Hello, my name is Alain Dufour and I have been an antique dealer specialising in 'tribal art' since 1974, when, with my wife Rose-Marie, we opened a small gallery in the village of Ramatuelle in the heart of the Saint-Tropez peninsula in the south of France. Since that time, we have had an annual thematic exhibition on the arts of Africa.
In 1989 we opened another gallery on the banks of the Marne River in Saint-Maur, in the southern suburbs of Paris, where we received our clients and friends by appointment.
I became interested in African art when I was about 14 years old. In the window of an antique shop in the west of France were some objects that had been brought back by colonials. I broke my piggy bank and bought my first couple of objects—a staff (recade) from Benin and a Peul seat that I later discovered had been recently made. These early purchases made me want to learn more about African art.
As we lived not very far from the former Musée des Colonies—which later became the Museum of African and Oceanic Arts (Maao)—I frequented this museum assiduously. This is what was at the origin of my passion and which has not stopped until today.
I don't remember the first piece I sold but among the first few sold, in 1962 I believe, was a chi wara headdress from the Bambara of Mali, which I sold to a very famous dealer, Robert Duperrier. His gallery was on rue des Beaux-Arts in Paris. I sold the chi wara to buy a set of Tellem statues that had just arrived in Paris directly from Mali. It was with great sadness that I sold one of these first objects to be able to buy something else.
I bought the chi wara headdress from an antique dealer and sculptor who had friendships in Mali and who received objects directly from Mali. I kept the headdress for several months but when he arrived with some Dogon and Tellem statues, as I didn’t have much money then, I had to resell the chi wara to raise funds. I sold it to the galleries that I frequented in the Saint-Germain district, frequented purely as a spectator because I couldn’t afford to buy any of the expensive objects in the galleries.
So that’s how and why I started to resell of some of my purchases, to buy other things and to try to improve the quality and variety of the objects in my collection, all from my embryonic collection at the time.
I started to travel to Africa in 1965, starting first with Senegal and Ivory Coast. During those early trips, I met a merchant in Abidjan who advised me to come and see him in Cotonou where he regularly received pieces from Nigeria, especially from the Yoruba, a people who straddle Benin and Nigeria. The border was very open so there were a lot of objects from western Nigeria arriving into Cotonou.
So I started to travel to Cotonou and around Cameroon from 1969. There was also a big market in Douala, Yaoundé and especially in Foumban, which had a long tradition of handicraft markets. A craft market had been founded by a Catholic mission installed in Foumban at the beginning of the 19th century. The craftsmen and merchants of Foumban knew the art very well and they gradually became interested in what came out of Cameroon, but also Nigeria. The great specialists and merchants were essentially the Bamum in Cameroon.
I frequented these regions assiduously, making hundreds of trips over the next few years. It was there that I bought most of my objects from Cameroon, but also from Nigeria—artworks brought into Cameroon by Nigerian merchants who supplied the Bamum merchants settled in Foumban. These Bamum merchants who were all Muslims, monarchies of large families, did not travel as they were supplied by Nigerian merchants who were prospecting in northern and Southeastern Nigeria. So, all the objects I acquired were either in Cameroon or Benin, also in Togo. It was a dynamic market.
I went to Nigeria twice, once for the FESTAC festival—the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, I think it will be in 1977 [the festival took place from 15 January 1977 to 12 February 1977]—and a second time to Ibibio country. I had a friend who lived in Oyo who invited me. Those were the only two trips I’ve ever made to Nigeria and I never collected anything directly in Nigeria. I have always obtained my supplies through African merchants established either in Cameroon or Benin.
There are still very large museums in Africa, especially in Nigeria—the National Museum in Lagos has exquisite objects. There is also the Musee des Civilisations de Cote d'Ivoire in Abidjan where there are a lot of objects and museums in South Africa too. That said, it is true that these are exceptions. A large part of the old and important objects went to Europe and the United States between the 1960s and 1990s.
Having said that, there is an opportunity [to rebuild collections] on the Continent now because old collections that were built up in the 1960s are reappearing on the market. Either the collectors have died and their children are selling, or collectors are deciding to sell. So there is an opportunity now for African countries and African collectors to buy back, often at very interesting prices, works that were once part of Western collections.
It's obviously still mostly Westerners who seem to be interested at the moment, but we are seeing the emergence of a new clientele from Africa and even African dealers who buy objects on the European market to bring back to Africa. Well, it remains quite modest for the moment, but finally, it is a movement that should grow, in my opinion, in the years to come.
