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6417Re: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity

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  • Ed Jones
    Aug 11, 2013
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      Hi John:
      As a very dear friend would say,
      "A huge hoard of mediocre stuff, one can never really enjoy any piece individually. And with any form of art you can only really look and enjoy one piece at a time.  Perhaps, people that hoard will never be satisfied, so continue to search not only to expand their numbers but also to find better pieces. They find it impossible to get past the bargain hunt because they do not have patience to wait. They cannot focus their thoughts. These are usually people not prepared to research their pieces and compare. Instead of research they often look for a story to attach to each piece that suits their ideas of what it should be. They skim from the info they are given and add to it at will. They lose interest quickly in their latest purchases and move on with their hunt.
      True collectors do not need to do this. They are more like exceptionally good decorators who are able to focus their mind and wait while slowly building their dream set."
      Personally, I could not have expressed this any better, "African art is firmly (and securely) fixed in the canon of art, regardless of occasional soft market trends." 
      Pax vobiscum,
      From: "Monroe, John W [HIST]" <jmonroe@...>
      To: "African_Arts@yahoogroups.com" <African_Arts@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Thursday, August 8, 2013 12:03 PM
      Subject: RE: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity
      You're welcome, Ed.  Also: your point about "mid-century modern" furniture is well-taken.  It's very possible that fashions could change and we could see more collectors of traditional African art appearing -- the art is still the art, and it remains every bit as good as it's always been.  I've been living with my favorite pieces long enough to be deeply confident of that! If you look at the place of traditional African art in the whole "field of cultural production", museums are a good sign for the future.  African art collections are now more or less obligatory at all major American encyclopedic art museums.  This means their cultural place in the canon of "art" is fixed quite firmly, even if the current market is soft.  It's not a question of getting in the game, it's a question of waiting for a comeback -- and if late nineteenth century French Academic painting can come back (as it recently has), *anything* can. John Monroe
      From: African_Arts@yahoogroups.com [African_Arts@yahoogroups.com] on behalf of Ed Jones [bucit@...]
      Sent: Wednesday, August 07, 2013 4:01 PM
      To: African_Arts@yahoogroups.com
      Subject: Re: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity

      Thanks John. 
      This is a telling article indeed.   It seems to be in "lock-step" with Anatolian antique kilims and such, as well as carpet purchases. 
      Then again, the 50s-60s era art deco furniture designs, styles and colors fell off the grid for about 50-60 years or so, and is a very popular revived style today.   Why would collecting INVESTMENT African art be any different?  There seems to be a season and cycle for these things.  I wonder how African modernist art and sculptures are fairing such as Woodrow Nash and his "Rage Gallery", does anyone have an idea? 
      I met him in person during a business trip to Chicago during the summer of 2003.  He was in attendance at an art Expo.  His recent work has changed quite a bit compared to his early creations.

      From: "Monroe, John W [HIST]" <jmonroe@...>
      To: "African_Arts@yahoogroups.com" <African_Arts@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Wednesday, August 7, 2013 12:20 PM
      Subject: RE: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity
      In light of the turn this discussion has taken, particularly in the recent posts from William, Ed, Bob and Richard, I thought people might be interested in Michael Auliso’s recent interview with Heinrich Schweizer, the head of Sotheby’s African and Oceanic department in New York:

      In the interview, he gives a pretty candid statement of exactly how Sotheby’s is currently marketing African art, and what sorts of pieces get chosen to figure in its auctions.  In New York, Sotheby’s has shrunk both the number of sales and the number of lots on offer, all with an eye toward focusing attention on a select few lots, chosen for their “universal appeal” – by which Schweizer means both their essential esthetic quality, and their ability to attract buyers who think of themselves as “art collectors” in the broad sense.  These buyers, in turn, are the post-2008 international super-rich, people for whom “$15,000 is not a lot of money anymore.” 

