Provenance. Everyone talks about it but how many really understand it? Why is such an emphasis placed on the provenance of classic African artworks and what is considered ‘good’ provenance?
In her latest catalogue ‘Provenance’, Dori Rootenberg of Jacaranda states that when asked about who buys her art she is reminded that “the collectors acquiring these extraordinary objects are as varied and interesting as the objects themselves”. This is what fascinates—the source and the journey—the history behind African artworks adds a “fourth dimension” to the work itself.
This is a sentiment shared by many. In our 2018 African art collector survey, over 60% of respondents state that they always look for provenance when buying classic African art. And even those that buy online, from auction or from online marketplaces, seek to discover the provenance—the origin—of the pieces they acquire as the following comment from the survey suggests; “my best experience was buying a mask that cost me $250 on eBay, that I later discovered was a well-published example with a famous provenance.”
In addition, a provenance that goes back to before 1970 proves that the artwork was ethically and legally collected before the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
But not all provenance is created equal. “Certain collector provenances are considered blue-chip due to their fame, associations and wealth,” says Dori Rootenberg. The prestige and reputation of these collectors can increase the allure, desirability, and value of artworks. The older the better some say. Other collectors have strength in specific regions and styles and weaknesses in others. Knowing this, before acquiring a piece, helps collectors avoid mistakes.
To dig into the topic of provenance, we spent time with Hermione Waterfield, who together with William Fagg, created the ‘Tribal Art’ department at Christie’s in 1975. Here’s what she had to say.
Well, of course, it’s important but in fact, a friend of mine once said that the twelve collectors that Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller and I had chosen for the book were the nicest bunch of nutters that he’d ever read about. Each was madder than the last. In fact, I think the craziest of collectors are the ones that collect tribal art.
With provenance, the earlier the better. But just because a piece was collected in 1930, it doesn’t mean that it was made for the right use. You’ve got to, unfortunately, keep checking. Even Paul Guillaume is said to have made Fang heads. But on the other hand, Guillaume is a good provenance because he’s early and he’s known to have had some very good Fang objects.
What you have to do is keep cross-referencing where your collector was or where your dealer sourced material, who they traded with. You must bear in mind that there may be a discrepancy. Nothing is set in stone. But these old characters are great fun to research and then you know where their weaknesses are.
For example, think about that picture of Hélène Leloup loading up the Baga snakes in the back of the truck. Now, if you come across a Leloup Baga snake, and you trace each step until it reaches the market, then you know it’s OK. But then, of course, you get the ‘replacements’, and the replacements aren’t so bad, I mean Henry Moore had a replacement. Although the government ordered all Baga cult objects be destroyed, there were sporadic revivals. I find Baga objects very difficult because you still see objects coming out, both genuine and for the market.
And dear old John Hewett, he had a fantastic eye but he couldn’t resist ‘Good'n Old’. If you made it look black and old enough he fell for it.
There are good people in certain fields but you have to check that it’s their correct field.
"Top dealers and auction house focus more on provenance to push up prices and create rarity, often at the expense of aesthetics."
There are certain names that bring up the zeros like Paul Guillaume, Charles Ratton, André Breton. I don’t know if you saw in the Binoche sale, but as soon as you had a Breton pulley it made twice the amount estimated. But you have to be sure that the pieces definitely came from those collectors.
I fell into the Charles Ratton pit myself. There was a collector who visited Charles Ratton and claimed to have purchased a Yaure mask from him. I suddenly realised during the sale and looking at the piece, that while it may have been possible that Charles Ratton had had that piece, I wasn’t sure. I believe the collector might have just wished that he could be able to afford a Charles Ratton piece.
You have got to cross-check your provenance with people who know. If a certain person was meant to be on some boat out of a country, with the internet we now have the ability to check if that was indeed the case. Check the passengers' list! If there was meant to be a doctor that collected a particular piece, check that that doctor exists. But you still can’t be dead certain because provenance can be falsified. This is cash!
Ethnic Group: Fang
Dimensions: Height = 17 inches
Courtesy ‘Provenance’, Jacaranda
Side-blown trumpets made of animal horn or tusk, known as oliphants, are found throughout Africa. They often symbolise kingly power, and those associated with royal ensembles are decorated with skins, wooden extensions and carvings. Oliphants were used to accompany dances or to signal the king’s entrance and departure.
