Collector Spotlight

Magnus & Tina Svensson, Sweden

November 14, 2017 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Tell us a little about yourself, how did you discover classic African art?

We’re from a small town in Sweden so didn’t get a lot of exposure to African art early on. We both visited a flea market back in 1991, found boxes full of African art and instantly fell in love with the style. It was so different from anything we’d ever seen before. We bought some of those African objects—a Dogon box, a Baule sculpture and a Bamana sculpture—they all turned out to be later copies. They have now ended up together with some other objects from our learning time in what we call our ‘banana boxes’. We started to investigate what every piece was. We went to the library—there were no good internet sources at this time, this was 1991 after all. So it was a hard time to learn, but the more we read the more interested we became.

Then we started to look for exhibitions. Shortly after we found by chance in a local newspaper, an exhibition at Gallery Bass not far from us. It was a major part of the exhibition 'Afrikanst' at Malmö Konsthall in 1986. This was our second eye-opener. We bought the exhibition catalogue and fell in love with all the objects in the book. We spent lots of hours learning and admiring Georg Oddners' pictures in the book. And we also found the name Jan Lundberg, the curator / selector of the exhibition, who we will come back to later.

Soon after there was a small exhibition in Lund that featured the African art collection of Benkt Åke Benktsson, a film artist. This exhibition was also a reminder that tribal art was the thing for us. There were also exhibitions at the national museum in Denmark. That was the time we can say we really started our proper collecting journey.

When did you start collecting?

We couldn’t find pieces in Sweden. There were some in the antique shops in Gothenburg but good things were really hard to find. We didn’t know any collectors. The dealer, Jan Lundberg was around as a possible contact but we were new to this field and didn’t feel like we had the courage to get in touch with him. We felt like we were very very low and that he was so very very high.

We eventually got the courage to contact Jan Lundberg and over the next 7-8 years he worked with us to find pieces from the 'Afrikanskt' catalogue. We wanted to start collecting the pieces in the book. Today, I think we have about 15 pieces from the book.

Mende (Temne) Figure, Sierra Leone
Photograph by Magnus Svensson
Igbo Alusi Shrine Figure, Nigeria
Photograph by Magnus Svensson
Bamana Boli Nyama Power Figure, Mali
Photograph by Magnus Svensson

What types of objects do you collect now, what do you enjoy?

[TINA] Personally I like figurative objects. [MAGNUS] Both of us go for figures but I also fell in love with masks. Figures first, then masks.

We’re now both starting to look more into objects with encrusted patinas and we’ve always liked unusual things. We like objects that are apart from the ordinary, something different. That’s not necessarily the best buy however… there’s the risk that we may not be able to sell them again as our taste may not be appealing to everyone. However, more and more, unusual things are becoming more popular.

We're also now more interested in pieces with provenance. Provenance is becoming so important to have, especially if you want to sell your pieces or trade them in the future. It’s hard if pieces don’t have good provenance. People are increasingly looking to the provenance of a piece.

Jan Lundberg with a Senufo Gahariga hornbill figure from the Svensson collection

How do you add to your collection?

Mostly dealers. Jan Lundberg is a dealer, he’s been a dealer for many years. But we also consider him a mentor and a very good friend. The turning point in our collecting was when we met Jan. We started to see the objects in a different way. He taught us to look at the arches, look at the lines, look at the negative spaces. We were trained to look at the objects as art! He has taught us how to look. His knowledge is like a final jigsaw piece where everything falls in place. He could point out things that we couldn’t set a finger on, we had a ‘feeling’ but couldn't figure out why. He has really been a great mentor for us.

It’s a good idea, if you want something, like in our case from 'Afrikanskt', that you put out some questions to many dealers; “oh I’m looking for this from 'Afrikanskt', maybe you can find it for me”. It’s good to have many options by putting out your wish-list. Dealers start to know what type of objects you’re looking for and can search for those pieces for you. The first step is to get in touch, don’t be afraid and don’t think they are above you. We would have loved to have had that advice some years ago. Don’t wait ten years. Do it now, get contact with a dealer.

We don’t have a ‘special’ dealer that we like. We can’t tell what we fall in love with. It’s different each time. We don’t have a favourite. But we know which dealers have the quality that we look for. We also buy from collectors. I think it’s mostly from dealers now however.

Makonde Muti Wa Lipito 'Head of the Lipiko' Helmet Mask, Tanzania
Photograph by Magnus Svensson

What steps do you take before a purchase?

