decades of experience and thousands of collectors have proven this to be an incontrovertible law for success. In fact, I have yet to hear or read about even a single collector who has successfully neglected this rule.

The bottom line is that the more educated you are, the more successful you will be — no exceptions!

2. Buy the very best quality coins you can . It’s better to buy a great coin at a fair price than a fair coin at a great price.

It’s critical to understand that sophisticated collectors always want the very best and remain ready, willing and able to act quickly when opportunity presents itself. These collectors understand that the opportunity to acquire a rarity is often rarer than the collectible itself! For these savvy folks, price is secondary, quality comes first.

Successful collectors understand that museum quality will always be highly sought after and become increasingly desirable while run-of-the- mill quality will never rise above boring and un-exciting.

Successful collectors understand that years from now it will be an insignificant fact that they “stretched” an extra 20 – 30% to add something special to their collection. Successful collectors aspire to locate rarities today that will be impossible to locate at virtually any price tomorrow. In fact, if you’re not prepared to “stretch” for the very best, you won’t be the person who ends up with a world class collection. The spoils will simply go to someone else.

David Queller, one of the most successful coin collectors of this era recently stated in an online interview that “the best, most expensive coins always wind up being the cheapest in the long run.”

3. Buy for the long term…with the idea of holding forever.

The best rare coins are just that…really rare and extremely difficult to find. It also takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to track down the really top tier material.

You must realize that what you sell today could very well be impossible to replace at any price tomorrow. When you buy the best it just keeps getting better. So think long term, every successful collector I have ever heard about has religiously embraced this strategy.

4. Patience is critical. Wait for the perfect pitch, right down the middle of the plate.

This one’s going to be tough for you to follow because it involves fighting human nature. I urge you to resist the temptation to rush out and acquire items that are inferior in quality and desirability. It’s easy to place funds in second tier material because these items are always readily available. Simply don’t do it, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot.

5. When the opportunity presents itself, act quickly and seize the day.

It’s not enough to simply indentify an opportunity. It’s more important … far more important … to decisively act on rare opportunities and exploit them to their fullest potential. Every long time collector can quickly rattle off the “coins that got away” …coins that they were offered and passed on… usually because of price. After you have done your homework have confidence in your judgment and do everything in your power to seal the deal.

6. Work only with Dealers you like and trust.

Coin collecting is a wonderful hobby and pursuit that should bring you pleasure and respite from the world’s everyday pressures and hassles. Make sure that the dealer you choose to work with is adding enjoyment to your life, not a barrage of annoying phone calls and hype.

I believe that the dealer(s) you choose to do business with will be the single most important decision you make. Find someone you trust that has an excellent reputation.

I like dealers that are interested in educating me …not just selling me stuff. Make sure your dealer offers full transparency and offers you the latest tools and technology available in the marketplace.

Don’t be afraid to ask for references ..and then be fastidious in following them up. Find a dealer that stands behind the coins they sell before, during and after the sale.

In return, show loyalty to your dealer and do your part to build a strong relationship. Savvy collectors know that the most loyal customers are the ones that get called first when the most coveted material surfaces. Do everything you can to be that person.

Just replace ‘coin’ by ‘African art’ and you have some great advice.


Winners International Tribal Art Book Prize 2013

International Tribal Art Book Prize 2013

Though my ere ibeji book did not win, I’m very happy to see that the International Tribal Art Book Prize 2013 was awarded to Bertrand Goy’s Côte d’Ivoire. Premiers regards sur la sculpture 1850 – 1935 – well deserved! All winners will receive a substantial endowment of advertising and editorial space in the publications of the organizers of the International Tribal Art Book Prize; these include Tribal Art magazine and the Sotheby’s African and Oceanic Art sales catalogs. Apparently two additional prizes were also awarded, but I couldn’t find any additional information on them.


Ovambo omakipa

Image courtesy of Binoche et Giquello.
Image courtesy of Binoche et Giquello.

An auction find. This wonderful composition of 110 Ovambo clasp-buttons from Namibia will be sold in Paris on 6 December (more info here). Tom Phillips wrote about these ornaments in Africa – the Art of a Continent (London, 2004: pp. 228-229):