This graceful ivory oliphant from the Fang tribe was carved from the tip of a tusk. At the peak of the instrument’s gentle arc is found a double-janiform terminal bearing four soft faces, worn smooth with use. A rich, warm colour of age has enriched the surface and lustre of this trumpet with a sensual depth. The custom base for this work was crafted by Inagaki in the 1920s.
J.J. Klejman (1906-1995)
An antique dealer during his early years in Warsaw, Klejman left Poland before World War II. Settling in New York City, he began a new life with his wife, Halina (1908-2007), opening J.J. Klejman Works of Art at 982 Madison Avenue. His primary business was antiquities, but he also provided African and sometimes Oceanic art to major collections. The Klejmans closed their gallery and retired in the 1980s.
"The emphasis on provenance has encouraged dishonesty and deterred beginners from buying."
For me, the most memorable collector is George Ortiz. George Ortiz had amazing taste and fantastic quality. He collected mostly antiquities but what he had was just incredible. He adored his Yoruba "bulgy eyes" bronze head.
He was passionate, he really was so passionate. I remember a gallery opening in which David Attenborough was giving a splendid introductory speech. I really wanted to hear it but George said, “get up Hermione, I’ve got to discuss something with you.” So I was led away. He never gainsaid you but on the other hand, I had marvellous times with him in his house in Geneva discussing all things African art.
Alain Schoffel is passionate too and had an amazing collection, absolutely staggering. I felt that Ortiz and Schoffel are the two people that could kill for a piece! I remember I was at dinner with Alain and George and it was just fascinating listening to their conversation. At one point, George turned to Alain and said “you know, you have the best eye… after me!”
And then there were the Sainsbury’s of course. They were so brave. And counter to popular belief, John Hewett did not choose everything for them. He did supply them with a lot of good things but they did not by any means show everything to him before purchase. They were outstanding collectors.
And there were lots of other outstanding collectors like Alan Mann who had beautiful quality. But he had only three rooms and limited resources so something had to go to bring something new in.
Others that come to mind are Werner Muensterberger, the dealers the van Bussels, they had a wonderful collection, and people like Ralph Nash—he was like a meteor.
Ethnic Group: Yoruba
Dimensions: Height = 10.3 inches
Courtesy George Ortiz Collection
According to the Ortiz Collection, “our head was found during the British Benin punitive expedition in February 1897 in Benin City. Made in the Yoruba tradition: though possibly in Ijebu it could very well have been made by a Yoruba artist in Benin City and it is even conceivable that “Bulgy Eyes” could be an Ife work.
“This bronze head bears tribal markings above the eyes and on the forehead. On either side of the Bini-like ears hang coral pendants with small crotals or nuts at their end. On the back of the head is something of indeterminate nature, either a rattle, bell or large nut. The hair and beard represented by cross-hatching which extends also above the upper lip. With its immense bulging eyes and wide, hooked nose with flat nostrils, this head is one of the most extraordinary expressions of African art. We see in it the essence of nature’s savagery and the “bulging eyes represent an extreme of the Oshugbo convention suggesting spiritual force and presence.” It is precisely such a masterly achievement that ranks African sculpture among the great art achievements of mankind.
“It may have been placed on a royal ancestral altar, found in what Pitt Rivers called “Ju-Ju” houses and would have been used in spirit cult. It could have been surmounted with a headdress, as Drewal suggests. By its mystical strength, we feel that this unique head is a universal work of art.”
George Ortiz (1927-2013)
Son of the Bolivian ambassador to France, George Ortiz grew up in Paris, was schooled in the UK and US, then briefly read philosophy at Harvard before embarking on a journey to Greece that changed his life. He started collecting in 1944 and over many years of dedicated collecting created one of the most important collections of ancient art still in private hands.
Lt. Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900)
Pitt Rivers, as the second son of a second son, was not rich and his prospects not promising. Nevertheless, he made an extensive collection. His cousins and brothers died within 10 years and by 1880, he’d inherited a fortune. He gave his ‘first collection’, which was stored mostly by the South Kensington museum, to Oxford who then named the museum after him. And then he went shopping. The ‘second collection’ is recorded in ledgers, now stored at the Cambridge University Library, and can be consulted online via the Pitt Rivers Oxford Museum website.
The General did not, as some believe, take part in the Punitive Expedition of 1897 against Benin City, but he did buy about 420 artefacts after the dispersal of the collection, publishing a book on the subject in 1900, just months before his death.
To learn more about Pitt Rivers and the other eleven important English collectors, read ‘Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England 1760-1990‘.