Dr Oliver E. Cobb in his Seattle home with his Baga 'lady', once in the collection of René Rasmussen.

Collector Spotlight

Dr. Oliver E. Cobb, United States

September 09, 2020 By: Adenike Cosgrove

2012 was a record-making year for classic African art. The first 21 lots of the Sotheby’s ‘Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie’, 12 June 2012, Paris auction doubled their €1.8m high estimate, fetching €3,580,450. A Kuba cup sold for €780,750—the highest still on record, a Fang reliquary figure sold for €1,632,750—among the top ten most expensive Fang figures ever sold at auction, and a Tiv figure sold for €324,750, smashing all previous auction records.

Dr Oliver Ellsworth Cobb, the owner of the 21 lots, had perfectly timed the market and with the proceeds made “enough money to provide for school and college education for all six grandchildren.”

Oliver’s “collecting gene”—his mother and grandfather were both collectors—helped form an exceptional collection, part of which was sold in the 2012 sale. Today, Oliver, together with his wife Pamela, still buys African art although he confesses that he has stopped “seeking expensive pieces” and instead focuses on the rare and unusual. The excitement of pursuing a piece is still there, with “the last one you just bought being a favourite until you select again.”

Join us as we delve into Oliver’s collecting history and discuss how his collection has evolved over his 52-year “adventure of search, discovery and pleasure.”

“I now realise I was genetically selected to become a collector.”

You grew up in a family that appreciated art. How did that heritage influence your motivation to start collecting African art?

Well, I now realise I was genetically selected to become a collector with a grandfather Albert Gallatin, a major Egyptian, Greek and Roman antique collector and a mother who amassed a collection of over eighty Debussy letters which she gave to the Morgan Library.

I liked art because my grandfather on my mother's side, Albert Gallatin, was a collector. Sunday lunches at my grandfather’s as a child in the late forties and fifties, were terrific because they allowed me to handle objects in his collection from many cultures. He'd have a scholar or two in and they'd pick out pieces, look at them, and that got me excited to sit in the corner and listen. And finally, when I was 18, I qualified for a martini at lunch, which opened my portal to young adulthood.

But I decided that I didn't want to become an art dealer. There wasn't any money in that and there wasn't a real interest. My father was a doctor but he discouraged me from becoming one. He says, "boy, you're not smart enough to get into medical school." But that's alright, I showed him. As an undergraduate at Williams College, I majored in Art History with high grades qualifying me for medical school and surgical training with a little time for art.

Songye Kifwebe Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Unknown Artist
Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Collection
Mende Sande Helmet Masks and a Vai Borwu Headdress, Seirra Leone
Unknown Artists
Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Collection
Teke-Tsaye Kidumu Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Unknown Artist
Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Collection

When did you start personally collecting?

Aside from collecting old jazz records as a teenager and American first editions as a medical student, it was not until I came to Seattle in 1966 to practice urology that the collecting gene resurfaced and I vowed to begin to collect Northwest Coast Indian art as here I was in the northwest.

My grandfather had a terrific piece, a Northwest Coast tlingit mask with a moveable beak, which I subsequently inherited when he died—no one wanted it. Going out West to Seattle to set up my practice as a urologist, with the mask in hand I decided, "hell I going to get interested in Northwest Coast art". A dealer offered me $45,000 for the mask, more money than I made my first two years in practice! I was staggered by the sum but held off until 1976 when it was illustrated in colour in the catalogue 'Sacred Circles'. I then sold it to a wealthy wheat farmer who prayed over it every evening until he had to sell it two years later when his farm crop failed.

Unfortunately, the prices of Northwest Coast art proved too high, costing more than a thousand dollars when I could get great African art for $300 or $400. So I turned my attention to African art.

With my mother living in New York City across from Parke-Bernet auction house [acquired by Sotheby’s in 1964], I would peruse the catalogues and my mother would bid on lots on my behalf. A few years later, an explosive interest in African art developed in the United States and the country was crisscrossed by African 'runners' and European dealers including Kerchache and Marc Felix, convincingly dressed in bush clothing with trunks of treasures. There was no lack of material to peruse.

The purchases I made in 1968 were the beginning of a great 50 plus-year adventure of search, discovery and pleasure with many trips to West Africa.

Just to jump around a little, the people that got me started in Seattle were the Lehmanns—Dr. Hans Lehmann. He had a gallery called Gallery Nimba and he and his wife [Thelma] would go into Burkina Faso and bring back loads of material. They had a nice gallery with a mix of material but it was always good fun to go down there and browse.