      The objects Sotheby’s selects to appeal to such buyers, Schweizer says, have to have two attributes: a certain esthetic quality deemed (in this cultural setting) to be “transcendent,” and a particular kind of provenance.  Understandably , he’s coy about the esthetic side of things.  As he notes, the ability to identify objects with the power to “transcend” is a “trade secret,” which is actually true for any dealer in this field.  However, he’s more explicit about provenance.  Buyers looking for “universal masterpieces” pay particularly close attention to details of past ownership and – especially – exhibition and publication history.  The object that makes it to Sotheby’s, in addition to being a certain kind of beautiful (whatever that is) has to be *well known* when it arrives on the auction block.  My guess is that, in practice, the second attribute – object “fame” – is probably a lot more important than the aesthetic “special sauce.”  There might be the occasional unknown piece “plucked from obscurity” in a Sotheby’s sale, but those long-shot bets are going to be hedged with plenty of sure things.

      This confirms what people have been saying here: the top end is rising, but contracting sharply, while in the rest of the market, prices are slack and tending lower.  As William notes, this certainly owes something to an absence of demand.  Collecting African art just isn’t “in” anymore, in the way it was in the 50s and 60s.  There isn’t the critical mass of people willing to invest the money and self-instruction time that becoming a knowledgeable connoisseur-collector in this field requires, the way there is today in the world of Chinese antiques.  Think of all those psychoanalysts, academics and doctors in cities like Boston, New York and Chicago who used to see an interest in traditional African art as a sign of a certain type of cultivation and progressiveness – they’re mostly gone or aging now, and younger people have different badges of “hipness.”

      That does leave some strong upsides, however, as several posters have noted.  If you choose to get serious in this field and look to vetted specialist auctions, it’s possible to score some very nice – on occasion, actually museum-worthy – works of art for prices far lower than you’d pay if you were buying Western paintings or sculptures of equivalent quality.  Even on Ebay, as William says, every so often genuine, sometimes very fine, objects do appear.  And they *do* sell for a song.  In a decade on the site, checking it daily, I have never seen an African sculpture fetch more than $2500…and if you’re looking at a museum-quality piece, that is still “a song.”  (Of course given the poor quality of most Ebay listing-photos, you’re usually buying a pig in a poke to some degree, and in my opinion it’s that general sense of risk that sets the price ceiling.)    

      Outside of the charmed circle of Sotheby’s, then, collecting African art just isn’t a very good financial bet if you’re looking to sell your objects for lots more than you paid originally, even if you have a very cultivated eye and an excellent collection.  Here I agree with William completely.  This is something to do as an esthetic investment, rather than a financial one.  On those terms, though, I think it’s a pretty great deal.

      John Monroe  
      From: African_Arts@yahoogroups.com [African_Arts@yahoogroups.com] on behalf of William Klebous [klebous@...]
      Sent: Wednesday, August 07, 2013 2:41 AM
      To: African_Arts@yahoogroups.com
      Subject: Re: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity

      Oh yes, I forgot one thing... 4) And if you take path 3) accept the liklihood that probably the only way that you're ever going to profit from your expertise is not by selling to mid-range dealers, but rather by becoming a mid-range dealer yourself at some point in your life. Otherwise, just enjoy the fact that you have some powerful authentic African art in your life at a fraction of what it would have otherwise cost.

      From: William Klebous <klebous@...>
      To: "African_Arts@yahoogroups.com" <African_Arts@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Wednesday, 7 August 2013 5:00 PM
      Subject: Re: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity
      Ed, yes, but... 1) "Safety" is exactly what the major auction houses and major dealers provide, and charge such a premium for. If you want it, pay for it. 2) As has been pointed out, a lesser kind of safety is already provided by dozens of ethical mid-range dealers. Generally speaking, under current market conditions, your purchase from these dealers will NOT be respected by the major dealers and major auction houses, but it will provide some support if and when you decide to sell into a less-rigged venue, although even recovering your additional investment, no less making a profit, will likely prove difficult. (Moment of nostalgia: There was a time, not long ago, when many dealers had a standing offer to re-purchase the item they sold you for its original purchase price, so confident were they of a steadily rising market.) 3) Or, study hard and gain confidence and compete with these mid-range dealers at out-of- the-way auctions and estate sales. In other words, buy wholesale. Have fun, make mistakes, learn. Think of your mistakes as tuition. Nothing concentrates the mind like gambling your own hard-earned money.

