There are a number of reasons on ‘why Africa’. I've always loved African art—I was first exposed to it at a very young age. Growing up, my family knew Chaim Gross, the well known sculptor, artist and collector of tribal art. He had a beautiful town house in the West Village in New York City, which I was fortunate to visit.
I was an Art History major in college—we didn't spend a lot of time on African art but we certainly covered it and my love for African art was rekindled. Then of course, during visits to museums I’d see tribal pieces and I always found them fascinating. Even if there were pieces that I personally would not choose to live with, I appreciated the form and power.
I also love the extremes in African art —from the sleek and sensuous minimalism of, for instance, a Mangbetu drum to heavily patinated and intricately carved works. As much as I love simplicity and minimalism, I also love complex objects such as figures with detailed scarification patterns or fetiches which have layered textures.
It really was my husband, Daniel Rootenberg’s idea; he’s the one that really got us going with collecting. One day he said, “why don’t we turn this into a business?”. I was very interested in the idea because it was at a time in my life when I was open to beginning a new career. We developed a website and started participating in shows. The first show we exhibited in was in Manhattan at the Armory. We had a successful show and this motivated us to keep going.
I suppose major is a relative term. To some dealers 'major' may be defined as an object valued over 1 million USD. To others, the price may be significantly less than that.
I prefer to talk about important objects that may or may not have extremely high price tags, but are rare, beautiful and have the patina of age and use. In that category, a few that I have handled include a wonderful and rare Zombo figure, a beautiful Lulua from the Myron Kunin collection, a gorgeous Dan mask with Paul Guillaume provenance and a pair of South African engraved cattle horns with scenes from the Anglo-Zulu War. There are many others, but these are some that come to mind easily because they are amongst my favourites.
Now, with regards to provenance who doesn’t like it? I don’t fault a collector or dealer for wanting provenance. Good pedigree can and does add to the appeal . But, is it the end all, I don’t think so. With certain types of objects you’ll never know the provenance. South African objects, taken out by British soldiers and missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, typically wound up in the attic of someone’s great grandparents and were later discovered in London’s Portabello market or in some little country auction. There’s no way of knowing the provenance in those cases. In such situations it’s up to the dealer to know how an object ‘ranks’—how a particular object compares to others of its kind.
I think that yes, the tribal art world is dominated by male dealers and collectors however one area that isn’t male dominated is curation. There are an equal number of female curators in African art as there are men, at least here in the US. Many of the curators in top fine art institutions are women.
I think one of the reasons why we see more male dealers and collectors is that this kind of art has traditionally appealed to more men than women. I do have female clients but I have many more male clients. In the general population there is the false perception that African art is about fierce looking masks or fetish figures. Many people are not familiar with all the other magnificent, aesthetically beautiful pieces of tribal art such as textiles including beadwork, forms like headrests and ceramic vessels, jewellry and currencies, and other utilitarian and figurative objects created by master carvers. There are many pieces that are easy on the eye!
Some dealers I know got started by being involved in the Peace Corps--not many women were doing that at the time. Being a dealer is also the kind of work that requires that you be on the road. Pre-internet, the only way to show objects was to travel. For women that had children at home it was not an easy career. Finally, there is the physical aspect to this profession. Unless you’re able to hire a team to do the physical labour, setting up a show can be very arduous; you have to be ready to roll up your sleeves.