An interior designer walks into a contemporary home and says, “this wall needs a mask.” Sounds like the start of a ‘bar joke’ but this is how Barry Hecht started his collecting journey. Little did that interior designer know that her recommendation to ‘enhance’ the white walls of the Hecht home with a mask would lead to the creation of one of the finest collections of eastern Nigerian art.
Barry not only focuses on the aesthetic appeal of the masks and figures in his collection but by combining scholarly research, expert networking with leaders in the field, and meticulous record-keeping, he has also built a wealth of knowledge about the use and distinguishing features of the works in his collection. “To me, the pleasure of collecting and writing about African art derives from the aesthetics of the objects, learning about their origin and use, and making a contribution to the art history of eastern Nigeria.”
We hear more from Barry Hecht in this Collector Spotlight. And without hesitation, Barry goes straight in!
We moved into the house that we live in now — it’s a very contemporary house — around 1985. One evening, we had some people over and one woman that we were friendly with was an interior decorator. She said, “do you know what would look great on the wall would be an African mask.” My wife and I looked at each other and said, what? She said, “well, you’re from New York. So the next time you go back to New York, there’re several places you could go [to find a mask]. Just drop in and see what you like.”
It sounded like a good idea so, the next time we were in New York, we visited a few galleries and needless to say, we had no idea what we were doing. We took everything at face value and we bought maybe four or five things and of course, ultimately, they turned out to be fake. But of course, I didn’t know that first-hand.
At that time, the National Museum of African Art was on Capitol Hill. So I went down to a couple of shows and the first show I saw was Chike Aniakor and Skip Cole’s show on Igbo Arts. When I went down there, they said, “we have docents and we’re going to have a new training session.” I said, great and signed up to become a docent — I was a docent for ten years.
[As a docent] I started meeting people that were knowledgeable in African art and one of the first people I met was Roy Sieber. Roy Sieber and I became fast friends. At that time he was in Washington, D.C. six months of the year and the rest of the year in Bloomington, Indiana. When I started seriously collecting, every Sunday morning I was down at his place with a box with a mask or figure in it and some books. We would sit around his kitchen table with his wife and talk about African art. And even when he went back to Bloomington, we spoke every Wednesday.
Also, early on, I met this guy, Bill Arnett, who was an African art dealer from Atlanta. He exhibited at an antique show in Washington D.C. What they considered antiques were 18th and 19th-century American furniture. What he considered antiques were pre-Colombian pieces of art! But they allowed him in the show which was where we met. He had published ‘Three Rivers of Nigeria’ and he still had many of the works in the book. I bought a couple of things for him.
Those were two early influences that I had.
I mean, we said to the gallerist that we wanted something authentic, but it didn't have to be ancient. To them, that meant 'fake.'
We didn't spend a huge amount of money, but nevertheless, we had things that eventually we had to give up. And actually what I did with some of those things was to donate them to children's museums. They loved them because they were objects that children could hold, look at, and learn about. They weren't so valuable that they couldn't be damaged.
I decided to collect since after seeing the initial shows, it was clear that there were complex stories behind these art objects — where things were made, who made them and how were they used. The aesthetics were only part of the impetus to collect.
The next thing that happened was in the late eighties — I got a call from the National Museum, they all knew me at that point. They said, "we have somebody here that wants to come out and see your collection. He's here from England." I made arrangements for him to come out and who was it? G.I. Jones [Gwilym Iwan Jones (3 May 1904 – 25 January 1995)]!
G.I. Jones and his wife Ursula came to my house and he walked around and said, “We used to call this, this and we used to call this, that.” He was in Nigeria from 1928 to 1948. He taught at Cambridge until 1970 and then retired. What he was trying to do at the time that I met him, was to document as many pieces from eastern Nigeria as he could so that scholars could use [his research] in the future to learn about eastern Nigeria. He had, of course, also taken five or six thousand photographs in the field.
We talked for hours and we continued to communicate by mail. I have about six letters from him on the old blue paper that you fold over. He invited me to visit him in Cambridge in the late eighties. I went to his home and he showed me the things that he was allowed to take out of Nigeria by Kenneth Murray, who had set up the Nigerian museum system. I also saw his pictures from his time in Nigeria. We made arrangements to go over to the Cambridge Museum reserves, and of course, at that time, G.I. Jones was easily in his mid to late eighties. We’re going up and down on ladders for two or three hours and he said to me, “I hope you’re not getting tired!” We saw things that were collected at the beginning of the 20th-century that were donated to the museum.
He eventually had a stroke but I continued to communicate with G.I. Jones through his wife. He sent me a few additional pictures of things that he had seen in the field that were never published. That really was a great experience.