Seattle hadn't been that bad an area to collect because we had a dealer named Sissoko, who is now down in Phoenix. He was up there for several years and he too had just a ton of stuff. And there was also a gallery called Between Cultures with a nice collation too. We also had a dealer named Peter Boyd that Pam and I bought pieces from time to time.

Understanding an object through the study of people, cultures and customs was an essential motivation for our quest as collectors. One advantage was that we have a terrific African art curator, Pam [Pamela] McClusky in Seattle. We’ve worked together for forty years now. As far as other collectors in town, one was Mark Groudine, a physician a little bit younger than me, who had Oceanic art and some really good African pieces. But I think my main influence came from looking at catalogues and going to dealers in Paris, New York and London.

Our trips to Africa—Burkina Faso, Mali, Ivory Coast—were also transformative. We found nothing there to buy but had a fantastic time, just being at the heart of where all the art came from. It was just wonderful. We went Jerry Vogel, a terrific man who knew a lot about African art. We’d spend weeks at a time during each visit.

Did you inherit any works that kick-started your collection?

Aside from the Northwest Coast tlingit mask, my Grandfather’s collection also proved to be the source for my Kuba cup. He paid just $200 for it years ago. It sold for a lot [€780,750 at the June 2012 ‘Arts of Africa and Oceania’ Sotheby's Paris auction, more on that later], it was terrific. I love the cup but the next piece you buy is the piece that's the most exciting. Collecting African art is like having an orphanage, they go out to the world and reward you with people looking at them.

[My grandfather] had a Benin head that my mother got after he died. I wasn't given to me, I bought the damn thing. My mother asked, "do you like it?" and I replied, "yeah, I’d like to buy it." She smiled at me and said, "well, I think a reasonable price would be $50,000". So, I paid $10,000 a year for five years. Impressive, valuable, but it didn't move me and with Bobbie Entwistle's good help, the head found a new home in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

My mother subsequently received a Benin plaque, a single warrior that also belonged to my grandfather. I wanted that too but she sold it at Sotheby's... that was all right.

How blessed to have a grandfather whose collection included the very best of 'tribal' art.

What was the first piece you bought?

I was looking back at an old catalogue to see where I personally started. There's a Cameroon [Bamum] helmet mask in the Park-Bernet sale, May 1968. It was one of the first pieces I bought and that was terrifically exciting. I still have it. I love masks from Cameroon. I've had several of them and still have three or four. You know, I bid on it for $350 and got it for $400… the good old days. I also bought a Baule mask with horns which Patrick Caput chose for our Sotheby's 2012 sale. The total cost for the two masks was $900!

[Left Mask] Bamum Helmet Mask, Cameroon
Unknown Artist
Provenance: Dr.Sam Raeburn, Maryland || Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 25 May 1968. Lot 113. Bought by Oliver Cobb, $400 || Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Collection
Publications: 'African Art in American Collections, Survey 1989', Warren M. Robbins and Nancy Ingram Nooter

But the most interesting chase for me was the Fang figure. It showed up at auction in 1973 and was bought by someone else. I really liked that piece but missed it! So anyway, I went to a dinner that fall Mert Simpson was there, Lance Entwistle, Jacques Kerchache, and George Ortiz too. I sat next to Tish [Patricia] Withofs and said: “it’s nice to meet you.” She said, “is there anything you’re looking for?” I say, “God, Sotheby’s had this Fang I really liked.” She says, “well, I have that! Would you like to come over and see it?” I tried to play it cool, not getting too excited. I said, yeah. Jesus, there is was! The gal that bought it paid too much money for it and couldn’t hold it onto it so she sold it to Tish. Now I too I paid a lot, $50,000, but this was my one chance to get something… probably the most exciting piece of the collection. That took a fair amount of saving and a little borrowing, but I got the piece. It was something I wanted, it had escaped me and so, therefore, it became the pursuit.

Fang Betsi-Nzaman Eyema Bieri Reliquary Guardian Figure, Gabon
Unknown Artist
Provenance: Charles Ratton, Paris || Pierre Matisse, New York || Edward Goldberg Robinson, Los Angeles || James H. Kirkman, London || Patricia Ann Withofs, Sydney/London || Oliver and Pamela Cobb, Seattle || Josette and Jean-Claude Weill, Paris
Exhibitions: 'Les Forêts natales, Arts d'Afrique équatoriale atlantique', Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, 3 October 2017-21 January 2018, Paris, France

That was the most exciting chase and realisation. I mean, the Benin head I bought because I knew it was an exquisite piece and frankly, I knew it was a good investment. It was just a matter of holding it till the right time, but it didn’t get to me like the Fang because there were so many other Benin heads and they all looked fairly similar. But this Fang was unique. I’d seen a bunch of other Fangs and this appealed to me particularly. That was the one I wanted.

