Monday, June 29, 2009


A interesting and thought-provoking article by Dr. Kwame Opoku,

A major exhibition on Ife art, Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, opened on June 16, 2009 at the Fundación Marcelino Botin, Santander, Spain and will move from there to the Museum for Africa Art, New York, United States and later to the British Museum, London, United Kingdom. The exhibition however will not be shown in Nigeria or in any other African country.

The exhibition consists of some 120 excellent bronze, terra-cotta and stone sculptures from 12th - 15th century from Ife (or more correctly, Ilé-Ife), the spiritual capital of the Yoruba in South-western Nigeria and the place where, according to Yoruba mythology, creation took place; the gods, Oduduwa and Obatala descended from heaven to create the earth as directed by the Supreme Deity, Oludumare. The objects in the exhibition have been loaned by the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) which is working in collaboration with the Fundación Marcelino Botin, the Museum for African Art and the British Museum.

The exhibits include idealized portrait heads, images of lively animals and caricatures of old age and diseases, carved stone animals and seated male figures. The objects demonstrate the authority and majesty of a royal dynasty as well as the highly sophisticated technology and skills of the Ife artists. So impressive are some of these objects that Leo Frobenius, one of the first Europeans to see Ife art, in 1910, could not believe they were produced by Africans. Following European prejudices and ignorance, he attributed the sophisticated, naturalistic works of Ife to a lost Greek civilization, Atlantis. He thought the sculpture could not have been made by an African people.

The strong realism of these magnificent Ife sculptures is in sharp contrast to the usual abstract forms of African art, especially sculpture, which contributed largely to the birth of modern art by inspiring artists such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Kandinsky, Kirchner, Modigliani, Klee, Moore and Giacometti to free themselves from the constraining European norms of naturalism and to adopt the freer African style of abstraction.

The pattern of collaboration between Nigerian institutions and the Western institutions will no doubt be familiar to many readers. The Nigerians lend their cultural artefacts to be shown in Europe and America but the show will not go to any Nigerian town nor will it be shown anywhere else in Africa. Does the Nigerian public not need to learn about Nigerian culture? Are the people in Zaria and Kaduna so familiar with Ife culture that there is no need to show them the achievements of Ife? Do people in Lagos, cosmopolitan city, not need to learn about Yoruba culture? Unless I am wrongly informed, many of the exhibits are kept in Abuja and Lagos so that even persons born and bred in Ife may not have seen them. Will a young Ife artist who happens to be in Europe be able to visit the exhibition? Will the European countries suspend their racist immigration policies at least for the period of the exhibition in order to permit Nigerians and other Africans who may want to see some of the finest achievements of Yoruba culture now on show in Spain and later on in Britain? Or do young African artists, unlike their European and American counterparts, not need to see such exhibitions? Soon all the experts on African art, including Ife art, will be Europeans and Americans who will be paid or generously funded by the rich American foundations to come and teach us African art. Already, Europeans and Americans are the ones writing learned articles and books about African culture. The wider implications of this for the development of African culture should make every dedicated African pause to think about the future of our cultures.

One recalls the Benin exhibition, Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria which followed similar pattern but included some of the Benin artefacts looted in 1897 by the British in their infamous Punitive Expedition. Some of the looted objects are now in Western institutions which collaborated in the Benin exhibition. Not a single looted object has been returned to Nigeria from any of the countries holding the objects. Institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, with overweening arrogance and self-assurance, do not even deign to acknowledge receipt of formal communications from the Royal Family of Benin. This is a clear reflection of the scant respect many western institutions have for Africans and their institutions. What about the looted/stolen Ife objects that are found in Western Museums? The British Museum is not likely to return the head of the Ife King which is the subject of a DVD sold by the venerable museum since it appears to have been bought from the palace of the Oni (king) and eventually ended as a gift from Sir Kenneth Clark to the British Museum. Will this major exhibition help in returning some of the terra cotta objects which have been illegally exported to Britain, United States and elsewhere in contravention of Nigerian regulations and in flagrant defiance of the ICOM Red List of objects that should not be exported from their countries of origin?