      From: Ed Jones <bucit@...>
      To: "African_Arts@yahoogroups.com" <African_Arts@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Wednesday, 7 August 2013 3:11 PM
      Subject: Re: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity

      Could it be [self] trust or confidence more than not having a fat wallet? 
      Perhaps, when one asserts the question and answer game for discernment, it is not too difficult to perceive that folks really do not know, and do not want to get taken.
      For me, mistakes only expose you for the moment, and it is not near as painful as carrying the burden of on the long-term.  In that manner, I am a bit brazen (or foolish to some).  It doesn't matter.  Last count, this forum has well over 900 members, but we certainly do not hear from even 10% on a regular basis... Hmmn.  And, I do not believe that Facebook provides art enthusiasts anything more soluble except "a safer, feel good zone".  My parents used to tell my siblings and I that there is no gain or development with some pain and discomfort. 
      Even among this forum, there is a "fear" of exposing oneself, and mistakes. particularly with a bad object choice, so "less" is more (safe).  When people feel "safe", they will open up their purse strings.  
      The money is still out there.
      From: William Klebous <klebous@...>
      To: "African_Arts@yahoogroups.com" <African_Arts@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 2:47 PM
      Subject: Re: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity
      Respectfully, Rich, it seems to me that your argument is essentially "it is bad that only 10 dealers control the market for 'authentic' African art, but it would be good if 20 dealers did". The Asian art market is swimming in fakes, but it is a healthy market nonetheless, because of DEMAND. Competition amongst expert collectors has driven prices way up for even non-provenanced non-expertly-vetted pieces. Here is the true problem:  When an OBVIOUSLY authentic piece of antique or semi-antique African art comes up for bid on Ebay, without reserve or provenance, often it goes for just a song. I can assure you that when an OBVIOUSLY authentic piece of antique Asian art appears on Ebay, without reserve or provenance, it does not go for just a song. It goes for good money. We don't suffer from a lack of experts. We suffer from a lack of enthusiasts, with fat wallets.

      From: rschust <richschust@...>
      To: African Arts Group <African_Arts@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Wednesday, 7 August 2013 1:45 AM
      Subject: Re: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity

