A great article
A Natural Curiosity, The British Market in Primitive Art
Jeremy MacClancyCertain objects are today dubbed “primitive art.” They are bought by people who value them.
Others sell these objects for profit. Once this market exists, historians can employ themselves describing and interpreting this “primitive art.” The objects gain pedigree, the collectors prestige, the historians jobs, and the dealers money. Collectors, experts, and dealers coexist and mutually support one another. They cannot be separated. The market in primitive art is distinctive for its central metaphors, for the degree of passion displayed by committed collectors, and for the difficulties that arise when a European taxonomy drawn from a fine art tradition is imposed on objects that come from other cultures. Primitive art is so varied in style, so broad in its global reach, and still so relatively little researched that many purchasers are unsure of what they are buying. A collector with eye may perceive the soul and mystery of a previously ignored masterpiece but may not be sure that the object is authentic. The definition of fake is itself problematic, for most primitive art is anonymous. In this atmosphere of uncertainty (aggravated by the risk of losing money), the role of a dealer with reputation becomes more central, and supplementary criteria are employed to bolster confidence: patina, provenance, and tribal prestige. But the power of these dealers to determine taste is limited by the pronounced individuality of certain collectors. In this small, highly volatile market-one strongly affected by fashion-price remains particularly difficult to assess.
This essay is an exploration into the culture of capitalism, an investigation into a culturally constituted pattern of consumption by tracing the trajectory of exotic objects in a Western setting. After describing the sociology and development of the British end of this international market, I examine the criteria by which these objects are classified. I conclude with a native account of collectors’ psychology. These objects may come from non-Western contexts, but, installed in the homes of Western collectors, their context of origin becomes but a small part of
the meaning they bear. We are, after all, dealing with a Western process. 1 In the eighteenth century, members of the nobility and the very-well-to-do placed artificial curiosities alongside natural curiosities (minerals, crystals, and dried plants) in the curiosity cabinets of their living rooms. Exemplars of other worlds, these foreign objects attested their owners’ openness to the savage and strange. Within a century these items were reclassified as curios, a pejorative term signifying their lowly status on the racist, universalizing hierarchy of art established by Western high culture. These ethnographical now unconfined by cabinets, were no longer juxtaposed with pieces from natural history. In
Dealers also sold items through the auction-houses.”8 In the immediate postwar years the only British buyers of primitive art were the big prewar collectors (minus Beasley, who died in 1939), artists, writers, and the occasional whimsical9 purchasers Unlike the French bourgeoisie, the majority of the British middle class had not (and still, to a comparative extent, has not) any understanding of primitive art. To them, these objects were frightening, fearful, awesome.10
An emergent group of collectors were those who had learnt of primitive art through their great interest in contemporary art. This small group became all the more important, given the rising purchasing power of the British middle classes in the early and mid-1950s. Influential dealers who entered the market and sold them pieces were Herbert Reiser, John Hewett, and (slightly later) Phillip Goldman. They were men of repute, each with his own gallery. Together with other established gallery owners who exhibited primitive art, they gave confidence to buyers and lent stability to the market. It is with them that the close dealer-client relationship started to become the most common way of selling expensive items. They acquired the big clients (Hewett’s included Pablo Picasso, Nelson Rockefeller, Stavros Niarchos, the Hunt brothers, and Sir Robert Sainsbury); others gained lesser ones. In 1958 Hewett joined Sotheby’s at the request of Peter Wilson, its recently appointed chairman.
By the mid-1960s art was securely recognized as a commodity to invest in.”12 As prices for valued paintings rose so far that all but the richest of collectors were priced out of the market, less moneyed individuals began buying objects in other sectors of the market, areas where they could still afford to buy good pieces at reasonable prices. At auctions of primitive art they were joined by some more wealthy people who thought ethnographical promising potential investments. Prices began to rise.
