What does the industry need to attract young collectors? Demystification and transparency. That’s according to 21-year-old collector Cooper Evans who was sixteen when he bought his first piece — a $150 fake Bwa mask.
Residing in Atlanta Georgia, Cooper hunts through online auctions to find authentic works of art; “For me, collecting online is really not a generational thing, it’s more out of necessity. There are no African art galleries anywhere near me”. He centres his collecting around “repeating forms and ensembles but I like variation in form too.”
We caught up with Cooper to learn more about how he started out collecting, the works he’s passionate about, and the advice he’d give to dealers and galleries to attract a younger audience to this collecting field.
I was born in Southern California, so I'm really far from home [currently Atlanta, Georgia]. I was never exposed to 'tribal arts' directly but I think just art in general — and Disneyland, to be honest — really inspired me. There is one ride that they just made a movie about, and the original ride has above its entrance, a stylised mask that's based on a Bwa mask. That was my introduction.
But then I remember I was at my aunt's house and there was an antique catalogue and I was looking through it, like one of those generalist things with everything. There was a little section, probably about fifteen items. And it was mostly Oceanic, like some gope boards, maybe like a skull rack. I can't remember all of it exactly, but I remember seeing the Dayak skulls and I said, “wow, that's cool.” But then you move along and you realise there are ethical concerns, a lot of them are faked, and they are expensive. So I got away from tribal skulls and stuff like that.
I feel like sculpture, especially figures and masks, really capture a moment. These were once part of a moment, they're part of something bigger.
I wanted to start collecting something to put around me cause I didn’t want to live in a bland environment. Before that, I really had never decorated it. So I really wanted something around me that was significant culturally. I love ritual arts cause I think of everything as a ritual and a series of steps. But it kind of arose that I want more. So I went out to a flea market and I bought a couple of fake Bwa masks because that was the style I was familiar with.
I got those and I was looking online at African art galleries and people who could appraise this stuff and give me an idea of what I have. I contacted James Stevenson because his page is at the top of Google. Even today, if you search for 'African art gallery', you get James Stephenson. So James was the first guy I contacted and he put me in contact with Amyas in Manhattan. I asked Amyas his opinion on my objects, and told me, "you know, these are fakes... but don't give up. Everyone buys fakes."
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I was sixteen. I paid 150 dollars or so for each mask, so being fake didn't really phase me as I still enjoyed them decoratively at the time. And I always had the option of just getting rid of them as decorations. As a carving, they're not worthless.
It never really phased me until I got into significant amounts of money. I bought a mask for $700 or so really early on, and it ended up being a fake. I battled with that for a long time but then I eventually just came to terms with it because I got to a certain point where I had gotten so many good deals on things that I can kind of forget the bad ones, you know? Bad deals happen, so you're bound to get something bad or dubious or manipulated. That's just going to happen. But you also have to realise how many good things you can find if you are really persistent.
I bought a couple more fakes, looked at online auctions, and landed a couple of really cheap fakes.
But then this mask with a blue beard, the little Dan, was the first authentic item I ever bought. It was at an auction [Hindman Sale 564 - Fine Furniture and Decorative Arts, 18 April 2018] that I had my eye on for about a month. What really drew me to it was that it had the provenance list that said it was from the Detroit Institute of Arts. I managed to snag the mask as well, as a little terracotta bowl that I got for about 80 dollars.
That first Dan mask pushed me in the direction of [collecting] Dan masks in general because I like the naturalism. I also liked that it was smaller than I expected.
I got so lucky even if it’s not terribly blue chip.
"I feel like sculpture, especially figures and masks, really capture a moment. These were once part of a moment, they're part of something bigger."
It’s the kind of art I aspire for, with the most recent example the Michel Périnet Dan mask. It's sculpturally very beautiful and very well-balanced. For me, it falls within the top 1%. The patina looks like it’s melting almost, like someone made the mask out of wax and then put a blow torch to it. I saw a picture of the back and it's just fantastically old, easily 19th century. I just think it's a great piece.
An item that I own that I find to be a centrepiece is my Songye mask. It's not quite ‘blue chip’, but I am very proud to own it. I had been looking at it for about a month because at some auctions they'll list the item a week before it's going to hammer. And then certain ones like this one will be listed a month and a half before it is going to hammer.
I had seen it and I recognised the blue lines in an African Arts magazine. I love the mask on the cover, which Woods Davy owns. I read the article on prototype Songye masks and when I was reading the article, there was this picture of all the masks with the blue, the bright blue pigment... and right there, in that picture, is my mask.
Well, the thing is, I read the article and it was kind of a vague memory for me. I didn't remember explicitly that this mask was in this picture, but I remembered there were some very similarly carved masks with the Reckitt's Blue laundry pigment, which I love. I have about a dozen items with Reckitt's Blue on them.
When I initially saw it I said to myself, "oh, this is a cool mask. The back looks better than 99% of them. I like that it's got a little part of the costume and oh, it looks familiar. So I'll take a swing." And I was going to use it as an opportunity to learn about Songye masks. So I bought the Woods Davy book and I went to see a few masks in New York. The bidding started at 150 euros, and I went for it!