“Dr Cobb tends to search through galleries and auctions for hidden treasures—a sculpture or a mask from a remote location that no one else has recognised. Dismissing the established stars, he aims for the character actors—those whose strength is not so obvious.”
—Pam McClusky, Seattle Art Museum

You mentioned earlier that you’ve sold a number of pieces at auction. Why did you sell those pieces and why at auction?

I have sold pieces at auction as our collection was getting too large, my three children showed no particular interest in the art and 2012 (and 2011) proved to be superior years for 'tribal' sales. Enough money was made to provide for school and college education for all six grandchildren. I have always had a good rapport with Sotheby's, they have a good track record and ergo, they were our auction house of choice.

There is also the satisfaction of knowing that the new owners will be inheritors of our tastes.

Do you still collect and if so, how has your collection evolved?

After the 2012 Sotheby’s sale, we stopped seeking wonderful but expensive pieces—then I was willing to spend the money, now I'm retired. But we’re still collecting at times and I am always on the lookout for exciting art.

We make selections based on sculptural appeal, in-depth knowledge of the creators, their tribes and rituals, and opportunities to discuss.

I now really enjoy masks from Nigeria because they’re all so different—Yoruba, Igbo, Ijo—you got everything from the coast up to the mountains. That’s why Barry Hecht has an interesting collection.

Ibibio Mfon Ekpo Mask, Nigeria
Unknown Artist
Provenance: Joshua Dimonstein, New York || Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Collection

What is your favourite piece in your collection?

Our favourite collection piece is a wonderful 90cm Baga lady, ex Rasmussen, which, fortunately, was not selected for the 2012 auction sale. That said, the piece I miss the most is a Kerchache Tiv female, no better one exists, and the only piece I've ever paid six-figures for.

Acquisition has always given me a high followed by the need for another and then another piece, the last one you just bought being a favourite until you select again.

I'm excited about our latest acquisition, a Bamana crest mask that I got for a song the other day. I mean, it's so different than everything else, there's nothing else like it. And its uniqueness has terrific appeal to me. It’s really three-dimensional. The originality is so interesting.

The dealers in San Francisco have a newsletter they send out regularly. My friend, Peter Boyd advertises in it. He was over for dinner a month ago and he asked if we'd seen the newsletter. I said no. He says, "Oh, well I'll put you on the list." So here's this thing with Josh Dimonstein. This crest mask’s been sitting there and no one's bought it. My God! I've never seen anything like that. And that's what excites me, not the Dan masks!

But the last piece you got is always the most exciting. There's more room for enthusiasm, adventure and discovery.

Tiv Ihambe Female Figure, Nigeria
Unknown Artist
Provenance: Jacques Kerchache, Paris || Pierre Bergé & Associés, Paris, Anne and Jacques Kerchache Collection, 13 June 2010 || Oliver and Pamela Cobb Collection, Seattle || Sothbey's, Paris, Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, 12 June 2012
Publications: 'Eyo, Two Thousand Years Nigerian Art , 1977, p. 214 || Kerchache, Paudrat, Stephan, L'art africaine , 1988, p. 182, n ° 118 || "At the heart of Quai Branly", La Gazette de Drouot , Hors-Série, p. 44, n ° A

How do you add to your collection?

Pieces of African art were purchased from well-known galleries, private collections, ‘runners’ and places that just shouldn't have had tribal art at all. The sources I turn to hasn’t changed much. I keep my eyes open for everything.

I guess one of the best dealers I've known are Entwistle. Expensive but just great stuff. And Lance Entwistle sold several pieces for me, a couple of which just missed at the Sotheby's sale. I’ve also bought some very good things from Alain Schoffel and Mert Simpson. I think those are a few of the more interesting dealers whose tastes I like.

But if I’ve got one bitch, it’s a metal Bamana crest mask I bought from a Rue des Beaux-Arts Paris gallery. I had some money to spend and the dealer was the only dealer we visited during our short time in Paris. It was expensive, at $30,000. I said, "geez, I don't know" and he said, "Oliver, you keep this and if you don't like it, bring it back next year." I took a long look at it and decided no. It turned out to be fake, several others showed up. I go back to this gallery the next year with the mask in my luggage. I said, "excuse me, I don't like the mask and I brought it back as you suggested". He says, "I don't have any money but why don't you choose something here." Now obviously, the prices on most things were double. I said, "wait a minute!" to which he replied, "I'll give you $20,000 for it." I took the $20,000 and left with a $10,000 loss. That's my only bad dealing with a gallery, the most I’ve gotten burned.