I think that in the longer term, as the economy develops in these countries, Africans are going to re-appropriate many objects from their culture, as the Chinese have done in recent years. Inevitably, there will be the constitution of increasingly important private and public collections. It will be a trend in the next ten or twenty years.
Gabon is a country where there were about 600,000 inhabitants at the time of colonisation. Nigeria is now, I believe, at 200 million inhabitants. So the potential to find objects from Nigeria is obviously much greater than in Gabon. The rarity of objects from Gabon influences the cost of the artwork. In addition, works made by artists from Gabon are much sought-after on the market so again, the cost is indeed disproportionate to the quality if we compare it with objects from Nigeria. It's a question of demand and supply. Rarity makes the price of some works.
Ah yes, of course. Even for my personal satisfaction, I like to have information on the use and nature of the objects I acquired and put on sale. Having said that, some clients are only sensitive to the aesthetic aspect of these objects, but it is always essential for me to be able to situate it in traditional use.
I read through almost all publications that have written about Nigerian art, books by Nigerian and American scholars and academics. I read through articles written by the few rare French people who have worked in these regions. I try, as far as possible, to collect information when I buy objects, on at least the provenance, if not the precise use.
But it's true that we don't have much information because the objects pass through several hands and we rarely buy from someone who has had the object at the source. So little information was collected directly and a lot remains undocumented by the ethnologists and sociologists that worked in these regions during the colonial period. Things didn't much change in the twenty years that followed.
For my personal taste, I like monumental objects, but it's true that in African art, there are rather few monumental objects. I had the chance to collect large Bedu masks, the largest masks in Africa that were in use among the Koulango from northeastern Ivory Coast to the border of Ghana. They are masks that can measure up to 2.5 meters high. I have some very important large Igbo sculptures of great size and quality, and I have an Urhobo statue of great quality as well. I like monumental objects that have a lot of presence, I prefer them to miniatures. That said, I am interested in all forms of art, even the most modest objects. I recently acquired a small Atié comb that gives me great pleasure. It is of great quality and rigour of sculpture. So I'm interested in everything, but mainly in monumental objects.
On ethnic groups, I work in all African countries. There are extraordinary objects to be found everywhere. I very much like the objects from Burkina Faso. A little like Nigerian artworks, they don't really have a very high cost, which makes it possible to acquire them in under good conditions, that's an advantage. Apart from that, I like Nigeria a lot obviously but I also like Gabon, but they are more difficult to buy because the prices are very high. If you want quality items, you really have to put your hand in your pocket as they say.
Yes, there is one object that I have always regretted and that I was forced to sell in 1975. It was an Afo maternity figure that I had acquired in Cotonou, which I sold at public auction and which I was surprised to find twenty years later in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York [Accession Number: 1996.432]. It was a piece that moved me a lot but I was forced, for financial reasons, to part with it. So this is one of the beautiful memories I have.
I also saw that at the MET, there is an okua mask from the M’bembé people north of the Cross River which was a plastic piece that I sold in Ramatuelle in the first years of my activity—it must have been in ‘76 or ‘77. It's one of the most beautiful okua masks from the Cross River region that is now at the MET in New York.
I have many other objects that are now at the Quai Branly, including objects that came from the Barbier Mueller collection that I didn't sell directly to them, but that had gone through different Parisian dealers to reach their collection.
I have a small personal collection with a few items that I particularly like and especially items that I kept even before I was a dealer. Otherwise, I have put on sale 99% of the objects I have collected in these fifty years of activity.
In the last few years, there has been an abundance of pieces so prices have settled down a little bit. But I believe that with the emergence of a new class of businessmen in Africa, there may be opportunities in the coming years that will give a little boost to the art of these countries, especially Nigeria. I have heard of a museum project in Nigeria. I don't know exactly what it is, but finally, new private and local museums are being built. So maybe it's going to boost the art market in these regions.
Generally speaking, there is price inflation on the rarest and most important objects and especially those brought back at the beginning of the 20th century. There's been huge price inflation on the market, but prices in recent years have not increased, they remain more or less stable and even a certain decrease for certain types of objects. For collectors, there are opportunities right now. Especially given the current conditions, there are a lot of buying opportunities to be made in the market.
