Dealer Spotlight

Dr. David Zemanek, Germany

GALLERY WEBSITE November 10, 2017 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Tell us a little about yourself, why Africa?

Why not Africa? For me that's the better question. I grew up in an antique dealer / auction environment with classical European art. My parents are both art historians and you might say that I inherited my passion for art at least in part from them.

At the age of eight, African art came into my life. My parents sold an important African art collection of a close family friend, the artist Joachim Schlotterbeck. His father was involved in the wine trade and collected African and Oceanic art.

Shortly afterwards I became hooked on art. At about this time one of the leading auction houses, Ketterer stopped dealing with African art and we took over the support of their existing customers. We began to specialise exclusively in dealing with African art in Germany and today this is now our area of expertise. At an early age I met Dr. Karl Ferdinand Schädler, who became one of my mentors for African art.

My first real life encounter of African art in its true cultural context was a performance I saw of the Senufo firespitter masks at the Africa Festival in Würzburg. A group of artists did a traditional performance with African masks. The performance brought it home to me that to really appreciate these masks, an understanding of the historical and cultural context was essential. From then onward I became obsessed (in a positive way) with African art.

I began to read books about African art, because I felt compelled to understand more about the pieces at home. My first love was the Yoruba culture. The first piece I ever bought was an Ere Ibeji twin figure. So, in my search for African culture I decided to study African art. I devoted my life to African art and I did my Degree in Bayreuth, Master in Leipzig and Doctorate in Leipzig. Many collectors actual never manage to visit Africa. Of course, it’s not necessary to have visited Africa to collect African art, but visiting Africa helped me to understand and better appreciate the context, the artists and their religion. I see myself not purely as a seller of African art, but someone who strives to preserve the cultural heritage for future generations.

'Between Onitsha and Asaba'
El Anatsui, 1984
Wood, Aluminium, Tacks
125 cm x 100 cm
Dr. David Zemanek Private Collection

"I see myself not purely as a seller of African art, but someone who strives to preserve the cultural heritage for future generations."

What's in your personal collection at home?

Although some people told me not to (on the grounds that you shouldn’t really mix business with pleasure) I collect African art. I collect it because I feel you need to have a passion for the art that you are dealing in. As an ethnologist I collect art from the areas I have researched and studied—I specialise on art of the Cross River region (Nigeria / Cameroon border).

I am not only interested in sculptures and masks, but also in objects of daily use. I see myself more as a guardian of the objects that I collect. In addition, I collect contemporary African and Western art—which both complement and are the logical connection to the African works I work with. I collect objects with which I have a personal and emotional connection—be it a beautiful Guro mask or a wild Ejagham skin covered mask. The beauty and the beast—both are equally important for the local societies.

I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to provenance; for me as an ethnologist it's very important to know where and when an artefact originated from, and by whom it was collected and previously owned in the western world.

Boki Headdress
Height: 23.5 cm
Provenance: Alain Dufour (Ramatuelle / Paris, France), 1976 || Lucien Van de Velde (Antwerp, Belgium), 1977
Dr. David Zemanek Private Collection

What motivated you to start dealing in classic African art?

My parents decided after our successful start with African art to focus on it. We have been organising art auctions since 1978, but from 1992 onward we decided to concentrate all of our energy on dealing in African art. That is how I became involved in the auction business.

The auction world plays it's part in dealing with art and our intermediary role gives us a neutral position in the market. We handle the artefacts that were consigned to us with a constructive perspective rather than an emotional one. Every auction is something special; you never know what to expect. Each one is different and has its own surprises and challenges.

For the newbie, how do auctions work?

The auction is a public marketplace, where objects are sold to the highest bidder. Basically, everyone can attend a public auction, regardless of whether or not they intend to buy something or simply want to have a look around.

Each auction is a collection of curated material carefully chosen by the auction house or by an independent expert. There is always an auction preview where you have opportunity to view the lots firsthand before the auction. Prices and information about the items can be found in the catalogues that are usually available both in print and online.

