The Art market for the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas is going through a crisis due to a loss of confidence on the part of collectors. The origin of the buyer’s uncertainty is well known: worries about the provenance and acquisition history of the pieces, concerns about having to repatriate artworks, awareness of the risk of buying a fake, etc. Despite this difficult climate, some auction houses continue to break sales records in those fields. However, these records are almost only concentrated on well-defined types of objects, originating from few different cultures, well-known to collectors.
To follow or not to follow auction sales
For the past few years, I have made it a habit to follow the African, Oceanic, and Americas art sales of the major auction houses in Paris or New York. Although I come from an academic background, where I was taught that the art market is evil, I believe that we are mistaken to avoid this field. Auctions give us access to objects that are no less interesting that those found in museums, on the contrary. The—legitimate—question of their presence in private collections that are so inaccessible is another debate and it is not our subject today, but it should not prevent us from seizing the opportunity to see those artworks up close when we do get the chance.
Museums curators are the first to follow auctions, as their institutions often give them an acquisition budget. Indeed, purchasing at auctions is one of the only ways for museums to accession new pieces, along with those coming from professionally supervised excavations. Coming myself from a curious point of view, I also took the habit of consulting catalogues before auctions, go to the exhibitions of the lots for sale, and analyze the auction results.
The exhibition of the lots, depending on the auction house, can take the form of a stifling curiosity cabinet for potential buyers. But it can also, sometimes, be the product of true research, coherence, and scenography, not unlike a museum exhibition. The requirement for a more informed display is increasing as the market becomes more distrusted by the public and buyers alike.
Sales patterns and fashion laws
You don’t have to follow auction sales for very long to perceive the patterns in motion in that field. Indeed I soon realized that, like any other market that stems from a consumerist logic, the laws of auctions are no different than the laws of fashion. This has always been the case in art history: the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo are examples of works whose overpricing is the consequence of their history more than their actual artistic interest.
Over the last decades, the market for so-called pre-Columbian art collapsed after the ban on exporting objects from their country of origin, which in turn provoked the production of a multitude of fake artworks from the ancient Americas for the art market. But the market for African and Oceanic arts is still vivid, and we observe passing through the sales the same Kota reliquaries, Fang statuettes, or Bamana ciwara crests—all of which were already on the desks of last century’s collectors like André Breton—.
Tribal Art Magazine publishes twice a year a top ten of auction sale results, which allows us to quickly get an idea of the issue. For example, between January and June 2020—a period that includes the big seasonal sales of Christie’s Paris and Sotheby’s NY—, no less than three Fang statuettes made it to the top ten sales of the season, while, unsurprisingly, the other steps of the podium are occupied by reliquaries from Gabon (Fang and Mahongwe). In 2018, Fang artworks were ranked 2nd, 3rd and 4th. We also note the popularity of Baule masks, in particular that of the Marceau Rivière collection, which broke records by selling for some 5 million dollars at Sotheby’s Paris. The same goes for Songye geometric masks, which are often featured in this top ten. In 2017, three Kota reliquary statuettes swept the board. And so on, and so on.
I guess that finding that we had not outgrown these fashion reflexes is what bothers me. So I ask myself: is it the buyer or the seller that dictates the flow of auctions? Who creates the supply, and who meets the demand? Was it the chicken or was it the egg?
The African art pieces sold on the art market have been around for some time. They pass from collectors’ hand to hand. The market is therefore not much renewed, which is why it is inevitable that the trends at auctions hardly change. However, I think that it is a pity that auction houses, which have the unique opportunity to showcase non-Western arts for the general public, do not highlight new faces or value other countries, cultures, works, or traditions. These lesser-known objects would indeed have a lower quotation on the market, but nevertheless deserve to have their place in the sun. Wouldn’t it be a virtuous circle to shed light on new topics to arouse the curiosity of wealthy collectors, which could then lead to more research or grants for the rest of the art world? Because we know that there is still so much to uncover, study, and celebrate.
« Top 10 », Tribal Art magazine, N°87 to 91, from 2017 to 2021.