Bwa Zoomorphic Double-Chameleon Headdress, Burkina Faso
Unknown Artist
Provenance: Alain de Monbrison, Paris || Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Collection
Publications: 'Animals in African Art. From the Familiar to the Marvelous', Allen F. Roberts || 'Land of the Flying Masks. Art and Culture in Burkina Faso. The Thomas G.B. Wheelock Collection', Christopher D. Roy & Thomas G.B. Wheelock

How do you determine if something is real or simply decorative or fake?

Reaching out to get a second opinion or sometimes the piece will just... after looking at for a while, I'll realise that it wasn't right or it isn't quite right enough, it's indefinite. But if you haven't made mistakes, you're not a collector.

Acquisitions are based on experience, mistakes, multiple photographs, and of course personal examination and even smell when possible. I have also used x-ray and CT scans to document and rule out restorations. I never hesitate to get a friendly 'second opinion' but if I'm still in doubt, the piece best be rejected. Your decorative piece errors can be offered to museum shops where they can be sold as such.

What was your biggest mistake when you first started collecting?

Taking chances on material that I didn't know much about, failing to do enough research and exaggerating the similarity of what I am buying with textbook illustrations.

But I feel terrifically rewarded by discoveries. I'm always on the prowl for the unusual like this Tanzanian staff that I got from my friend, Sosoko.

Luguru/Ngulu Staff, Tanzania
Unknown Artist
Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Collection

What have you learned through your collecting journey?

Patience, persistence, and keeping an open mind. One thing I learned is I have no preference for any particular ‘tribe’ and I do not limit collecting to any 'tribal' group, statuary, or mask. I know people that just collect Lega masks, people with sixty pairs of ere ibejis. I think that's fine, but I think you shut out a lot of other opportunities for pleasure and knowledge.

I do like "three of a kind". Thus three Bundu, Makonde, and Cameroon helmet masks, three Bwa chameleon masks, three kple kple goli masks and three Dan Guere masks. Enough to provide contrast and avoid repetition.

I’ve got three Kotas, not as important as the one Lance Entwistle sold for me that didn’t quite sell at Sotheby’s but all very pleasing. They ‘speak to each other’ and seem to enjoy being in our collection.

You’ve donated a number of pieces to museums. Why?

As a thirty-year Seattle Art Museum trustee, I have had the honour and pleasure to enhance the museum's 'tribal' collection. We bought the pieces with love, and we release them with love. We want them to be seen, that students have access to them, can touch them, hold them, study them, thereby turning them into objects of study and inspiration… what’s nice about African art is that it’s sturdy; you can hold African art objects and not harm them.

We hope they will bring the same excitement to visitors as they have done for us. Besides, shrinking a collection makes room for new purchases.

What do you plan to do with your ‘new’ collection?

Well, I was just thinking about that. You know, I'm no spring chicken, but my health is still pretty good. Based on the success of the 2012 Sotheby's auction, I wouldn't mind another Sotheby's sale to "show what I've been collecting." Some museum donations are a certainty. Hopefully, a grandchild or two will excitedly select something. The problem could be simply solved if a wealthy collector would buy it all.

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

First, you have to be interested. If you're interested in the piece, take a picture and send it to someone that knows something about it. You can even get feedback on price.

Then I'd say, it ain't easy anymore. There aren’t that many dealers. We had three or four right here in Seattle. You could go visit and look at their pieces but there's nothing to see now. It's difficult to estimate prices and there's no one around to hold your hand and tell you whether it's real or not. Difficulties have also arisen because of COVID-19. Travel overseas is limited and dealer access reduced.

Provenance seems to matter so much more to people now than it ever did. Everyone's gotten hyped about provenance, meaning the guy that bought it forty years ago had a great eye and because of that, this is now a great piece. Provenance is nice to have, it increases the value by up to twenty percent if you can say, "this was a Ratton piece I bought from blah, blah, blah." But not all of these provenances are real.

You don’t have to go to Paris or New York to buy things. I got plenty of original things from local dealers that were of African descent or had brought back pieces from Africa. So, you can't say one gallery is better than the other. Be prepared to be surprised. Some galleries may have a lot of very ordinary stuff but in the corner, there'll be something quite unusual that even the seller may not recognise. Dealers don't necessarily have an advantage over you. Subscribe to as many 'tribal' auctions as you can, use the internet, use Google for specific items and scan eBay and Catawiki where there just might be "that one piece" among all the decorative fakes, although I have "struck oil" on rare occasion, I certainly have been stung more than once.

You’ve got to see this stuff, get opinions.

What star piece are you still looking for?

Something that I don't have. Something rare and unusual.

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