As the primitive art market started to expand, new dealers entered the trade. Some opened galleries, some worked from home, some set up stalls in Portobello (there were eight there in 1 971), some did all three. Dealers remember the mid- to late I 960s as the beginning of a boom that lasted until 1980. Although certain astute dealers had already bought the best objects owned by private British museums, good pieces were still available cheaply and not too difficult to find; dealers could then still sell items bought at the major auction-houses to collectors because most collectors had not yet started attending the sales rooms; African runners were still visiting London calling on dealers with bags full of “high quality” objects. Few dealers themselves left
The British home market, however, remained small: serious collectors (never more than twenty), dealers, and curators continued, and continue, to be a loose group of mutual acquaintances.
Today about sixteen dealers have stalls in Portobello. They buy from country dealers who come up to
A few tour the country themselves, but most find it more worthwhile to buy from runners who comb their home region attending local auctions and visiting nearby antique shops. Most arevisited by collectors who wish to sell or exchange something they have tired of or that they have just bought cheaply in another market (such as
Few buyers are strangers; the majority are dealers from
The majority of business is done with other dealers, buying and selling objects with one another.
Since different dealers tend to have different sorts of clients who buy within different price ranges, this constant passage of objects within the trade ensures that pieces ..of different quality eventually reach the appropriate type of buyer. Some dealers at Portobello (most of whom are undercapitalized) prefer selling to the trade because dealers tend to know what they want, they tend to know what they are prepared to pay, and they will pay. Dealing with other dealers guarantees a faster turnover. As one said, “You can get higher prices from private clients but you’ve got to dance around with them. That’s not my style.” A few dealers at the top end of the market may make large amounts of money in a series of spectacular deals, but they appear to be the exception. Several dealers who operate from the street markets refer to their own collections as their retirement pensions.”
As a general rule in the art market, people who buy objects of the highest quality will always eventually get a good return on their money. Dealers stress that, compared to other sectors of the art market, it is much more difficult to sell second-rate pieces of primitive art. This tendency does not influence sales of North American Indian or Polynesian objects since so few pieces are in circulation. But it did affect dealers in African objects in the 1 960s and 1 970s because there were so many items on the market. (After the Biafran war, many objects of Nigerian origin ended up in
Some collectors, scared by the number of fakes, 13 only buy pieces from reputed dealers and may refuse to consider valuable objects offered at low prices by other dealers. Hewett, for one, has reputation. Dealers and collectors agree that he also has presence. They speak of his mystique, panache, sophistication, character, charisma. By the early 1970s he had been in the business so long and had been so successful that newcomers to the trade, confusing reputation with image, began to emulate his style. One even grew a beard. Such dealers, ones with name, can charge a premium. It is said that Hewett could sell a spoon till then valued at f5 for f5OO.
But even reputed dealers can lose their eye, sell fakes, or otherwise stitch up their clients. Said one collector, “Dealers are bastards!”
Upmarket, image is very important. A dealer must be known to constantly have good pieces. He may buy an expensive item, even if he cannot sell it for much more, if it will impress his clients.
He may have to buy a whole collection from a private seller in order to get its best pieces. The remainder he can sell to lesser dealers who have more customers for objects at that price level.
One particularly successful dealer said that he advertised not in order to sell certain objects but in order to present an image of himself as a dealer in objects of the highest quality. He accumulates pieces of a certain type (say, Maori objects) because he knows that he will get a better price for them as a collection than if he sold them separately. He has set up a network of stringers on the Continent and in the British provinces; they pass good pieces on to him and receive a commission when he sells them. He thought the way to success in the primitive art marketplace was “to set up as many vassals as possible.”
Under British law any form of agreement, unless highly formal and open, between dealers to buy pieces jointly is illegal. But some dealers admit that if they meet at a country auction and know they are, after the same object, they will often agree not to bid against one another and to share the object afterward. This is an especially advantageous arrangement if the bidding exceeds their individual upper limit. Dealers stress that rings in the primitive art market are highly informal and are nothing like so well organized as, say, those controlling the rug trade because they cannot remove the possibility of an outside buyer out-bidding them: the market includes some very individual personalities.
