It only occurred to me recently, but as a child, one of the bathrooms in my parents’ house had wallpaper with graphic prints of African masks. I’m sure it left a lasting impression on my young and developing visual taste. It was the mid 1970s, so you can probably imagine what the wallpaper was all about!
I didn’t buy my first African art objects until I was in my late 20s. I had traveled to South Africa for a friend’s wedding and I bought two objects as souvenirs. I would later learn that the first was a well carved, but recent Tanzanian Chief’s chair and the second, a somewhat embarrassingly fake Kota reliquary. At the time, I was dabbling in collecting animation cells and had built a small collection of cells from the 1930s to the present. With regard to African objects, I suppose I could have bought anything as a souvenir yet I found myself attracted to these objects.
When I returned from South Africa, and had been living with these objects in my Chicago loft, something felt off. I didn’t know a lot about antiques, but I came to believe they weren’t real. I travelled frequently for work and prioritised visiting museums with any free-time. Now, I found myself lingering in the African collections. By observing objects in museums, I concluded that what I’d bought were bogus. I have no regrets though. That trip and those objects were my gateway to African art, they kindled a passion that has greatly enriched my life.
Within a few years of that trip, my collection grew exponentially. It wasn’t long before I was living with 50+ objects. Initially, I was buying at tertiary auctions based on what I thought were authentic objects. I was also buying books like crazy. My loft quickly filled up with hundreds of books, auction catalogues and a lot of mediocre African art.
Then, I took a new job, and relocated from Chicago to Boston. Within weeks of moving to Boston, I joined the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and soon after, the MFA’s African and Oceanic Friends group led by the then curator, Chris Geary. I’ve often heard stories that tribal collectors are pathologically private and unwelcoming. In Boston, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. What I found there was an incredibly vibrant and welcoming community. In fact, they went out of their way to take me under their wing. They opened up their libraries and collections and spent time with me.
With their help, after a few years I was on the path towards connoisseurship and this is a path I continue to travel. I believe it will be a lifelong journey. The Boston group also connected me to their networks. Through them I met dozens of collectors, dealers and scholars. During those early years, this core group served as an informal vetting committee. I had a fever to buy, but with their guidance, my buying slowed and improved.
I'm a twin. Early on I was obsessed with Yoruba ere ibeji figures. In Boston there is a great private collection of ere ibejis and the collector helped train my eye. Soon though, I was collecting all Yoruba art. From Yoruba art, I expanded to the whole of Nigeria and then Cameroon and Congo. On and on. Eventually I decided that I should not have any artificial limits. Falling in love with Oceanic art blew-up any best laid plans that mine would be a focused collection.
That little guy. Isn’t he amazing! As soon as I saw him I knew I would buy him. He has a soulful stare that continues to give me a charge. I bought him two years ago at Parcours des Mondes and made the purchase decision within minutes of seeing him. Is he the best Teke in the world? No. But to me, he’s very good and I doubt I’d ever grow tired of him. To add another Teke to my collection, it’s got to be better.
Which brings me to another thought since you asked about young collectors. I think that it is important for younger collectors to focus on quality over quantity. It’s hard. Especially when you get the fever and want to buy. However, as one of my friends likes to say, it’s easier to buy than not to buy. Also, when you start buying at a certain quality, it’s difficult to live with objects that fail to meet the new standard. In recent years I have been much more disciplined. I still follow my eyes and heart, but I do a lot more work and I’ve learned so much more. I spend hours with my books and online. I try to prioritise seeing as much art as possible, visiting public and private collections. I am always looking and learning. Seeing this Teke, I could place it into a larger context of Teke figures I’d seen. And I’d seen a lot. I knew where it stood and what a fair price should be. Thus, I was able to make a very quick decision.
Most recently, I’ve wanted to understand more and more about how the African art market in the 20th century evolved. I think this is crucial to understand. There is a wave of younger curators and academics like Jonathan Fine, John Monroe, Yaelle Biro and Kathryn Gunsch whose work in this, and other areas, has enriched my understanding of the art. I’ve been blessed to have gotten to know some of them and they continue to challenge and expand my thinking. But back to the Teke, don’t you just want to engage him in a conversation?