As I was saying earlier, most of the market in Cameroon was in Foumban. Foumban is the capital of the Bamum country and important merchants were installed there. These merchants didn't travel but instead, were supplied by merchants coming from Nigeria. Because Foumban had been in place since the beginning of the 20th century as the epicentre for the handicraft market, it evolved to become a market for antique pieces too.
There were several merchants I worked with in the region including El Hadji Yendé, El Hadji Mama, El Hadji Salifou, El Hadji Mustafa, and Abdoulaye Bekom to name a few—all great merchants! I also worked with El Hadji Inoua from Cotonou. Some of them are still active, others that I knew in ’69 and the ‘70s, have unfortunately disappeared. They were fine connoisseurs of aesthetics and also of the market. They played off the competition between the European and American markets and they did it with great professionalism. Indeed, they are rarely mentioned, but they were really remarkable people and extremely rigorous in the way they managed their businesses.
So, we must pay tribute to them because it is thanks to them that part of the heritage, especially Nigerian heritage, was saved during times of crises such as during the Biafran war. Many pieces would have been destroyed without the existence of this market. This is what I can say about the merchants of Foumban. There were other important merchants in Cotonou and Douala. I can't mention all the names, but I have many friends and I had many friends among these merchants. They were men of great culture and who had a sense and a sensitivity for African art that was remarkable.
Yes, for me, the first objects that I saw were Yoruba objects coming out of Cotonou or Benin. Since the ethnic groups were common on both sides of the border, relations were easy. So the Yoruba came out first in my opinion.
Then, in the 1970s, indeed, there was the fantastic discovery of the Mumuye aesthetic, which was a revolution, a major discovery. At the same time, objects from the North—the Waja, Wurkum, Jukun, the Chamba, the Afo also a little bit—came out before the Biafra war. After, the war brought out a lot of Igbo objects and then also peripheral ethnic groups—Ibibio, Eket, Idoma, Igala, Nupe. Also brought out a little bit was statuary from the Kaka ethnic group bordering Cameroon and Nigeria, this started happening in the 90s or so.
Afterwards, the market spread widely and objects were released episodically, but let's say that the big ethnic releases that lasted a few years were limited to the ones I mentioned.
It is a very small ethnic group that has produced very few objects. Work is very rare from this ethnic group. I think that in all the corpus that has come out, we must limit ourselves to barely a hundred known objects. It's a very small number and in this corpus, quality objects fewer still. That explains the rarity. Then there's the strength of this sculpture. The expression of the power and the simplicity of the volumes—they are iconic pieces of African art. Kaka sculptures are really like an emblem of African art.
Our customers are already experienced collectors who know what they are looking for and who are great connoisseurs. It is true that they come to me, especially for objects from Nigeria, Cameroon or Burkina Faso. But then we also work with young people, new collectors that we try to advise and guide. We also work a lot between dealers. So there are in fact three types of clientele.
The advantage of going to a gallery is that you can be sure of buying authentic objects. If you buy elsewhere, there is no guarantee of authenticity. We, as an antique dealer, have a duty to sell quality objects with expertise. We also offer more choice for clients.
Collectors should also attend auctions where there are sometimes opportunities. That said, you have to be a very good connoisseur to buy in auctions.
That's hard to predict because the market is always influenced by thematic exhibitions of the major museums or the results of major auctions, it's fluctuating. There's really no general trend. There is perhaps, in recent years, a return to classic Baule, Dan, Senufo, Fang, and Kota objects, objects with a very beautiful patina. But it is not in this field that we can make discoveries, even if there are some very beautiful works.
So we will always try to promote less classical arts, less known works from Nigeria, from Burkina Faso, art made by artists from Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia.
It's a bit commonplace to say that you obviously have to go to museums. In France, we're lucky to have the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, which has a fantastic exhibition program and also very important permanent collections. When there are events such as Parcours des Mondes, events that give access to all the best galleries in the world, it's always important for collectors to attend. Go to the galleries even if you're not a buyer. Some galleries are intimidating but you shouldn't hesitate to open the doors, enter and look.
And then, of course, there is all the literature that exists on African art that you should consult. Then buy according to your heart's desire while ensuring that you've taken the necessary precautions to be reassured about the authenticity of the objects that you buy. And if you go to an auction, choose one with an expert.
This is a childhood passion that I continue to maintain. I think I've done a lot of things to progress our knowledge of African art. I have always remained a little bit on the fringe of this business that I am so passionate about. It was about the discovery for me and deepening of my knowledge. Trade has become indispensable and complementary to this activity but I derive personal satisfaction from it.