Many Ovambo ivory clasp-buttons have recently appeared on the European and American markets, where they have been without exception shown as individual objects rather than in any social context. They are a feature of women’s prestige ceremonial dress in the area of Namibia on the Angolan border and among the Kwanyama in Angola itself. They are perforated at the back in the manner of a toggle to admit leather thongs which bind them to belts or strands of beads. Early examples are found in conjunction with shell ornaments. In a Windhoek collection I have seen a complete harness of leather feathering about 25 omakipa. The vocabulary of form is wide-ranging from narrow boat shapes through square pyramid to the more usual domed form sometimes culminating in a raised nipple in evident imitation of a breast. The are usually made of elephant ivory softened by burial before working into the desired shape. Most are etched with conventional patterns of cross-hatching, though early examples can show more invention and less rigid formats. The etched marks are heightened by rubbing in various plant juices including one of a virulent crimson (sometimes almost purple). Some smaller omakipa are made from rhinoceros ivory while more recently bone has been used and even wood. They are commissioned as gifts to the future bride by the groom. After marriage he will continue to add to his wife’s collection which she wears on feast days to reflect his wealth. A full regalia would include loose straps also bearing these ivory clasps that swing freely in the dance. Ironically a number of omakipa have recently found their way back to the world of female finery, made up as very expensive belts by a fashionable designer.

They are of course very decorative. Illustrated above, another example of a recontextualisation of a large group of omakipa.

News Opinions

Straight from the Arctic to the auction room: two Okvik Eskimo ivory heads

Image courtesy of Bonhams.
Image courtesy of Bonhams.

A curious event; Bonhams in their next native American art sale presents two Okvik Eskimo ivory heads (lot 1121 & lot 1122) with the following provenance:

Consigned by the Eskimo family who excavated it on Punuk Island off St. Lawrence Island in summer 2012.

Both heads were apparently excavated at the same site, at the same depth, just five feet away from eachother. Not much additional information is provided – except for the line “Conserved to American Institute for Conservation’s current standards and recommended practices”, whatever that might mean.

St. Lawrence Island, were these heads come from, was turned over to the Eskimo Native Corporation as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Since then the people felt free to do as they wished with the remains of their past and unsupervised digging has been carried on at an increasingly active pace. The digging up of old sites has become both a way to spend time and a source of income. One scholar reported that the inhabitants of one village made about eighty percent of their annual income from their summer diggings at the prehistoric middens. In the end, although the unsupervised digging by the Eskimo on St. Lawrence and elsewhere on the northwest Alaskan coast has brought much new material to light and stimulated a greater appreciation of this art throughout the world, the net results has been a great loss to knowledge. Vincent Plescia writes in the catalogue note: “Perhaps one day these mysterious jewels of the Arctic, imprinted and encoded with their indelible past, will be decrypted”. Perhaps, but their undocumented excavation won’t help. For further reading: Wardwell (Allen), Ancient Eskimo ivories of the Bering Strait, New York, 1986.

Gambell residents digging for old bones, ivory and artifacts on St. Lawrence Island. August 29,2012. Image courtesy of Loren Holmes via
Gambell residents digging for old bones, ivory and artifacts on St. Lawrence Island. August 29,2012. Image courtesy of Loren Holmes via

UPDATE: Lot 1121 made US$ 197K (est. $ 150K-250K) and lot 1122 $ 87,5K – that Eskimo family will be very happy.


Looking at ears

My last ramblings about ears this year. Morelli’s methodology (described in my previous post here), of course also has been applied on African sculpture. The most famous follower is Frans Olbrechts, who’s morphological analysis, revealed in his magnus opus Plastiek van Kongo (Antwerp, 1946), clearly was influenced by Morelli. Constantijn Petridis wrote a very interesting chapter about it in Frans Olbrechts op zoek naar kunst in Afrika (Antwerp, 2001).

From Olbrechts (F.), Plastiek van Kongo, Antwerp, 1946: fig. 12-15.
From Olbrechts (F.), Plastiek van Kongo, Antwerp, 1946: fig. 12-15.

In 1969, William Bascom wrote a chapter about “Creativity and Style in African Art” in Daniel Biebuyck’s Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art (University of California Press, 1969 – available online here). We read on page 112: “In Yoruba carvings of human figures, creativity is minimized in the treatment of the ear, with the result that the ear form is an important diagnostic in identifying the subtribal and individual origins of figures that may differ markedly in other respects”. But, it was only after postulating his own theories that Bascom learned about Morelli (see p. 112, footnote 11).

Bascom  (William) "Creativity and Style in African Art” in Biebuyck (D.) (ed.), "Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art”, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1969: p. 112, pl. 79.
From Bascom (William), Creativity and Style in African Art in Biebuyck (D.) (ed.), Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1969: p. 112, pl. 79.

To finish, various ere ibeji ears.

Ibeji ears from Claessens (B.), Ere Ibeji. Dos & Bertie Winkel Collection, 2013: p. 31).
Ibeji ears from Claessens (B.), Ere Ibeji. Dos & Bertie Winkel Collection, 2013: p. 31).

With many thanks to Gerard van den Heuvel for the images.