The tribal art market at auction in 2016

 Global  |  14 September 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Growing sharply since 2000, tribal art has not been spared of upsets in the last three years: a dilution of the historic Sotheby’s-Christie’s duopoly, consolidation of the intermediary market, mainly in favour of African pieces whose average value is dropping. The past inertias are shifting…

If there’s one sure thing about this market – an extremely heterogeneous one as it is made up of classic African, Pacific, Pre-Colombian and North American arts –, it would be its growth. The turnover from auction sales, despite a little fluctuation, is following an upward trend, jumping up from around ten million euros in 2001 to flirt with 60 million euros in 2013, up to the excellent year in 2014 when it exceeded the symbolic bar of 100 million euros – an absolute record for the auction market. Meanwhile, the number of lots placed on sale has varied greatly, but its growth is just as indisputable. An average of around 3,100 objects has been presented every year from 2000 to 2005, compared to 5,800 in 2014, 7,050 in 2015, and over 8,300 in 2016. The evolution of the Artkhade price index makes the phenomenon all the clearer: between 2000 and 2016, the price level for classic African and Pacific objects has tripled.

However, the last three years have sent out contradictory signals, seemingly sanctioning the market’s mutations. Certain historic dealers and collectors have withdrawn, to be replaced by young buds; the market has globalised; Internet has changed the habits of both professionals and amateurs. Since 2014, the rise in the number of lots presented at sales – following a first phase of growth between 2006 and 2009, nonetheless incomparable with the current one – has been accompanied by a significant drop in the turnover of the tribal-art auction market. Following the absolute record in 2014, the market underwent clear-cut correction, falling by nearly 30 % between 2014 and 2015, before undergoing a new smaller decline between 2015 and 2016 – which recorded sales proceeds of 60.9 million euros. What can be read into this? A global drop in the intensity of the tribal-art market? A strong return of dealers? Market correction following the remarkable vintage in 2014 which notched up 15 millionaire auctions? It has to be said that 2014, whose figures would have seemed outrageous ten years previously, has taken on the air of a happy anomaly. In that year, Sotheby’s Paris sold a Rapa statue from Easter Island for 1.8 million euros – still the fourth-best adjudication for a classic Pacific art object – while the sale of a Sénoufo statue from the Côte d’Ivoire singlehandedly reaped 9.68 million euros (12 million dollars) at Sotheby’s New York in November – the record for a tribal-art object at the time and still a record for a classic African art object. In the same year, Sotheby’s sold the Frum Collection (in Paris, raising a total of 7.5 million dollars) and the Myron Kunin Collection (in New York, for a total of 37.9 million euros). Between them, these two collections represented a turnover of 45.4 million euros, in other words 63.8 % of Sotheby’s 2014 takings – and almost one-half of the tribal-art auction turnover.

The return of the intermediary market?
What can be noted is that the increase in the number of objects presented for sale between 2013 and 2016, unprecedented on the market, was not accompanied by a rise in the proportion of unsold goods. Between 2015 and 2016, even if the number of objects going on auction went up by nearly 20 %, the unsold rate fell from 45 % to 41.4 %. Clearly, the two-figured growth of lots being placed on sale was absorbed by demand. Should this be interpreted as a sign of the strengthening of the intermediary market?

It is true that the tribal-art market remains polarised. A vast majority of its volume is concentrated on pieces under 10,000 euros. In 2016, 93.8 % of lots sold came from this segment, even if they represented only 11.6 % of the turnover. At the other end of the spectrum, millionaire sales accounted for one-third of global proceeds while corresponding to only 0.1 % of lots. However, the significant – and gradual – fall of the median price (5,000 euros in 2013 as opposed to 1,000 euros in 2016) of pieces acquired at auctions implies that the upper-market strategy of Christie’s and (especially) of Sotheby’s is being increasingly diluted by that of its rivals, be it through volume or the sale of intermediary collections, as is the case of the auction houses Millon or Binoche et Giquello.

End of the Christie’s-Sotheby’s Domination?
Here lies another sign of the increasing importance of the intermediary market. In recent years, the leadership of Christie’s and Sotheby’s has loosened its grip. In 2013, the two houses still represented 40 % of lots placed on sale and 90 % of the auction turnover in the tribal-art segment. Gradually, this market share has diminished to reach, in 2016, 6.61 % of the lots placed on sale and 64 % of the turnover. Even if the duopoly still exists, it has lost a certain amount of its power to auction houses such as Zemanek-Münster, which adopts a clear volume-based strategy (17.5 % of lots placed on sale, for 1.75 % of the turnover) or else French houses, which opt for a median strategy. Binoche et Giquello (roughly 4  % of lots sold for 9.5 % of the turnover) or Millon (5  % for 6.9  %) are gradually widening their market shares by focusing on the sale of intermediary collections, a more prestigious segment than the mere accumulation of lots – and above all, far easier to promote. In this way, on 20 September, Millon will be selling the Pre-Columbian art objects of French collector Gérald Berjonneau as well as the historic collection of his father-in-law, Alvaro Guillot-Muñoz (1897-1971). Whereas on 18  October, Binoche et Giquello will be selling the collection of Giancarlo Ligabue (1931- 2015).