If you decide to bid in the auction then you will need to register beforehand. The auction company needs to know your identity and you’ll be given a numbered paddle (don’t lose it!) for bidding. Before you bid be aware that commission and tax will be added to the end price should you win the lot. The commission is what the auctioneer earns for the services provided. You’ll find the exact amount in the conditions of sale (listed in the catalogue) and the auctioneer should also announce these before the auction begins.

Then just take a seat in the auction room and wait, the auctioneer calls up every lot in numerical order and announces the starting price. If you want to bid just raise your paddle and make sure the auctioneer sees it. If there’s no one else bidding you’ll get it for the starting price, if there are other bidders the price increases gradually. In case the price climbs above the limit you’re willing to pay, just take down your paddle and stop bidding. But if you were the highest bidder for the lot, and if you can pay immediately afterwards, then you may take your new treasure straight home.

© Zemanek-Münster

Alternatively if you can’t attend the auction in person, there are several options to bid. You can entrust the auctioneers to bid on your behalf via a written absentee bid giving your maximum offer. If you want to attend the auction live you can bid via telephone. An employee of the auction house calls you before the lot will is called up and you’ll bid together with him/her. It’s basically the same as if you are in the room and you are considered as a legal person. Another newer option is to bid online. That means you have an account either with the auction house itself or with a partner website (Invaluable, LiveAuctioneers, lot-tissimo, etc.) were you can place your bid. You can also watch the auctions on these platforms live and bid directly there.

But always take into consideration that bidding at a public auction is legally binding and you can’t return the item you win if you don’t like it (as is sometimes possible on eBay, Etsy, etc.).

What would you say is the important service that an auction house provides to collectors of classic African art?

The most important service an auction house provides is to research and confirm the provenance and authenticity of each lot and the accuracy of information written about it in the catalogue. Our auction house guarantees the authenticity of every object we sell, which is something many auction houses don’t do.

In my opinion the curation of the works is also important, which is why I always try to find a wide range of interesting pieces that cater to every taste and price range. And of course, we try to provide as much information as possible about the objects, not only the provenance, but also information about the cultural background, usage and meaning of each object.

We define the market as auctioneers. We bring attention to African art to an audience and offer a platform for exchange. To me, exchange also includes the value and knowledge that is shared.

Can you describe some of the major pieces you've sold at auction?

We sold the Kuba Einstein mask, which is an icon of African art, and which was featured in the first book about African art 'Negerplastik'. This book had a huge impact and influence on the development of modern art. The pieces included in this book were a major inspiration for a generation of artists and still are even today. We also auctioned an important Jukun mask that was exhibited during the Olympic games in Munich. We discovered many important collections in recent years; Heinrich Sundermann, Emil Maetzel, Paul Mißner (Augustin Krämer), Albert Schweitzer (in the upcoming auction), to name just a few.

The question I also need to raise here is what makes a piece a 'major piece'? Is it a high final bid price or is it the significant importance for a culture in Africa? We have sold several royal pieces of African art and rare objects originating from cultural groups that have vanished. Despite their rarity and unusual nature, these objects don’t get as high prices as the 'classic' works with more 'traditional' provenance.

Kuba Mask
Published: Carl Einstein, Negerplastik, 1915
Provenance: Lindenmuseum (Stuttgart)
Sold for for €104,000 on 24 November 2007, during the 52nd Tribal Art Auction
© Zemanek-Münster
Jukun Mask
Published: Weltkulturen und Moderne Kunst, 1972
Provenance: Jacques Kerchache || Robert Jacobsen || Jan Lundberg
Sold for for €70,000 on 15 November 2008, during the 55th Tribal Art Auction
© Zemanek-Münster

How do you source pieces to sell?

We work with estate sales, private collectors, and dealers. We have established close relationships with many collectors through the years, and they entrust us to sell their collection when, for example, they decide to change their focus and specialisation to a different area of Africa. We try to establish heritage and context for our collectors. Let me explain. We present a biography of a specific collection in our catalogues to allow people understand the history and context of that collection.

On other occasions, we have a lot of new customers who ask us to auction items on their behalf, or relatives who have inherited works that they want us to sell. Any day can feel like Christmas. 

Unlike other auction houses—who only offer major works of the ouevre—we respect and take care of the heritage, passion and story that was involved in building a collection.