Let there be no misunderstanding. We are in favour of active cultural exchanges between African States and others, including Western States with which, for good or bad, our fates have been linked both by geography and history. There is nothing wrong for Nigeria or any other country to show its national treasures abroad and collaborate with others for the dissemination of knowledge and information about African culture. The correction of deep-seated but unfounded prejudice and ignorance about African culture may be helpful. However, there should be reciprocity, mutual respect and a balance of interests. Collaboration should not be a one-way communication. In all these years of collaboration between African museums and European institutions, we are yet to hear of a major exhibition of European culture, beginning in Africa, with objects seldom shown outside the country of origin, going on tour to African States but not other cities in the European country of origin. Do Africans not need to learn about European culture? Many Nigerians may know the British as colonialists and imperialists but are there no other aspects of British culture that may interest them? The Spaniards may be known as invaders and exploiters of South America but some aspects of Spanish culture could be exhibited for Africans. For example, the contribution of African peoples to Spanish culture would be educative. Spain is only ten kilometres from our Continent. What has been the African influence on Spanish music and dance, flamenco for instance? Did the great Spanish painter, Picasso, not imbibe a lot of African ideas, whether in France or Spain? Could the long rule of the Moors in the Ibero-Spanish peninsula not be explored for the benefit of the African public?

There is a need to provide the public more information about the arrangements for such major exhibitions. Whilst it is not difficult to envisage what the Europeans and Americans may gain from such exhibitions, the public may not easily see what Africans gain. The public cannot judge whether such arrangements are fair and so cannot determine whether they contribute to better cultural understanding. There are reports about objects which were never returned after exhibitions. How much have Nigeria and other African States lost in such ventures? One recalls the public reaction to the revelation that arrangements to display Bangla Desh national treasures in France included deliberately under valued cultural objects and consequent lower insurance.

In the absence of adequate public information, one is left to wonder whether the exploitation of African cultural resources follows the same pattern as the exploitation of our mineral and other resources i.e. we supply cheaply to the great advantage of the West which nowadays does not even have to send in an army for whatever it wants as in the olden days. Somebody has to explain to the African peoples why we must continue to put our cultural resources at the disposition of the West when Western States do not show the least inclination to do the same for us. They are still not even concerned about returning the cultural artefacts that were looted in the colonial period and directly or indirectly, they continue to support looting of African artefacts. Requests for restitution are met with dead silence or insulting and baseless arguments. Is this how cultural cooperation should look like?

Hopefully, the Ife exhibition will prompt thinking about the need for Africans to learn not only about their own cultures but also about the cultures of others.

Kwame Opoku

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Christie's and Sotheby's Tribal Art Sale Results

Christie's tribal art auction had a lackluster performance last week. While 196 lots sold (around 64% of all lots offered), the sale garnered just 1,017,787. This is a trifle, considering that Sotheby's pulled in nearly the same amount of money from a single lot, Lot 87, a rare Kwele 'altar' figure from Gabon. While the lot was estimated between €450,000 and €600,000, it went on to fetch 971,950 at last week's sale. That price is just €45,837 short of Christie's total auction sale - maybe Sotheby's plan to be a high market, low volume auction seller really is working.

The highest priced and sold item at Christie's sale was Lot 144, a Fang Reliquary figure that went for
€51,400. It had been estimated to fetch between €40,000 and
€60,000. Neither of the two pieces (Lot 236 and Lot 311) that we profiled in last week's auction preview sold.

Sotheby's had a remarkably different auction. In addition to their million euro lot 87, the auction house sold 42 lots (or 66% of total lots offered) for a total price of
€3,601,500 - over 3.5 times more than Christie's. 7 lots sold for over 100,000 while all but 8 lots sold for over €10,000.

Dori Rootenberg

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sotheby's African and Oceanic Art Auction Preview

Hot off the heels of yesterday's Christie's sale in Paris, Sotheby's sale happens today. There are some interesting contrasts between the two sales from the top two auction houses in the world. Whereas Christie's had only two objects for sale above €100,000, Sotheby's is offering 12 of only a 65 lot sale (18%) above that price. In addition, 80% (or 52 lots) are for sale at an estimate above €10,000. But in the end it is the quality of the pieces and the interest in the room that will determine how well this sale goes. 

We'd like to highlight several pieces including Lot 87, a magnificent and rare Kwele 'altar' figure, Gabon. This lot is offered for sale between €450,000 and €600,000. It is an exceptionally fine piece and we believe there will be ample interest in it. 

Lot 89 is A fine and powerful Fang Mvai figure, Ntem Valley, Gabon. This object is estimated to fetch between €150,000 and €250,000.

Stay tuned for the results of the auction coming up. 