When I first started — maybe the first year or two — I collected everything. Of course, I didn't know very much about what I was doing. But after being exposed to Roy Sieber, Bill Annett, and G. I. Jones, I concentrated on eastern Nigeria. I went to Paris and Brussels a couple of times where you could get good things from eastern Nigeria because [many collectors] were mostly interested in [art from] Gabon, Congo and Ivory Coast. Sometimes you could do well there and I did get some of my very good things there, from Alain Dufour, Leloup and Monbrison.
The other very important person that I met was Christian Duponcheel. Duponcheel was a dealer and had a relationship with Tervuren. In 1964, he went to Nigeria for one year after which he brought back 900 pieces of eastern Nigerian art. He got one of these old books from the early 20th-century that described towns in the Benue Valley. He used ‘Northern Nigerian Tribes and Emirates’ (1919) as a roadmap to get things. He really knew eastern Nigerian art.
He stayed in a Mama village for one month and he collected a whole bunch of masks. And in fact, he told me about once being stooped by a policeman after he left that area. They were trying to prove that he was stealing the masks to bring them back. He said, "fine, let's go back to the Mama villages." People started coming up to them and said, "how come you bought this guy's mask and you didn't buy mine?" He wasn't stealing them. He was buying them. He had 21 Mama masks at that time and the policeman gave him an English pound a piece and they confiscated all 21 masks from him. But he still had 900 pieces.
He would often come to the United States — two or three times a year. He brought out nine Eket figures in 1964 that are very popular now. He had nine of them! The best one he held onto, the one that was eventually published in 'Utotombo [L'Art D'Afrique Noire Dans Les Collections Privees Belges]'. He also gave me some of the field photographs that he took.
He also went to a Nok village where he was told — and this is way before all those Nok pieces came out — they said to him, “you know, if you dig there, you’re going to find something.” He had to pay them a small amount of money for permission to dig. He had pictures, serial pictures of him uncovering pieces. In 1964, he had an entire Nok figure, which was probably somewhere between three and four feet tall. It was in seventeen pieces. He put the head together but he never did the rest of it. I saw the figure in his home.
Once, when he came over to our home, I showed him a mask. It’s a very unusual mask — it’s five and a half inches tall. I had gotten it through Amyas Naegele who got it from a New York collection. I asked Duponcheel where he thought the mask was from. He said, “Oh, it’s Ogoni”. So I asked, “well, how do you know?” He replied, “I collected it in the field!” He really knew Nigerian art. He would find things that he knew would fit into my collection. He knew the kinds of aesthetics that I was looking for.
I also dealt with dealers in the United States — Merton Simpson, Eric Robertson, Mona Gavigan, and Charles Jones, who’s down in North Carolina. I dealt a little bit with Charles Davis and Joshua Dimonstein. In fact, I started dealing with Joshua Dimonstein’s father, who actually was a dealer and an artist himself. He did a couple of early shows on the Benue with Jim Willis in California.
Well, in fact, that's one of the reasons why I got into eastern Nigerian art, there are so many ethnic groups and so many styles of carving. That's why it's always very hard for me to say I'm looking for a particular type of object because every time I say that, something else comes up that I'm not expecting.
One thing that was really helpful to me is that Sieber had a number of students that were successful and almost all of them did PhDs. He was able to get me original copies of their PhD theses and original photographs. I started accumulating documentation. I never really met Arnold Rubin but I spoke to him on the phone a couple of times and we communicated by mail, and I was able to get copies of pictures all all his field photographs from his PhD thesis. I met Marla Berns, in charge at the Fowler Museum at UCLA and a student of Arnold Rubin.
I also met some of Sieber's other students including Martha Anderson, who lives in Minnesota. She did her PhD thesis on Central Ijo art. It was interesting because I acquired a mask from Eric Robertson that I said, "wow, that really looks familiar to me." And when I look back on Martha's PhD thesis, that mask was by the same hand as the one she published. So I said to her, "do you know anything about the mask?" And she said, "no but I saw it in the reserves in the Lagos Museum. The next time I go back, I'll find the information for you." So she goes back to Nigeria, she finds the card catalogue and discovers that the mask was was made in 1946 from a town called Okitipupa. She said, "so that's the good news. The bad news is that since the last time I was here, termites ate the mask in the museum!"
I have a lot of documentation that most people don’t have. It’s very helpful to have PhD theses and photographs, they help you in this collecting field. One thing I would do every time somebody would offer me something is that I’d go to all these folders that I have to look at similar objects.
I also acquired additional documentation from Ekpo Eyo’s students — Christa Clarke and Christopher Slogar (now teaching in the University of California system). Christa worked on Cross River monoliths and Slogar worked on Oron figures and Qua (Calabar) terracottas.
Keith Nicklin (deceased) and his wife Jill Salmons spent the better part of the 1970s in the Cross River area and share a lot of insight and recommendations. I have also communicated with Carol Ann Lorenz (PhD on Ishan) and Skip Cole (Igbo). David Zeitlyn, a Mambila expert, spent two days at my home just a few months before COVID-19. I have also had visits from Perkins Foss (Urhobo), Jean Borgatti (area of expertise: Igbira area) and Phil Peek (Isoko and lower Niger Bronze industry).