Even at the level of the major auction-houses, the market remains a small, loosely knit collection of individuals. When organizing a sale, they write to particular collectors warning them that certain objects are coming up for auction. After the viewing, appraisers have drinks or dinner with well-known collectors (often their friends), encouraging them by chatting about certain pieces, describing them in detail, assessing their possible value and their potential as investments.
Although the British home market is much smaller than the American one, 14
In the late I 970s the boom reached its height with the auctioning by Sotheby’s and Christie’s of several important collections. In 1975 in the sale of the
The market has remained soft or skittish since then. There are fewer auctions today, and pieces bought in the Ortiz and Hooper sales now reappearing on the market sell for less than they went for a few years ago. Appraisers complain of the difficulty of finding good pieces-owners are reluctant to sell in a depressed market-and of selling them for more than the reserve they set.
Although the sale of a Benin bronze head in June 1985 for f320,000 at Sotheby’s was a world record for primitive art, it was widely suspected that a high percentage of the objects in the auction were “bought in.’ 18 Dealers grumble that the rise in prices means that most British collectors can no longer afford the pieces they want. They say that more collectors now attend the sales rooms, that country dealers are now more inclined to give their objects to the auction houses than to themselves, and that collectors are disinclined to buy pieces from dealers which have been illustrated in an auction catalogue: thanks to the illustration a collector can identify the object a dealer is offering him and so assess his profit margin-an off putting prospect, And appraisers are keen to include photos of as many of their pieces as possible in their catalogues.
Many upmarket dealers have closed their galleries and now operate solely from home. As the market shrinks they become more important by default because, thanks to their backers, they are more financially secure than lesser dealers who either go under or are forced to diversify into other sectors of the art market. Although potential vendors are not now so keen to sell, they are also not so greedy. So if they do decide to sell, they do so for a reasonable price. The upmarket dealers, however, continue to charge high prices because their clients have money. These dealers are relatively insulated from the softness of the market because they deal with its top end.
To overcome present difficulties, some dealers and appraisers have started selling other sorts of objects and have thus extended the range (and meaning) of the primitive art market. New markets have been created for Indonesian and Naga art, which is still available in sufficient quality and quantity. The prices of textiles, furnishings, and colonial art (objects made since contact that include European figures) have multiplied in the last five years, In each of these three areas items of good quality can still be had for relatively little-a great attraction to impoverished British buyers.
Museums are not isolated from the market. Bill Fagg, Keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum from the late 1960s to 1976, has referred to the complementary developr-nent of museums and collectors, with collectors often taking the lead in the foundation of museums.19 Hooper was greatly encouraged by his friend Henry Balfour, the renowned curator of the PittRivers Museum at Oxford 20 Fagg himself is well known as the friend of many collectors: they ask him to assess their latest pieces; several have donated items to his department. Fagg’s mentor was Leon Underwood, the collector, modernist sculptor, and author of three books on primitive art. Fagg, unusual among British curators, was (and is) prepared to judge pieces aesthetically. He started work at a time (1946) when British social anthropologists ignored material culture and ethnologists were interested only in taxonomy. Fagg began writing in deliberate reaction to this lack of interest in primitive art. He is now “the principal contributor” in the English-speaking world to the study of African art: his many books are distinctive for their accurate documentation of individual pieces.”21 The consultant to Christie’s since 1976, Bill Fagg is a highly respected academic who works in the marketplace. His opinion holds weight.
These objects, categorized, then recategorized several times the last two centuries, are now given room in national art galleries. In
Articulate dealers and collectors speak of their objects’ soul, spirit, power, sacredness, magic, and mystery. They are visible embodiments of invisible realms, concrete forms enclosing a heart of darkness. This language of collectors and dealers is a modern variant of the eighteenth century’s noble and ignoble savage. They are new verbal formulae reflecting our changed conception of black ways. The makers of these objects are no longer considered unintelligent, infantile juju worshipers acting instinctually. They are seen to have aesthetic sensibility. Their objects, instinct with vitality, may have transcendental quality, but the power on which they draw and to which they give plastic form is still irreducibly Other. Good Western sculptures may also have power: what distinguishes the carver of a primitive piece of art is the exotic source of the power he taps. The mystery of his object is thought to come from a radically different culture.