      This discussion of the market for Asian arts leads me to add a brief postscript to my comments on the unfortunate link between use of "real" and "authentic" to justify the Sotheby model of exorbitant prices for African art.
      Some of you have suggested that the Sotheby/prestigious-gallery model helps the market because it creates a high ceiling that lifts up the whole market. But you then ignore the negative effect on the market for African carvings from classifying anything else as "not real" (Lou Wells to me) or "not authentic." (Again, Lou Wells to me: "One test of authenticity would be simply to ask whether Sotheby’s or Christie’s would offer the piece.")
      The result of this elitism  is bound to be that our purchases of more recent carvings, despite their authenticity in terms of origin and provenance (from where they originate, not what collection they came from) is a fool's paradise of buying carvings that are, in effect, "not real." We are simply wasting our money and becoming fools as well.by buying items that are judged as inauthentic and "not real" despite the sellers' claims of "old," used, etc. I believe this is  one of the main reason why the demand for African carvings is not greater. A lot of potential new collectors are wary of being fooled and duped unless they restrict their purchases to truly inexpensive, mass-produced carvings whose sole virtue is that they may be attractive. Or remind you of your African safari holiday..
      This is also why the field would gain - along with the value of our collections - if we could show by invoice that our carvings were purchased from dealers who have earned certification as handling only authentic carvings, whether or not these are the Sotheby or the "common collector" kind. This is why I suggested that an ad hoc committee of knowledgeable people - many of whom who participate in this forum - should be created to provide this vetting.
      My experience with a few dealers in the US and Europe is that such dealers exist - many selling via eBay - who genuinely endeavor to handle only authentic items. If they were officially credited with doing so, we would all be in a better place, as would the market overall.
      On Tue, Aug 6, 2013 at 11:25 AM, William Klebous <klebous@...> wrote:
      It's true that this new class of Chinese collectors seems to have something of an aversion to grave goods, but that only explains why prices have not risen on these items, not why they have fallen, despite continuing interest from Western collectors. Prices have fallen because of a surge in supply, approved by the Chinese government, due to systematic excavation of ancient tombs and, except for the premier objects which go to Chinese museums, the marketing of "average" items to dealers and auction houses in the West in exchange for highly desirable dollars and euros. Its not that large tri-color Tang dynasty tomb horses are any less beautiful than they were twenty years ago, its just that they're a lot more common than we used to think. On the other hand, if you look at something like antique Buddhist bronzes, where the supply is essentially steady, but collector interest has soared, suddenly objects of secondary and tertiary and even lower quality easily find willing buyers, and really its just an all-around wonderful thing. The stranglehold of a few dealers and auction houses gets broken, or at least relaxed, and long-time collectors, perhaps nearing retirement age, get to see a decent return on their investment. So, getting back on topic, that's the main point I think. That only a surge of new interest in African Art can possibly cure the deep market ills that we have been discussing. Otherwise it is quite natural in the face of limited demand for any market to become highly controlled and exclusive and manipulated as its top dealers seek to survive lean times. _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
      From: Ed Jones <bucit@...>
      To: "African_Arts@yahoogroups.com" <African_Arts@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Monday, 5 August 2013 8:42 PM
      Subject: Re: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity
      I am inclined to agree with your thoughts about Chinese preferences in opposition to authenticity.  
      Every place I have visited in China (10 places currently), one cannot find  the number "4" on any elevator.  During my first visit to The Peoples Republic of China in the latter 90s, I asked a person at one of the airlines I had business with, and was told the number 4 is "Si" in Chinese, and is pronounced very closely to their word for death or to die.   A bit like superstitious folks and the number "13" in western cultures. 
      The Chinese have an obsession with youth and "new" things, rather than old, used and death / spiritual relics or the representation thereof.  This is in stark contrast to traditional and conservative African generations that revere ancestral homage, death and spirits as manifested in; anthropomorphic and zoomorphic inventions worshipped via libations and power objects to house deities and spirits as nkisi / minkisi and so on.  
      There is a notion that all westerners are compelled and adore old, used things--- which according to most Asian-centered cultures seems to be taboo or a turn-off, as the idea that an object has been tainted in an undesirable way by another person's soul.  My wife is from a nomadic Turkic tribe, and I can tell you as an enthusiast of certain Anatolian and Central Asian artifacts, this also holds true, but there are always cultural out-casts and ones that do not think as the common demagogue in all societies.
      Anyway, the info and observations you expressed are true and revealing.  This will certainly have an effect on what interests their artistic fancy. 
      And I also agree with William Klebous about eBay.  I did not think about it that way, but it is vey much like the largest and most prolific seller of African arts.  In fact, many members of this forum are selling on the eBay forum and have good items.   When something has a positive monetary effect, it will always bring an element of opportunistic and unsavory types, and this will always be the case in life.  As you know, people are opportunistic, some more than others.  
      I would tend to support and agree with anyone making the assessment that greed will eventually over-shadow and diminish cultural (esoteric) knowledge... Herbert (Skip) Cole mentioned this as well as others.  This is the dilemma we find in African arts.  African cultures have evolved, and is changing.  The youth do not have the interest to live as their ancestors did 3 or 4 generations (and I do not blame them).  No culture or national group wants their youth to struggle or suffer, and this holds particularly true in developing and Third World countries.  

