They’re the ones who murmur into the ears of collectors. Gallerists play a crucial role in the tribal-art economy. For this special issue, a number of them, each with their own specialities, have agreed to share their feelings on the sector. Confidences.
At auctions, the eclectic nature of the tribal-art market indicates sure growth in the long term, both in terms of the number of lots placed on sale and their proceeds, even if the last three years have seen heavy fluctuations, if not a slight decline. However, by overshadowing the reality of the world of dealers, auction results are only a partial indicator of the health of a sector characterised by deep restructuring. Between a generational shift among collectors, sourcing difficulties, and a complex balance between auction houses and dealers, what does the future hold?
Collectors: a new generation takes the reins?
In the eyes of Alain Lecomte from the gallery Abla & Alain Lecomte, specialised in ancient African arts, there’s no doubt about it: the sector is in for a shakeup: “The tribal-art market is at its early stages; we are talking about a form of art that is still relatively unknown by the international market. Everything is yet to be achieved. The current market — more specifically, that of ancient African art, but in my opinion, the same goes for other forms of tribal art — is mainly made up of passionate enthusiasts, people who invest themselves, who read specialist books, who spend a great deal of time on the topic, without necessarily being very well off. These are sincere collectors, and their number is growing, both in Europe and in the United States. They need to hurry up and create their collections, because soon the African continent is going to wake up. We can see how prices have evolved for Asia. Twenty years ago, only a few people foresaw this shift. The same goes, and will go for Africa: the market will open up for the continent, and it will carry the global market along with it.” Charles-Wesley Hourdé sees a double phenomenon at work: “On the one hand, collectors are becoming more specialised and are doing research. On the other hand, a new type of collector has also emerged: the investor.” Which is not insignificant as the emergence of collector-investors attests to the confidence of certain players – perhaps those most attuned to financial movements – in the longevity of price rises, and opens up fulfilment of Alain Lecomte’s “prophecy”.
But none of this fazes Brussels’ Didier Claes who deals with classic African art: “The tribal-art market is evolving in practically the same way as other specialities. Collectors are increasingly specialised, and are on the lookout for high-quality objects.” A viewpoint echoed by Charles-Wesley Hourdé: “Our economy is suffering from a lack of collectors for intermediary pieces. All buyers are focusing on exceptional objects, their prices are rising, while other pieces are stagnating.” The dealer nonetheless seems to place his faith in the market as he, along with Eric Hertault, is among the dealers who are (re)entering the Parisian market: “I had a gallery on the Rue des Beaux-Arts for five years, before going on to direct the African and Pacific art department of Christie’s Paris, also for five years. And a few months ago I opened a new space Rue Mazarine.”
Erik Farrow, on the other side of the Atlantic (in California), believes that a breaking point has already been reached as a new generation is emerging: “The market is changing deeply, it fluctuates a great deal. Today, we are at a time when everything is shifting around, with a brand new generation of collectors and dealers. The seniors are retiring, some collectors have stopped acquiring works, and are even selling the collections that they’ve built up throughout their lives. We’re all looking for the new collectors who will take up the torch. This is a slow process.” Another characteristic of these new buyers is their scope of action. “Today’s collector,” remarks Didier Claes, “shows more eclectic tastes than in the past, turning to different domains and demonstrating curiosity in everything.” It isn’t uncommon for the dealer to slip a few modern works on his stand, as was the case this year at TEFAF, with compositions by Chagall for example.
Erik Farrow, however, remains doubtful: “I see many new enthusiasts, but most of them don’t launch into the purchase of major pieces. They need to be educated and this can take years…” It’s not easy for first-time buyers to find their way around a contrasting sector, as Charles-Wesley Hourdé points out: “Gallery visits are becoming rarer. The problem is that this market remains relatively difficult to access. Many fakes are circulating, many unscrupulous dealers are continuing to be active, sometimes with shopfronts, and a great divergence of prices exists for pieces that a priori seem to be similar — which is hard to understand for newcomers. So the market needs to become well informed, to do its research…”
Operating in a vacuum
The transition between two generations of enthusiasts also has an impact on sourcing, as Didier Claes indicates: “Pieces continue to emerge because they are being passed down from generation to generation, and we see families that decide to sell their collections.”