The soul it represents is not that of its maker but of its tribe. Most objects are not thought to express a personal vision but the occult forces of a native region. The mystery that Westerners attribute to these objects is an ultimate explanation of their fascination for us. It is a contemporary manner of scoring the racial divide and of legitimating our attention.
If such core metaphors as soul and mystery cannot be broken down into neat sets of transmissible verbal discriminations, how then can they be communicated? To owners of these objects, aesthetic criteria, which are embedded in a well-documented Western art historical tradition, are mere verbal dressing. They do not touch the soul of their possessions. If these central tropes cannot be unpacked, then the people who can use them most convincingly are those individuals who are thought to have eye-a notion as necessarily imprecise as soul, spirit, power, or mystery.
The idea of eye rests on a conception of a universal aesthetic: anyone with good eye can appreciate primitive art, although the person may have no knowledge of their ethnographic context. The object still speaks to someone scrutinizing it, although the person may be ethnologically ignorant. When an anthropologist asks dealers and collectors what does it mean to say that someone has good eye, some look blank. Some say one is asking hard questions.
Others say that a dealer with good eye is one who can identify -pieces that will sell well: that is to define eye as the ability, whether or not articulable, to apply consistently and successfully the current canons of taste to any object they regard. Most serious collectors and long-established dealers will say that they think that they have eye and, revealingly, will admit that they either gained or developed their eye by looking at hundreds of objects, by reading widely about them, by seeing what sold well, by talking to others more knowledgeable than they -in short, as one said, by learning the consensus. The circle closes, the neophyte becomes an adept by a slow process of nonverbal, visual education.
Not all have eye. “Some have it. Some don’t. No amount of education is going to help a person who hasn’t got it.” People in the trade do recognize that people can improve their eye through experience, that they can lose it with age, and that some just seem to be born with the gift. If people are unsure of how to apply Western aesthetic criteria to non-Western objects (which seem to mock European art categories), then the metaphor of eye becomes all the more important, as does the role of people who are said to have it.
So in the primitive art market a dealer with eye surrounded by buyers still learning their way becomes far more influential in determining taste than, say, a dealer in paintings of the Italian Renaissance, where the canons of taste are far more firmly set. In the fine art market a person with eye comes to the fore only when an unknown picture has to be identified: is it an old master? Ask the man with eye. Art historians justify their jobs by their skillful use of verbal discriminations; to them, eye is very much a dealers’ concept.23 John Hewett has eye, people say.He bought objects for their aesthetic value and sold them accordingly. He did not bargain. He set a price for an object. Hewett did not give a client a long spiel about a piece. He did not try to persuade him. Hewett just looked very carefully at an object, said, “It’s very good” (if it was), and then allowed his client to examine it. Hewett began dealing at a time when little had been written in English about primitive art and when many British collectors of contemporary art had only just begun paying attention to these objects. No wonder he became so influential. Such people have authority. They help set the consensus, the specially chosen group of objects that are thought the greatest examples of primitive art and by which all other, lesser pieces are compared.24
The fifteen or so serious collectors of primitive art in
Collectors want objects that have been used traditionally. Evidence of an object’s use increases its associations with the Other. It augments its evocative power and thickens the context within which its soul is sited. Dealers and appraisers like to talk of patina, the smoothed surface of an object that has been much handled and so is that much more a part of the tribal traditions it represents to Westerners. A fine patina evokes associations of foreign dirt, sweat, labor, and age.