      From: "Monroe, John W [HIST]" <jmonroe@...>
      To: "African_Arts@yahoogroups.com" <African_Arts@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Sunday, August 4, 2013 10:14 PM
      Subject: RE: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity
      Chinese art is an interesting parallel!  I wonder if we'll find the equation of value similarly flipped if African collectors ever begin to move the market in the way Chinese collectors have.  I do wonder if it's less a question of "authenticity" than one of cultural value: the new Chinese collectors simply *like* different things than Western collectors have generally liked.  A friend of mine who's a collector of Asian art, for instance, once told me that Chinese collectors really don't want pieces that have been buried in tombs -- they find the association with death unpleasant.  Tang dynasty horses, I think he said, were a particularly clear example: they used to be a lot more expensive than they are now. Also, as for Ebay, I think William's totally right.  It's a wonderfully transparent, if sometimes deceptive, market.  It's surprising how many times I've seen something I remember from an Ebay listing crop up at a Tribal Art Week or "real" gallery.  The key is spotting the object that can be convincingly re-branded, which takes a knack.  Of the three William listed, by the way, I've got to say I think 1 could make the jump (especially if well-mounted), possibly 2, but not 3.   John Monroe
      From: African_Arts@yahoogroups.com [African_Arts@yahoogroups.com] on behalf of William Klebous [klebous@...]
      Sent: Sunday, August 04, 2013 10:12 PM
      To: African_Arts@yahoogroups.com
      Subject: [African_Arts] Re: Quick thought on authenticity


      I would like to support the notion that an over-emphasis on "authenticity" is exactly what has damaged the African Art market so badly. In almost every other "indiginous" art market, there is a sort of rough balance between age, beauty, authenticity, and rarity which altogether determine an object's value through genuine market action amongst a large base of collectors. A good example of these market forces in action has been the recent surge in prices for impressive 19th century examples of Asian Art, mostly due to the influx of new money from China. 19th century Asian Art had been somewhat scorned by experts for reasons that will sound familiar: Too much Western influence. Not authentic enough. But a large base of new collectors has righted this market distortion, this over-emphasis on authenticity. Without a large new base of African Art collectors, which I do not currently see on the horizon, the distortions we see in the African Art market will continue. In the meantime, don't be too condemning of the sort of rigged game we currently see at the top end of the market. If they were having no success in manipulating upwards the prices of these top-end objects, the true market for African Art would be even lower. Perhaps much lower. In my opinion the largest and therefore most true market for African Art currently is Ebay. This particular market also, in my opinion, does a better job of balancing out age, beauty, authenticity, and rarity than any better-vetted venue I know of. So, as an experiment, I searched for Ebay objects sold at auction recently with a non-trivial amount of bids and without significant provenance. Here for your consideration are three of the most highly valued lots, only one of which may be sufficiently "authentic" for many of you. But personally, I think the Ebay market did a pretty good job in establishing something like true market value. (FYI, I have no connection whatsoever with any of these objects or sellers. And myself, currently I wouldn't have paid this much for any of the three lots, mostly because I've been more interested in Asian Art the last five or so years, only picking up a few absolute "steals" in African Art during this period.) Teke magical figure $1325 Ebay#400478731307 http://i.ebayimg.com/t/A-Fine-TEKE-magical-figure-Fetiche-Kongo-Fetischfigur-brown-patina-ochre-pigment-/00/s/NTk5WDYwOA==/z/4vUAAMXQY8JRgWDN/$(KGrHqZHJEUFE2I4LZQcBRgWDNY5Qg~~60_3.JPG Fon fetsih figure $990 Ebay#181143448960 http://i.ebayimg.com/t/EWE-FON-FETISH-FIGURE-/00/s/MTYwMFgxMjAw/z/3OsAAOxycERRmP05/$(KGrHqV,!qMFGBdUgLn9BRmP04v2DQ~~60_57.JPG Baule spirit couple $543 Ebay#370829424980 http://i.ebayimg.com/t/Superb-African-Art-BAULE-Fertility-Spirit-Couple-Figure-Collectible-/00/s/MTYwMFgxMjAw/$(KGrHqF,!oME-9lSRgEsBP2+49i-O!~~60_57.JPG  
      Currently  in Israel:
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