I ended up getting it for peanuts. I didn't even know it was this great of a thing until later... This was in New York. I had won it right before I went to go see Amyas, just like to hang out at his shop. And when I got there I told him about it. He was kind of sceptical at first — and rightfully so — because Songye masks are widely faked. But later that night I was at a pizza place, Angelo's Pizza on Broadway. I was searching for this picture and thinking, "I gotta find this picture of these masks with the Reckitts blue on them." And I saw it and said to myself “holy cow!” My heart just skipped a beat. I think this was my most significant discovery of this type.
Because this is the kind of thing that I dream about. You often see in museums, these pictures of the masks dancing out in the field and then you see that you have the exact mask. This mask was in the field, photographed and collected by Karl Plasmans. It was surreal, very surreal.
I do consider myself a collector. I kind of have two congruent mindsets: I have the one that likes the very ‘traditional’, patina, age, provenance… that stuff is cool, it's part of the collecting experience. But I also love the stuff that's more contemporary, that’s not as old and maybe has no provenance, but that is very sculpturally fine. I think there are still really great pieces being made today.
I like colour and patina as much as each other. This red Luchazi mask didn't fetch a very high price because it's this painted mask when people want the ones with the really dark wood showing. You can see there are some spots where the paint has chipped off and there's that deep brown wood underneath. As nice as the dark brown is, I like the way the red strikes you.
To me, if I have all these statues and masks that have got these dark brown, black, patinas, it kind of becomes too homogenous for me. I like the punctuation that these bright colours provide.
And in my collecting, I like different forms too. I like repeating forms and ensembles but I like variation in form too.
When collecting, I buy what I love within realistic boundaries. I think every collector breaks the bank once in a while. You find a piece and you go absolutely crazy for it and you end up throwing in maybe five more bids than you would’ve if you were thinking straight. But I’ve ended up with pieces that I absolutely love that way. Like this Kuba mask. I went pretty high on that one. I didn’t expect it to go as high as it did. I got it for a good price, but it wasn’t free. Like Woods Davy says: “there are no free lunches anymore!”
My biggest one is the Guy van Rijn African Heritage Documentation & Research database for comparables. It’s such a comprehensive archive. Paying the full subscription fee is totally worth it because you can see full provenances, field photos, collector and dealer profiles. That's my biggest resource because it's just easier than looking through a book. Then if I am on the fence about authenticity, I will ask experts and fellow collectors.
For me, collecting online is really not a generational thing, it’s more out of necessity. There are no African art galleries anywhere near me, and only two museums that have significant collections of African art - those being the Carlos Museum at Emory and the High Museum.
But buying online also appeals to me because I like the hunt and how it allows me to look for the very specific pieces I’m looking for. It also allows me to develop my taste independently, uninfluenced by dealers. In addition, I find that some dealers don’t often have objects for under a certain price.
I am noticing though that I’m now shying away from the small auctions, buying less at the country house auctions. I'm trying to buy more significant pieces, buying less, and with more restraint which for me is very hard.
You can get the best prices at auctions, but you're also taking the biggest risk. You're the one you're taking 100% of the hit.
There's too many to name. There are dozens, literally dozens of people. I have very specific people for very specific things. I talk to a few people about Kongo figures, about specific ethnic groups, people that know the work created by these groups very well and they can tell me everything about them. I don't really have any one person.
I think the biggest influences have been Amyas Naegele, who has introduced me to so many people. A huge thanks to all of the members of the 'Great or Fake? Discovering African Art' Facebook group. Lots of the active people are very close friends.
Amyas has mentored me a lot and has pushed me in the right direction. He'll crack the whip on me if I slip up. I like how he keeps me on the straight and narrow. He gives me so much advice on so many things.
I think finding a mentor who is close to you, so you can see them because you have to handle items. You can only develop so far off of pictures and books. You have to handle vetted, great things. And that was a big hurdle for me because I'm out in the middle of Georgia with two museums and those two museums have a total of like 300 items on display.
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Demystify it. There's a lot of uncertainty around ethics and morality, and art collecting, in general, seems very controversial because you've got, even with contemporary works, galleries taking a big cut and artists only getting a small share. There are all these different ethical debates.
Everyone is asking the question, “how did this come here?” You have to make that clear. This wasn't really clear to me until I visited New York and met with dealers and field collectors. I was told that one of them collected almost nothing himself because he couldn’t, due to death threats and the sacred status of many pieces even today. Objects travelled through intermediaries, such as travelling farmers and traders, whose names are often forgotten.
Transparency in pricing is also important because it's very difficult to understand how pieces are priced. A lot of it I've found is based on subtleties, teeny tiny little things like the way a lip is rendered or the way the eyes sit.
Find someone who knows what they're doing because you can't go into this alone. There's just no way. So find someone to help you, a mentor that’s preferably in your area or that’s close enough to you. If you live in Germany, you can commute to Paris or you can commute to Brussels. Even if it's a museum curator, find someone who knows what they're doing.
And then, once you're at the point where you want to start buying things, don't rush into it. I think the biggest mistake you can make is trying to get a piece that’s too good to be true. If you see a piece that you think is really great and it's for a really great price and you think it's real, get advice before rushing in. I have made many mistakes by not getting advice on unfamiliar areas. If there's any doubt about a piece, just toss it to the side. Buy pieces that you're certain about and that you've had experts vet for you. Get someone to back you up, especially as a young collector and just buy what you love when you see it.