It is as though many collectors seek the exotic equivalent of a well-preserved Tudor oak table, one burnished by centuries of careful polishing. The age of a piece is also important, although relative to particular tribes. (One reason given for the recent popularity of colonial art is that the uniforms worn by the white figures in these pieces make them easier to date.) As a general rule, however, the older an object is, the more valuable it is, for then it is all the more embedded in the history of its tribal tradition. A strongly suspect, but I cannot show, that although collectors and dealers may boast of objects’ age, this does not affect their a historical view of traditional African society. It is as though the age of an object is evidence of the antiquity of the traditions of a tribe but that those traditions are conceived in an a temporal sense, an unchanging period situated in the past.
Patina is here no necessary index of antiquity. Many objects were stored or put away after ritual use; when brought to
The provenance of an object may also contribute to its value. It is easier to sell a piece whose European past is known. The more complete the record the better, while the prestige of certain ex-owners rubs off on their former possessions as though it were part of the patina. An item brought back by one of Cook’s crew can be worth ten times that of a similar piece whose collecting history is unknown. Objects from the collection of people renowned for their eye (for example, Ratton, Rasmussen, Hewett, Kismier) are regarded closely. It also adds interest if an object once belonged to a well-known early twentieth-century painter, one known to have been influenced by primitive art. But this criterion can work both ways, for these artists bought pieces that best exemplified their own artistic theories. They did not care if an object was roughly finished, crude, or fake. They bought simple, bold, primitive pieces and disliked the subtle realism of
A market for good, genuine objects stimulates the traffic in fakes.30 As the number of good, genuine items decreases, the production of fakes rises in step with a rise in prices. The sorts of objects faked most often tend to be relatively rare, aesthetically appealing, and of confirmed popularity. Authenticity is a graver problem here than in other sectors of the art market because, as I said above, primitive art has no signature. This problem is centrally important to the market, for if people cannot tell or be told the difference between genuine and fake, they will not invest. What we are looking at here is that the role of nondesthetic criteria for aesthetics makes no distinction between genuine and fake. Fakes, though, must have at least a certain minimal aesthetic appeal: the ugliness of an object is sometimes taken as a guarantee of its authenticity. “It’s so ugly it can’t be a fake!”.
Baldly put, a fake is something intended to deceive. But who is deceiving whom? The answer is complex because fake and genuine are not the two halves of an unbridgeable division (although some may use them that way) but polar terms of a finely graded continuum._Willett describes this spectrum well:_The most obviously authentic works on which all would agree are those made by an African for use by his own people and so used. However, this category can be subdivided because the piece so made and used may be of superior, average or inferior aesthetic quality. A little lower on the scale is a work made by an African for use by his own people but bought by an expatriate before use. Then comes sculpture made by an African in the traditional style of his own people for sale to an expatriate; then sculpture made by an African in the traditional style on commission by an expatriate; then sculpture made by an African in a poor imitation of the traditional style of his own people for sale to an expatriate; made by an African in the style of a different African people (though it may be well done) for sale to an expatriate; made in the style of a different African people but badly done for sale to an expatriate; made by an African in a non-traditional style for sale to an expatriate. Finally we have works made by an expatriate, i.e., a non-African, for sale to other non-Africans but passed off as being African. This, at the other end of the continuum, is the unquestionable fake31
Willett’s description is too straitjacketing, for it depends on a view of foreign societies as static and lacking innovation. Change is seen as decay. But if certain societies (such as many Melanesian ones) tolerate, if not actually encourage, innovation, when can we consider an established innovation to be part of their tradition? 32 If the tribe (itself a Western conception of Other peoples) provides both the artist and the signature, are we then to see ethnographic examples of where, traditionally, the people of X make objects for those of Y, or where the people of X imitate the objects of Y as, in either case, producing fakes? More ethnology could provide useful information clarifying the ethnographic situation. But any answers to such questions would be decided by those influential in the primitive art marketplace.Yet more questions can be raised. What is the ethnographic difference between copying (despised by collectors) and the continuance of a tradition (accepted by them)? Why do collectors value an object that has been used in a ceremony more than one a European bought just before it could be used ritually, even though its carver had intended it to be used? Some runners pay both for carvers to make objects and for the performance of rituals in which those objects are used. The runners’ photographs of the rituals validates the authenticity of their objects. In the trade this ceremony is known as the Blessing of the Exports. Western artists work for money, but most collectors will not accept that non-Western carvers may do so, too, although selling objects to Europeans is a long established tradition in many areas. By the fifteenth century west Africans had already begun carving ivories, for Portuguese buyers.