Dori Rootenberg

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Christie's Tribal Art Sale in Paris Preview

The Christie's Art Africain et Oceanien sale is going on at this very moment. The auction, comprised of 227 lots total, has some very fine pieces in the sale. A few we'd like profile include Lot 236, a Rare and Magnificent Maori Statue that is estimated to fetch between €150,000 and €250,000. I had the pleasure of seeing this piece in the Christie's showroom in New York and it is ever better looking in person than online. Chrisitie's has done a thorough write up in English on this object that might be of interest to some of you. 
In addition, Lot 311 is a rather fine piece. The object, an Important Songye Statute is estimated to fetch between €100,000 and €150,000. Notably, these are the only two objects in the sale that have estimates in the €100,000 range. And even more important, there are only 25 objects (only 9%) in total with estimates over €10,000. 
Stay tuned for the results of this auction and we'll be posting more soon. 

Dori Rootenberg

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Talk With Susan Kloman

A few weeks ago we had the privilege to sit down and speak with Susan Kloman of Christie’s about tomorrow’s Art Africain et Océanien auction in Paris and other relevant topics. Susan is the International Specialist Head of Christie’s African and Oceanic Art department based in New York.

The following is a summary rundown of the talk, focusing on advice for collectors and potential collectors of African and Tribal Art. According to Ms. Kloman, the African and Tribal Art market is a “conoisseur’s market” – unlike the rather hasty collectors and purchasers in the contemporary market, those in our field are more contemplative, more professional, and more studied with intense “intellectual curiosity.” When compared to the contemporary or impressionist markets, the Tribal Art market is also more stable – there are “not the same peaks and not the same valleys” of the market. This means that while the contemporary art market saw a significant downturn earlier this year and many auctions took a turn for the worse, the Tribal Art market has remained significantly more level. She noted that in the field there is an identifiable “core group” of people who will and will be able to bid aggressively regardless of the economic climate for those rare and special pieces.

I asked her for some advice for new buyers of African and Tribal Art and those areas that she considered undervalued. Ms. Kloman’s biggest piece of advice is to “buy what you like.” But she did mention that Indonesian works are lacking in extensive education, museum shows, prominent collectors, dealers, and have a general lack of connoisseurship in the field. All this contributes to a lack of interest and significantly lowers prices for the quality of works available. She also mentioned works from South Africa (like those that we offer at Jacaranda Tribal) as well as Polynesian weapons and Tanzanian Objects have not yet received the widespread recognition for the quality available. With all of these objects, as well as those in fields that are doing extraordinarily well, she noted that there is a growing and “exponential divide between good and great pieces.” This means that for those truly great works that are becoming ever rarer, the prices will continue to rise so long as collecting interest remains strong.

Our conversation turned to price and collecting trends in the African and Tribal Art market. As any professional in the field, Ms. Kloman seemed hesitant to make any real predictions saying that “we’ll see where the trends go” but that there remains an “international market for African art” and collections have become quite the “mature audience.” I gathered this to mean that she believes the market will remain strong and continue increasing in price and significance. She added that this “mature audience” is clearly different from that in the 1950s and 1960s where there was “so much material available….[but] not the same kind of connoisseurship. [At that time] people were still educating themselves.” Now we have museums, auctions, impassioned collectors, dealers, and arts professionals like Ms. Kloman providing important and significant information for the collecting public. It’s no wonder that the collecting base has matured so greatly and that the market has done so well over the last few decades.

Stay tuned for our auction preview of the Christie’s auction, including more information from our talk with Ms. Kloman, coming up.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Lempertz Tribal Art Auction Results

It's been quite a while since we wrote about the tribal art auction at the Lempertz Auction House and they took quite some time getting the results of the auction processed and up on the web. They're now available and so we wanted to do a quick rundown what turned out to be a rather lackluster auction. 

A total of 65 lots (of 189 lots or only 34%) sold on April 25, 2009 for a total of 275,950. Of the lots that we profiled in our last post -Lot 40, Lot 51, Lot 54, and Lot 60 - only Lot 54 actually sold, all others BIed or were Bought In by the house. Lot 54, the Fine Baule Mask pictured below, was estimated at 36,000 and actually sold for €37,000.
The highlight of the sold items was certainly Lot 183, "A Fine and Important Mangbetu Container" which was estimated to fetch between €40,000 and €60,000 and brought in €66,000 - one of the few pieces to exceed its high estimate. 
With the exception of these two pieces, there were few noteworthy pieces  that sold at the sale. All by the above two pieces were sold for prices €10,000 or below (with a low price of only €250).