But the king still remains master of his castle nonetheless. In 2016, Sotheby’s still ran ahead of the pack: its 333 lots (4 %) represented 53 % of sales proceeds, in other words, 32.3 million euros. Following the leader, Christie’s came up with a paltry 2.6 % of lots sold and 12 % of the sector’s turnover (7.2 million euros). Sotheby’s is keeping its upper hand thanks to its upper-market strategy, as indicated in 2014 by its sale of the Frum and Myron Kunin collections. Over a fifteen-year period, the auction house has done no less than sell 70 % of the volume of millionaire objects, leaving its rivals to snatch at the crumbs – 9 % for Christie’s and 21 % for other auction houses. Thanks to its millionaire auction sales, Sotheby’s has yielded 103 million euros – spread out between barely 50 lots – in other words 26.2 % of its turnover over the period… and more than the 8,968 lots sold by Christie’s between 2000 and 2014.

Africa Still on Top
As for the market, at auction sales at least, Africa is still on top. In 2016, classic African pieces represented 62 % of lots exchanged on the tribal-art market, and 68 % of sales proceeds. Meanwhile, the Pacific, coming in second, represented 15.8 % of lots exchanged and 20 % of the turnover. The classic African art pieces that were the most sought after at auctions in 2016 were mainly Lega, Baoulé, Kongo or Fang ones. These four ethnicities, while accounting for only 8.5 % of the origins of classic African pieces sold at auctions, made up 35 % of takings.

A small earthquake has nonetheless upset auctions in the space of just a few years. In 2014, an African piece would sell for an average of 44,524 euros, compared with 21,764 euros for a Pacific one. While this considerable disparity can namely be explained by the great auction success scored by a handful of African-art lots, including the Sénoufo statue sold Sotheby’s, it was also observable in a year when records were sparser: in 2013, a classic African art object sold for an average of 31,613 euros, compared to 21,465 euros for Pacific tribal arts. In 2016, the trend was inversed: on average, Pacific pieces went for 9,256 euros, and African ones, for 7,979 euros. A figure boosted by the sale, at Sotheby’s in May 2016, of an Uli ancestor statue from Papua New Guinea for 4.7 million dollars – the record for a classic Pacific art object. Then came South American and Pre-Columbian pieces, sold at an average of 7,300 euros, and North American ones, at 3,730 euros.

This shakeup, which stirs up a timeworn inertia, has a simple cause: the increase in the number of pieces being placed on sale largely stems from Africa. In 2012, 1,300 pieces were placed on sale, 3,650 in 2014 and… 5.230 in 2016 – more than the total number of tribal-art lots placed on sale in 2001 and 2002. In comparison, the number of classic Pacific pieces placed on auction has increased, but to a lesser extent: 730 in 2012, 1,170 in 2014 and 1,309 in 2016.

France, an Obvious Spot for Tribal-Art Auctions
As for geography, tribal-art sales are clearly spread out between France and the United States, especially Paris and New York. Between 2000 and 2016, France sold 27,246 lots and raised a turnover of around 370 million euros. On the other hand, the United States sold 15,500 pieces for a turnover of 242 million euros. Paris is therefore the centre of this market, the city where tribal arts are the most intensively sold, even if objects sell at lower prices on average than in the United States (13,580 euros compared with 15,612 euros over the period 2000- 2015). Despite a market-correction effect, these results were confirmed in 2016 when a lot sold for an average of 9,410 euros in France, and 12,819 euros in the United States.

At auctions, the undeniable growth of the tribal-art market is not exempt from upheaval: the strong growth of classic African art pieces being placed on sale, leading to a fall in their average value, a rise of the intermediary market privileging a few auction houses that have managed to challenge the Christie’s-Sotheby’s duopoly… It will be interesting to see whether these deep modifications will be confirmed in the upcoming sales in the next few weeks.

Upcoming auctions 
A positive start to the season for the auction house Millon, currently gearing up to sell pre-Columbian art objects from the collection of Frenchman Gérald Berjonneau as well as from the historic collection of his father-in-law Alvaro Guillot-Muñoz (1897-1971). A selection of 120 pieces, estimated at between 1.5 and 1 million euros, including a stone Palma representing a Morelet’s crocodile from the Veracruz culture, produced between 600 and 900 A.D., estimated at between 80,000 and 120,000 euros. Also on offer at the sale: a Mochica shaman’s cup (Peru) resting on a deer head, estimated at between 80,000 and 120,000 euros, or else an antique Chorrera shaman’s mortar (Ecuador, 1500 to 600 A.D.) in the shape of a monkey, estimated at between 40,000 and 70,000 euros.
20 September 2017. Millon

Parisian house Drouot is holding an African, Pacific and Pre-Colombian arts and archaeology sale, featuring 27 pieces from the renowned collection of Giancarlo Ligabue, an Italian collector, entrepreneur and palaeontologist who passed away in 2015. The businessman had commenced, in the 1960s, an archaeological and paleontological collection inherited by his son. Binoche et Giquello is presenting part of this collection, including a boat model produced in Egypt c. 3500-3 200 B.C. (Nagada II period). Estimated at between 20,000 and 30,000 euros, this earthenware work once belonged to the collections of Marianne Maspero dealers, then Charles Ede.
18 October. Binoche et Giquello

Always at the heart of the action, Sotheby’s will be selling the collection of Edwin & Cherie Silver, well-known collectors from Los Angeles. A sale featuring numerous Gabonese and Congolese Kota figures. A selection of works is also on display at Sotheby’s Paris (Galerie Aveline, 94 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré) throughout Parcours des Mondes, from 10 to 16 September.
10 November. Sotheby’s New York

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