Westerners, by imposing their own particular conception of the “tribal” associations of an object, end up setting arbitrary limits to the market value of those objects, while the seemingly absurd ceremony described above shows what can arise when those limits are tested. Fakes, publicly acknowledged as fakes, can become part of the market if people are interested enough to buy them. The most well known European faker of primitive art is James Little (1876-1953), the forger of Maori artifacts. Fuller was a persistent collector of Little’s work. In June 1985 Christie’s sold two pieces by him in their sale of “Important Tribal Art.” One, “an unusual Maori-style wood bowl,” went for £850.33 These fakes seem the ultimate perfection of the market: they are objects manufactured by Europeans for sale to Europeans; although they speak of European conceptions of the Other, they have but an art historical connection to foreign peoples.The market engenders a written history of primitive art that reflexively stimulates the market itself. In the last twenty-five years the publication of numerous books and several journals has helped establish the study of primitive art and of its history as a respectable sub-discipline. Employing the language of Western art history (and thus bringing the associated weight and prestige of that vocabulary in its train), authors now judge certain objects masterpieces; they are great pieces, ones of good quality, which display “purity of form, simplicity and spontaneity. “34 Invoking the critical terminology of art history helps justify artistic value. The ethnographic associations and function of an object are ignored for the sake of subjecting it to the formal analysis of an all-encompassing Western aesthetic. The use of these terms aggravates people’s a historical approach to primitive art for their employment, suggesting that primitive art, like all other are, can be appreciated by an aesthetic that has pretensions of timelessness and universal application. (In this essay I underline Western art terms used by participants in order to emphasize the historically contingent, particular nature of these categories.
Pieces considered authentic by the strictest of collectors’ definition may still be thought dubious because dealers, preferring classical works-pieces established as good early in the history of the market sometimes question “the authenticity of works that merely tend to differ from the ‘archetypes’. .Traders in Africa and
It is the forgeries of past periods that are more evident than the deliberate fakes of today, which almost invisibly fit into, and not between, our artistic categories: some dealers, though, do state that while good modern fakes are difficult to sniff out, some can be identified quickly because they pander to the pretty.
The growth of this sort of art historical information allows objects to be identified more easily, grants them pedigrees, gives substance to the notion of style areas, and lends respectability (and thus confidence) to the developing market. These books are not set within the context of the market; they become part of it, helping to define its shape. Fledgling dealers can now educate themselves in an armchair. No dealer or collector mentioned to me any particular book that influenced them greatly: they all stressed reading widely. If the words borrowed from art history plus the central metaphors already mentioned (such as soui, power, eye) can be regarded as the rhetoric of the market, pervasive tropes in terms of which we think of these objects, then appraisers, dealers, and primitive art historians become the rhetoricians of the marketplace, choosing pieces that evince these verbal qualities and determining the way we view them.