Check our bank account!

We try to search online and in books for other similar pieces to compare, to find a reference. If we see something on the internet that we like, we won’t buy it straight away. We never buy from a picture alone. We want it in our hands. We’ve seen some pieces that looked great in pictures but were not good in real life. You have to see it, feel it, touch it and get a connection. You can’t do that with a picture. Of course you can see the quality but you have to experience it in person. And if the feeling is the same in real life as you had with the picture then go for it. So if it’s something for us, we want to see it in reality and feel a connection to the piece. It’s hard to explain what the feeling is.

What star piece are you still looking for?

[MAGNUS] I obviously want classic things like a nice Kota or Fang. Of course I’d love to have a really good Songye piece. But you can also find masterpieces from lots of other tribes. Right now I’d love to have a Kaka… [TINA] Me too! And a Teke, that’s a nice classic piece.

Luluwa Crouching Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Photograph by Magnus Svensson
Luluwa Crouching Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Photograph by Magnus Svensson

Do you like to collect as much as possible or curate a small selection of pieces?

We are starting to trade now. Before we didn’t… unfortunately. We didn’t sell anything. But now we’re trying. We have to make space and also because the pieces are more expensive the higher up you go. So you have to put in some pieces and some money to get a better object.

There is one trade we did that we’re still upset about though! But you have to give and take. You only live once and there are always pieces you fall in love with. You can’t sit in your home and have everything for a lifetime. Better to have development in your collection. We’re starting to realise that now. You have to let things go even if it’s hard.

I think it’s the collectors mind… I just want to keep it. But we must get rid of that. It’s still hard.

What are some of the reactions you receive on your collection?

It’s mostly positive. We have some Ekoi pieces. Somebody that once visited was really shocked by them, they thought the pieces were scary. They looked at us like “ok, you’re not right in the head”. Another person asked a strange question; “how do you dust all these piece, how do you clean them?” Clean? No, we never clean these pieces!

But almost everyone likes the style of African art and they can see one or two pieces that they would personally own. We have friends that have started to collect after seeing our collection. We’re now giving away some pieces from our banana boxes! Pieces from that first visit to the flea market.

45 spotlights illuminate African art from the Svensson collection
Photograph by Magnus Svensson

What advice would you have for collectors starting out in African art?

Look around. We’re at Parcours des Mondes today and it really is the right place to come to see real pieces. There is so much to see! Don’t go for the expensive pieces when you first start. Just take a look. Look, wait, learn. Go to museums, meet collectors and talk to dealers.

A mentor is really good to have. A mentor could be a dealer or a collector. Get in touch with collectors. We’re always happy to share what we know. If you are a new or young collector in Sweden or Denmark then get in touch, come and look at pieces. We are part of a group of collectors in southern Sweden and Copenhagen that keep in touch, we usually meet regularly, it's always nice. We always have our home open if new collectors want to look at pieces and learn.

We try to promote this to a younger generation too. As an example, we recently contributed some of our objects (two pieces in Sweden and two in Denmark) to a TV program called 'Changed are Changed'. It was a fun experience for us also.

Another thing we’ve learned is that when you’re ready to buy, maybe you shouldn’t go for the pieces that were made for you to fall in love with. It’s so good, too perfect, it’s too right. Everything is too, too, too! It was probably made for us. Of course there is a danger also of buying something that isn’t ordinary, not usual… often this turns out to be a fantasy object. And I think if it’s too cheap, be aware.

[MAGNUS] Learn to photograph your objects. As I photograph pieces, I also get a sense of the lines and the movement of the objects. You need to turn the pieces around, light them in different ways. It’s a great way to learn more about the objects.

Yaka N'Koku Ngoombu Slit Drum, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Photograph by Magnus Svensson

And learn to display them with correct lighting. If you buy an object it’s always good to get it out in the sun. It’s good way to see if there is something wrong with it. When you have an object in your house, you need to get that lighting right, it’s so important as you are the one living with these pieces. You want to enjoy them as much as you can. In our dining room, we have painted the walls and ceiling black with dark flooring. We have 45 spotlights in that one room. They give each piece a scene. Everything is about light and shadows. It’s critical in getting the most from the piece, to make it come alive.

The most important piece of advice however is to see and touch as many pieces as you can. Train your eye and you will begin to see the differences sooner or later. Then you will see pieces and know, that one—no, that one—yes!

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