Unless you live on a remote island nation like the Republic of Vanuatu which has supposedly escaped the coronavirus thus far, you’ve probably witnessed the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has had an unprecedented effect on the art world—galleries have shuttered, museums have closed their doors to the public, major art fairs have been cancelled, and auctions have been postponed.
Where many art fairs have decided to cancel their 2020 editions or instead launch online viewing rooms, Parcours des Mondes is optimistic. As governments around the world begin to ease lockdown, Parcours des Mondes—the largest art fair for classic art from Africa, Asia, Oceania—has decided to go ahead with its 2020 edition, scheduled to take place from 8 to 13 September 2020.
And maybe rightly so, at least for the dealers. According to Pierre Moos, the fair’s director and co-founder, many exhibiting dealers generate close to ninety percent of their turnover during the annual fair. Many can’t afford not to participate. And yet, the number of confirmed ‘Tribal Art’ galleries is once again down year-on-year—43 ‘Tribal Art’ exhibitors are expected to participate this year, down from fifty in 2019 and 57 in 2018. None of the usual American dealers of classic African art will be at the 19th edition*. That said, Arte Primitivo will present for the first time this year and Galerie didier Claes will return.
Will health and safety concerns prevent visitors from attending the fair this year? We speak with Pierre Moos, director of Parcours des Mondes, to find out.
*24 June Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that no American dealers will be at this year’s Parcours. Michael Hamson Oceanic Art, Palos Verdes Estates will be exhibiting at this year’s fair.
Nothing is perfect but looking back at Parcours and how it has evolved, we have had the opportunity to choose the exhibitors. We know all of them simply because Tribal Art Magazine has been running for 25 years. The magazine knows who the good and bad dealers are. We avoid exhibiting the bad ones and always aim to make a selection. There are roughly sixty ‘tribal’ art galleries worldwide—sixty good ones anyway. Usually, we have all sixty exhibiting at the fair.
We also decided to diversify the fair; it is Parcours des Mondes after all so we could not just stand in Africa or Oceania. We had to host a real Parcours. We now have dealers that specialise in Asian art and Ancient art. With the new Parcours, we now exhibit ‘tribal’ art from all over the world.
Every market is changing, not just the ‘tribal’ art market. But this market does not change too much. Africa represents sixty percent [of all art exhibited at the fair] today but this is down from a high of 85 percent when I first took over. After introducing art from other regions, Oceanic art now represents roughly fifteen percent of all sales, with Japanese and Chinese art making up the rest. But still, Africa is the leader. Perhaps because we have mostly French and Belgian galleries. There are very few Oceanic galleries, maybe three or four.
Another change we are seeing is the profile of the collectors visiting the fair. Over the last five years, we have seen an increase in collectors of contemporary and modern art coming and buying from Parcours des Mondes. It’s now a different ball game as these collectors spend upward of €1 million, something we never had before. It took a few years to reach this point.
Vetting is a key issue. We aim to vet each gallery every year but it can sometimes lead to disagreements. It’s a very difficult and touchy subject. The experts in our field are the dealers. They don’t want to vet works exhibited by their friends.
Our vetting committee is made up of collectors and former museum professionals. We know the market and the people in this field and for vetting, I know who I need to turn to. Our vetting is also very strict and exhibitors who don’t follow the rules have been vetted out in the past. We had one gallery in which a few artworks were vetted out. Two days later, the works were back out in the gallery. That gallery no longer participates in Parcours. We know the people who try to cheat, they are usually easy to spot.
If we are in doubt about a piece or have some questions we will typically ask for the price of the piece. Often over-pricing of an item can ring warning bells. We don’t want collectors who paid €25,000 for a piece, who then try to resell that piece, get an estimate of €3,000.
Regarding provenance, it is not usually needed for a piece priced at €10,000 or less. The vetting committee of ten to fifteen collectors have been in the field for a number of years and know the story of pieces. The most important pieces have a story so we will know if the provenance is falsified.
This year, because of COVID-19, everything has changed. We could not possibly have two years without Parcours des Mondes. Keep in mind that for some dealers, they generate 95% of their annual turnover in the five days of Parcours. Lots of people come to Paris just for the fair.
We host a very unique type of fair. It is unique because you walk outside, going into individual galleries. Unlike a biennial where everything is inside and over a thousand people are confined, during Parcours, visitors walk outside, on the streets, entering galleries where numbers can be limited. This year will not be different but we have made some changes. We do have to be careful and that is why we have spent money to protect the galleries and visitors.
We have done everything possible to avoid the virus. It is not possible to be 100% protected but we believe we have done our best with the measures we have put in place to make the fair as safe as possible. Some visitors do not want to come because of the virus but those who have a passion for ‘tribal’ art will come because they cannot imagine not visiting Parcours. That is why we have pushed for the fair to go ahead and we have the official authorisation to do it but only in a way that protects the visitors and the dealers.
During this year’s Parcours, no more than four people can be permitted into a gallery at a time—this number falls to two visitors in the smaller galleries. Visitors will have to wear masks inside the galleries and wash their hands before entering and after leaving. We’ve also implemented a one-way system with arrows painted on the street so that visitors do not cross paths with each other. We will clean every contact point—every handle, doorbell, collateral in the gallery after every visit.
We have done our best and the authorities have accepted our proposals. They understand that Parcours des Mondes is a ‘fair’, but not in the typical sense of a fair. Anyway, the galleries have been open for a month in Paris now. People can now visit galleries, and no one can stop them from going into galleries if they take precautions.
If you keep a distance, wear a mask, do not touch or shake hands, and definitely don’t do the traditional “bises” kiss on the cheek that Paris is known for, then you should be OK.
Come, have a look, buy with your heart and your eyes, and never borrow money to buy a piece of art. If you have the money, buy it if you love it. Buy from the right people and the right dealers are always with us at Parcours des Mondes.