Many dealers state that the sinews of war are located less in the sale of pieces than in their acquisition. “The market is operating in a vacuum,” explains Charles-Wesley Hourdé. “No pieces are coming out of Africa — apart from some bronzes and earthenwares, objects that are usually not very expensive and often derive from illegal trade. Surprises come from objects that spring up from old colonial collections.” As the pieces are no longer found on their territory of origin, dealers often need to fall back on the three “Ds” to get access to works: divorce, death, debt. One example springs up from Parcours des Mondes: Alain Lecomte will be presenting objects from the collection of Raoul Lehuard – creator of the former Art d’Afrique Noire journal. “Raoul Lehuard’s brother contacted us to sell the collection inherited from his father Robert Lehuard who had worked in Congo-Brazzaville at the start of the 20th century,” explains the dealer.
“Many major pieces that have gone off the radar,” Erik Farrow continues, “are still found in old collections, museum reserves, sometimes in attics. As a result, Internet has become a principal sales tool, as much for dealers as for auction houses.” Yet the issues raised by Internet are familiar: while the tool facilitates prospection by offering global access to collections, it also increases competition between dealers.
A Fragile Balance Between Auction Houses and Dealers
And when it comes to competitors, dealers have no shortage of them – especially since auction houses have recently shown their interest in private sales. According to Charles-Wesley Hourdé, who has undisputable knowledge on the matter as he directed the tribal arts department at Christie’s for five years, “auction houses are taking up a bit of space, especially since they started organising private sales. But the latter don’t represent a very high volume. […] Public sales are important as they shelter the market and set certain prices. But galleries are still necessary although there are probably too many of them around compared to the number of clients.” The same message comes through from Didier Claes: “Auctions are a barometer of the art market. Unlike the world of dealers, auctions offer genuine readability of the market’s behaviour. It’s important for this transparency to exist.” The same gallerist goes on to say: “We need auction houses as much as auction houses need dealers. Each has a role to play. Auction houses enable collectors to choose between risk-taking and sales certified by gallerists. And contrary to what one might imagine, the latter still occupy an important role on the art market.”
Recently, as the players will not have failed to note, auction houses have managed to sell objects at record prices, sometimes going over 5 million dollars. “The auction records in the last fifteen years or so are sometimes justified, sometimes not,” explains Alain Lecomte. “In my view, the market isn’t exclusively found here. Auction sales are a thermometer for prices, but they’re not everything. It’s the dealers who pass their passion onto clients and future clients; very often, it’s they who ‘accidentally’ discover a new piece. And very often, the piece will go on to set a record at an auction sale much later.” Meanwhile, Erik Farrow remains wary of the current auction results: “They inspire the confidence of buyers. The same confidence that we take years to construct with our collectors, that makes them readier to spend significant sums on a single piece. But these prices can’t last, and many auction-house clients won’t, I believe, recuperate what they’ve invested.”
A Specific Segment: Aboriginal Painting
There’s one segment of the tribal-art market that occupies a special position: aboriginal painting. More confidential, it is above all spared of the problem of rarefaction, given its specificity in that it is supplied by living artists. “The aboriginal art market is doing well,” explains Bertrand Estrangin, one of the greats in the field. “This is a fully-evolving area with new lovers and collectors who are sensitive to the messages of Australia’s last nomads and their meaning-laden works that carry the ongoing memories of the world’s oldest peoples.” The dealer shows confidence about the market’s evolutions which are becoming more ethically grounded. As he notes: “Collectors pay particular attention to the provenance of the works, and the ethical character of their production, especially the share paid to the artist or his/her descendants.” A global phenomenon, which is also spreading to the other players on the market. “The largest auction houses like Sotheby’s only accept, for their specialised sales of Aboriginal art, works with ethical provenances, most often produced in non-profit art centres or artistic communities self-managed by Aborigines. Thankfully, we’re far from the excesses reached 10 or 20 years ago when everything around would sell whatever the provenance or the quality of the works,” the dealer confides.
Galerie Didier Claes
14 rue de l’Abbaye. Brussels. Belgium. www.didierclaes.art
Aboriginal Signature • Estrangin
101 rue Jules Besme. Brussels. Belgium. www.aboriginalsignature.com
Galerie Abla & Alain Lecomte
4 rue des Beaux Arts. Paris 75006. www.alain-lecomte.net
40 rue Mazarine. Paris 75006. www.charleswesleyhourde.com
Farrow Fine Art
19 Lovell Avenue. San Rafael. United States. www.farrowfineart.com