Do you think it’s necessary to have knowledge of the history or traditional use of the pieces you deal in?

That's the key factor. It's easy to understand a shape or the expressionistic aspect of a piece, but that tells you little about the function or history of the object. The knowledge about the usage of the object allows you to truly understand the piece in all aspects. It's like starting from the outer peel of an apple and working your way to the core. It's important to keep in mind that 99% of traditional African art comes from unnamed artist.

"Knowledge about the usage of the object allows you to truly understand the piece in all aspects. It's like starting from the outer peel of an apple and working your way to the core."

And what are your thoughts about fake objects in African art?

It’s a huge problem. Unless you buy from trustworthy sources you are most likely going to be offered a fake.

But the collector is not completely innocent here—of course we all want to acquire an iconic Fang figure (a Leonardo da Vinci or Picasso in our field) or similar for a low price at the flea market. There is a huge industry in Africa, that produces artificially aged objects for sale to a Western audience.

So be careful where you buy. You won’t find the old masterpiece on eBay or at a flea market. Neither will you find it in Africa as the majority of quality artefacts from local cultures are already in Europe. It is also now forbidden to bring cultural heritage out of Africa. If you want to discover treasures on your travel to Africa look for pieces of daily use or for contemporary art. There are great modern masters to be discovered.

When buying traditional art, buy from trusted dealers and auctions and try to read and learn as much as you possibly can. But it’s a complicated and difficult process to be able to distinguish forgeries from genuine African art.

How is the market different now from when you first started at Zemanek?

With the use of the internet the market became far more international. Prices have now reached an international level. There is now a significant international base of collectors and in need of a market different to the German one. German collectors were the first to discover and appreciate African art and they were highly active before and after WWI. Every culture has a specific preference of African art.

We focus on works which appeal to the French, Belgian, American and German markets. 

We work with buyers and dealers from all over the world today. I would say the internet has made the whole auction world much more exciting—I love to communicate with collectors and experts from around the globe everyday.

As an auctioneer, do you see any trends emerging in the market?

Yes, of course. When a certain culture dies out, we saw different groups of objects coming onto market. For instance, the Boli artefacts from Mali in the 1980s. After the Verité sale everyone wanted to have an Ngil Fang mask and the price of art from Gabon increased dramatically. In the 1980s art from the Yoruba was highly valued and appreciated…today it's unfortunately no longer popular.

The collector in the '70s and '80s was looking for classical African art—a nice Baule sculpture, a beautiful Dan mask etc. Today people are looking for shapes and expressionistic art that is formal and minimal, like Kaka sculptures or the must-haves emotional Bakongo nail power figures or sweating Byeri Fang figures. Fashion is also made by certain exhibitions or dealers.

© Zemanek-Münster

How do you think the market will change over the next five years?

What we are experiencing today is that auction houses like Christies and Sotheby’s, and some dealers, focus only on major African art pieces which appeal to the wealthiest clients and/or to those seeking 'wise' investments. We, on the other hand, deal with all levels of collectors.

In my opinion there is a new generation of collectors entering the market—we see young enthusiastic people from all backgrounds discovering tribal art. They're a well informed and educated generation collecting.

We are also seeing greater interest in contemporary African art, which is a logical pairing with 'traditional' African art.

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

Read, compare objects, visit museums, selected shows and auctions. Find out which area and style of African art you connect with and which inspires you the most. It’s far from easy to begin with, but you have to learn about and appreciate the art you are looking at before you buy it. If you buy from a dealer or at auction—make sure you do some research to find out if they are reputable and can guarantee the authenticity of the work being sold. Many of the auctioned items in today’s market are counterfeits and to be able to distinguish between them and genuine artefacts you need to research and build up knowledge.

Be passionate about the work you collect. Don't only look at the provenance of an object but also consider its artistic qualities. There is no masterpiece waiting for you on eBay….so buy from trusted sources. Share your passion with other collectors, get as much information as possible about an object, before you acquire it. Focus on a specific ethnic group, cultural region or group of objects which you are interested in. You need to develop a certain feeling and knowledge for a group and their culture to avoid mistakes.

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