It’s not that I don’t care about provenance, I do. When you are spending a lot of money, one would be foolish to say that it doesn’t matter. It’s a reality in the market. In addition to completing the history of ownership outside of Africa, provenance can confirm when a piece may have left. Let’s take my Tikar mask as an example. When I bought it, I knew part of its provenance. It had been sold in the 1983 Sotheby's auction of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan’s collection. I also knew it had been exhibited in the late '70s in Geneva and included in that exhibit's publication. However, when I bought it, I didn’t know that it had also been owned by Jacques Kerchache. One day, while flipping through Kerchache’s 1969 sales catalogue at Librairie Mazarine —the one with the famous Ngil mask on the cover—I spotted it. I was excited to know more about the provenance of the piece, but also pleased to have a date on the safe side of the UNESCO bright line. No one knows what will happen in the future, but all things being equal, I feel more comfortable acquiring objects that I can prove left Africa before 1970.
There are so many different ways to acquire objects—from dealers, auctions and even private collectors, I have used all three. Recently, I’ve bought more and more at auction where I’ve found some great things at fair prices. That said, I do love buying from dealers. Dealers are a crucial part of the equation and provide an important service. Having a relationship with a good dealer means that you may get to see objects before others. For young collectors in particular, dealers can be invaluable. They can mentor you and help navigate the minefield that can be this market. Some dealers may even allow you to pay over time for a piece, a service that can help with a stretch acquisition, one that will permanently change a collection for the better.
In addition, I always look for a fair price. I sometimes see prices on objects that don’t seem to make sense, at least not to me. Again, looking at many objects and understanding what has sold for what and where helps. If I like a piece that a dealer has and he quotes a figure that I believe to be grossly mispriced, I walk away. That said, if it is a fair price, I don’t need to get to the lowest price possible. In fact, it upsets me a bit when I see or hear of collectors that do this. I appreciate that dealers have to make a living and that it is increasingly hard for many of them. I am however not willing to badly overpay. There is a range that I believe is right for a piece and where I will pull the trigger. Remember, there is always art to buy. With patience and selectivity, you can build a very good collection and stay within your means. I’m a girl on a tribal art budget. I am always looking to buy but have to be very thoughtful.
"I’m a girl on a tribal art budget. I am always looking to buy but have to be very thoughtful."
This is a topic I have some passion about. I think that dealers and auction houses can do more to encourage the next generation. They are out there. I work in marketing and to me, this is ultimately about a consumer and a lifetime value exchange. Cultivating the next generation is important and it will take work. Great collectors are formed over time and with help. Most don’t simply appear.
As a silly example, I’ve been going to Parcours des Mondes for about seven years. Each year I hear market professionals lament about the lack of young collectors. Yet, each year I see dozens of young collectors walk in and out of galleries and are largely ignored. It happened to me. In some places, it still does. By contrast, I’ve walked into these same galleries with older and more established collectors and seen dealers jump out of their seats. Talking with the same people year after year and ignoring new prospects is not a strategy to attract new collectors and grow the market.
In addition to collecting African and Oceanic art, I also collect young collectors; I love meeting anyone passionate and serious about this field. Take yourself for example. We met this past year at Parcours des Mondes. Yesterday, when we visited the Rietberg Museum I saw you nearly moved to tears by the Yoruba opon ifa lid there. In that moment, I knew you loved the art and that we would likely be friendly for years into the future. One last point about the younger generation. I find that there are more than just a handful of us and some are spending at a price point per object or per annum that would probably surprise many.
I'm in my early 40s and hope to be collecting for the next 35+ years. All these pieces in my living room in Zurich, I didn't own two years ago. I'm excited about what I am adding now, but also looking forward to what will come next and to continually improving my collection. On my wish list: a great Mumuye, a grouping of Kotas and my African art dream—a real Baga snake.
I have derived so much pleasure out of collecting, meeting other collectors, getting to know curators, travelling to art fairs and seeing public and private collections. I've been blessed by many friendships across demographics. I’ve also built a bond with a core group of collectors, curators and a couple of dealers. In particular, I would be remiss if I did not call out Bruno Claessens. Although there are others that I did not name, he's a public figure in the African Art world so I think it is OK for you to call him out. Bruno is somebody I’m in absolute awe of. He's passionate and knowledgeable and an all around great guy. He has been helpful in editing some of my choices. On more than one occasion, when considering an acquisition, he’s stopped me by saying “Deb, it's not good enough for you”. I call him ‘the Human Brake’.
As for the future, I look forward to it. I look forward to seeing new objects and re-visiting the one’s I’ve just missed out on should they come around again. I notice my eye evolving and that I am attracted to new groups of objects. I also look forward to meeting new people. I work pretty hard in my other life and Tribal art is pure joy for me. It’s a thing apart from the rest of my life. At times, having this as part of my life makes me feel like I've won a tribal art lottery. I have a wonderful, diverse and interesting group of people in my life AND I get to live each day with some wonderful objects that continue to bring me joy!