My response is going to sound somewhat trite but you have to deal with somebody you can trust. A dealer that has the experience that can help you. You also have to see as many things as you can. You know, when I was collecting early on, I was going to New York at least once a month. I'd go around to various galleries and see what's available.
I know there's art that's left. There was a guy that I was dealing with who was in Lagos. I haven't dealt with him for a few years now, but his name was George Uwechue, a young Igbo guy. He has some family in Atlanta, Georgia and one day he just shows up at my house and he says to me, "I don't have anything to sell you right now, but I sell the things that you collect." George supplied mostly honest material since some of his things were included in African art exhibitions although the availability of objects has slowed down markedly. I know that they were legitimate objects. He was a young guy, he was very energetic and he would go to the local areas. He would go to the Benue, he would go down to the Ijo area and he would try to get things.
The other person that was very influential to me was Sydney Kasfir. She came to my house a couple of times. She knew so much, she had so much information that we weren't even able to get through all my pieces!
About ten years ago they did a show at the Baltimore Museum of Art. They used mostly my collection of eastern Nigerian art and wanted to get a curator that was familiar with that area. So I recommended Sydney. The exhibition had a one-day symposium where some of the people that she brought on, other younger academics, gave talks. Eli Bentor and Amanda Carlson were two scholars who participated in the show and symposium. They also invited three elders, members of the Ekpe society from the Elpe Society of Maryland. They were really proud to be there and their leader spoke briefly at the symposium too. It was really an experience.
If something comes up, I might be in touch with Martha Anderson, Eli Bentor or Jill Salmons. Eli Bentor did his master's thesis on Ikenga figures and his PhD on the Aro of the Cross River area. David Zemanek is another person that I rely on more recently, I've also bought some things from his auction. He sees a ton of material and he's very forthcoming with information. Sometimes I'll send him pictures of things that I'm offered and he'll send me pictures of things that he's offered. He's been very helpful to me.
I have not collected since February 2020. In May, I was quite ill with COVID-19. I now have over 400 pieces.
It's very rare that I say that I have to get a Mumuye figure or something like that because I'll think about it and then somebody will offer me something that I had no idea about but I really like. So in a way, having all this previous documentation is sometimes, I wouldn't exactly call it a detriment, but I would say that if somebody shows you a mask and you know that there are one or two better ones, and you're only collecting this area, it makes it difficult to buy things. And in fact, that was part of the problem — early on when my wife and I went to Europe, we'd go into a gallery and I knew in the back of my mind that you could do a lot better.
I've donated a lot of pieces in the past, maybe a hundred pieces. I gave a number of pieces to the Baltimore Museum of Art because they have limited funds. Because Sieber was so nice to me, I gave a number of pieces to Indiana and I gave a few pieces to the Michael C Carlos Museum because Sydney Kasfier was really nice to me. And in fact, I had this huge Idoma elephant mask — there are maybe only three or four in the literature — Sydney had always been so nice to me so I donated it to them and they invited us down there. You would think that we were royalty the way they treated us.
Well, I will tell you that since I started posting things on Instagram, I've gotten some requests from some dealers and some collectors. What I think I'm probably going to do is I would like to hold on to my Cross-River material for as long as I can — Ibibio, Ogoni, Boki, Ejagham, going out to the Widekum and the Nigeria Cameroon border. Maybe I'll sell some of the things from the Benue and Ijo areas. And there is some interest.
The best outcome would be to keep the collection together but with the current situation with museums, it does not appear to be a practical solution.
I think that for people that are collecting, you just have to see as much as you can and contact people. I'm always willing to give somebody an opinion. You just have to seek out the right people, see and touch things, deal with reliable dealers. That would be my major advice for people.
Unfortunately, the number of dealers with first-hand knowledge of field collecting is dwindling and generalist academics like Roy Sieber are hard to find. In the last few years, I have dealt with Amyas Naegele. Besides being an excellent dealer, base maker and restorer, he was asked to sell the reserves of the Berman Gallery in New York which was active in the '70s. The storage contained many objects from the early '70s when lots of Nigerian objects were coming out.
In addition, a lot of people don't insure their things. But to be honest with you many insurers have no idea what they were looking at. ATADA can help arrange insurance for collectors and dealers. So that's another recommendation that I would have, insure your things and make sure that you're insuring them with a company that knows what they're doing.
I think I'm done.
Although I may not collect further, I often receive requests for information regarding material from my area. I have hosted the docent group from the National Museum and Friends groups from several museums. Ekpo Eyo and Eli Bentor have brought groups to my home. For many years I loaned a number of pieces to museum shows. Recently, I was contacted by Constantine Petridis for a future exhibition to include two of my objects at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Fort Worth Museum of Art.