The effect of exhibitions on the market is difficult to gauge. Several exhibitions were held in
Price is also strongly influenced by fashion. Appraisers say that only the market in contemporary art is as affected by fashion. Certain types of objects suddenly become much sought after for short periods until the popularity of some other (available) kind of piece begins to rise. In the early 1970s, jukun figures sold for high prices. In 1976
The prestige of one tribe’s art can also influence price. Prestige here is marketers’ shorthand for the rich history of art history of these objects and for the history of the high prices they have reached. Success feeds success. Classical tribes are created. As one dealer said “A Dan piece is a Dan piece is a Dan piece. It’s almost outside fashion.” A weak Fang will normally go for more than a good Yoruba because Yoruba is considered too folksy. People can also expand the market itself. Some have started to call old objects that were made specifically for sale to Europeans “early tourist art.” Now a subcategory unto itself, this novel class of objects becomes worthy of study and, therefore, of purchase. In recent years primitive art has come to mean not just objects but also textiles and furnishings, thanks to the efforts of dealers such as Peter Adler.40 In North America, indigo and white cloth used by the lower orders of the Asante now costs as much as the multicolored Kente worn by the elites because indigo and white appeals to decorators who use them as cheap substitutes for expensive American patchwork quilts (R. Johnson, personal communication). Fake textiles-modern imitations with no soul or spirit, which are not a product of Western-approved traditions-are now being fabricated: the market, once opened, is now being firmly established. While application of the criteria I have listed (such as rarity, fashion, and dealers’ repute) can contribute to the value of an object, they do not, determine its price. For, ultimately, any sale in this small market-where the objects are so varied and so variable in price and where so many are unconfident of what they are buying-is an individual financial arrangement, the result of a personal interaction between two 41 personalities, the seller and the buyer. Many dealers, especially those at the expensive end of the market, iterate that there is no fixed price. An object will sell for what the market will bear. It is simply a case, dealers say, of finding a buyer who will pay a price they like. 42
The setting that most strikingly reveals, in a concentrated fashion, the present state of the market is a major auction room at sale time. This collective self presentation includes dealers, collectors, appraisers buying on commission, and the absent presence of others phoning in. The numerous, well-dressed spectators and the occasional television crew only augment the sense of significant event. It is here that one can see, spectacularly displayed, the assembled congregation transform surplus income into prestigious valuables. It is an arena of competitive individualism where potential purchasers fight with bids and, sometimes, with fists. People watch who bids and who buys. The atmosphere excites. The adrenaline flows. Record prices are set.-There is lust in the room.
The objects themselves, stripped of their original use value and granted exchange value, have become fetishized commodities, both in the Marxist sense and, as we shall see, in the sense of the fetishistic relation of an owner with his exotic object. These objects are also investment commodities, their economic value part of the meaning they bear.43 While the employment of distinguishing criteria (such as pedigree and provenance) may serve to make a piece of primitive art more singular, its status as commodity (and hence exchangeable with other commodities) negates that very effort at singularity.44 It is money, the point of exchange between buyers and sellers, that mediates their divergent interpretations of the objects and their value. These objects have been made Western totems distinguishing the primitive art-collecting upper classes from other social groups. Purchasing primitive art is a socially distinctive act confirming one’s class. Collectors’ agonistic speculation in an auction “seals their parity . . . and thus their collective caste privilege.” 45 Training one’s eye demands a certain freedom from economic necessity-a liberty not available to the working classes and so distancing them even further from appreciators of primitive art.46 The auction over, their value set by their price, the objects become part of collections.I began this essay on an emotional note: people’s desire for objects. I end it with a native phenomenology of the emotions-committed collectors’ comments on the psychology of their own obsessions. To the serious collectors of the early twentieth century, the hunt was very important: “The compulsive quality of [Fuller’s] devotion to collecting was compelling. To him, the search was exciting, the discovery fulfilling.” 47 Like Fuller, Hooper collected objects until his death; he “derived enormous pleasure from seeking them out, the act of discovery itself, the fascination of the elusive bargain and the thrill of its capture.” 