1966 was quite a year! A change that was not immediately apparent. For myself a life-changer. I met Bill Fagg, then head of the African section of the British Museum, in the Musée de l’Homme in the exhibition of Paul Tishman’s African collection. A decade later he became my consultant at Christie’s.
The Helena Rubenstein collection was sold in May by Parke Bernet in conjunction with Sotheby’s, on Madison Avenue, New York. The highest price was paid for the ‘Bangwa Queen’ followed by two Fang figures and a Bambara marionette. The last, when re-offered a decade later at a tenth the price paid was unsold. Provenance is not everything.
There was the first major exhibition of African art in Dakar [The First World Festival of Negro Arts]. The museum buildings led down to the sea, thus some Cameroon stools were photographed on the beach!
Flower power was spreading from California, the war in Biafra was about to start, releasing hundreds of artefacts from the south-east of Nigeria on to the market, especially in Paris.
Paris was certainly a centre for African art, but unlike today there was no hub. Across the Atlantic the interest was very strong, backed by rich collectors, and museums were buying. The major dealers were John J. Klejman, Julius Carlebach and Merton Simpson in New York, Charles Ratton in Paris was dominant; Davis Street a hub in London with Berkeley Galleries (Ernest Ohly), Sidney Burney and Gimpels (who sold mainly paintings). Peter Wilson with the help of his friend John Hewett was building a department in Sotheby’s, meanwhile Christie’s just included anything that arrived in a sale of Antiquities, Far Eastern or Arms and Armour. The record for a tribal object at auction was £10,000, doubled two years later.
There had been some exhibitions contrasting modern art with tribal, but the general public was not interested. The buyers were mainly artists and intellectuals. In London, Jacob Epstein had died in 1960, and the Sainsburys had to go to Paris for most of their purchases.
There were convivial dinner parties, and drinks with nibbles at openings of exhibitions, but nothing like the lavish entertainments of the following decade. The 1970s saw a rapid rise in the interest and prices for African art as the Continent emptied of its treasures. Bill Fagg suggested that anyone who wished to study Nigerian art in the 1970s should visit the US rather than Africa.
Hermione Waterfield joined Christie’s auction house in 1961, working closely with William Fagg as Director. Together, they created the dedicated ‘Tribal Art’ department in 1975.