48 Some dealers today speak of the pleasure of the quest, but bargains are now much rarer and the search all too often fruitless. To collectors of primitive art, ethnography is relatively unimportant, except as an adjunct. It is sufficient that the object comes from a radically different culture. Which culture it comes from is insignificant to most collectors unless, of course, it was made_ by people famed for the quality of their objects. To Stewart, ownership of such an exotic object represents distance and time appropriated, the cultural Other tamed.49 The age, patina, and provenance of an object may increase its associations to a Westerner. But they do not define its central meaning to a committed collector. Serious collectors admit they pay more attention to a piece that is highly priced or was once owned by someone renowned for his eye. But they say they attend to the piece to see if it has some latent aesthetic quality that justifies its high price or was noticed by its previous owner. Following their argument from aesthetics, whether an object is fake or not should logically be irrelevant. But most collectors, mindful of their pockets, do not seek to acquaint themselves with the soul of a forger working for financial, profane ends.50
Works of primitive art are normally objects, not paintings. They can be touched, fondled, picked up, and carried around -a series of tactile sensations that many collectors emphasize. Sir Robert Sainsbury mentions the charge an object can give off, “not unlike a sexual experience.” Vincent Price, a longtime collector, writes of the “feeling that to know and appreciate a work of art requires repeated touching and in some instances possession.”51 Above all, collectors own objects. They acquire them in order to possess them. This is the pleasure of ownership, of knowing that an object not just belongs to one but that one is the only person who can repeatedly touch, feel, and stare at it, so strengthening one’s personal relationship with it. The desire to acquire shades easily into greed, a trait few collectors admit to. One exceptionally honest collector confessed he could not refuse pieces offered to him if he thought they were both of good quality and cheap. He emphasized that every collector was motivated by greed and fear; they suffer the same anxieties as those who play the stock market.,, But most cannot admit that, to them, economics is as important as aesthetics, for if they did confess, their aesthetic pretensions would be diminished and they would be despised by their peers, uneasy at such revelation. Thus, as we have just seen, collectors can justify their avoidance of fakes by reference to nonfinancial terms, such as soul and mystery.
Serious collectors collect over time. They start ignorant and slowly learn. Their taste changes as their eye develops and as they themselves change. Many collectors, bored by some of their pieces (not their best objects), sell them to buy new objects from which they can gain further experience. To some this continuing refinement of taste is a spiritual process, a form of self-knowledge mediated by objects. Keggie thought the best pieces feed the spirit. Fagg argues, “All [collectors) are surely, embarked in some sense upon a journey towards the liberation through art of the human spirit.”55 To Nelson Rockefeller, his collection was “an enrichening experience and a balance to the pressures of business and politics-a constant source of spiritual refreshment and strength.” 56 On this reading, primitive art becomes therapy, soul food for whites.
Love, touch, greed, fear, courage, passion, ownership, belief, devotion, taste, spirit, psychological charge, emotion (akin to sexual thrill), self-knowledge, the spending of one’s own money: the whole personality is involved in serious collecting.57 The collection expresses its collector’s personality, for he is no visionless accumulator, no mere magpie. He makes individual objects part of a greater whole-the collection-and this is but an aspect of himself.These appropriated items, recategorized according to his own personal mythology, become the specimens and trophies of his cultural hunt.58 Chosen, then juxtaposed in a way decided by him, these objects lose their individuality in that of the collector. By their contiguity they collectively become his creation, an advertisement of his power of selection. Given seriality by their collector, they now become pieces “from the collection of X.” Collections, despite the pretensions of their owners, are not atemporal creations: whiie a collector may be an independent personality, he still thinks in the categories of his time. But the fetishistic power of the relation between collector and collected can threaten to become symmetrical. The collection appropriates its collector, its creator is overtaken by his own creation, which both possesses him and is possessed by him. The owner and his objects become the home of a decentered self. Little wonder, then, that some strive for immortality by having museums specially built for their collections.59 Their vision will live. Fagg, speaking of the collector Katherine Reswick, mentions “the extraordinary dynamics, the dynamism, of collection and collector alike-for they have become one as no others that I have seen.” 60 Reswick confesses that her collection “absorbs, nearly controls me through self-curiosity, aesthetic restlessness, and above all the ineradicable desire to live immersed in beautiful things. It is a hunger. . . . Omnivorous, a little mad, I live among the game trails of circumstance.” 61 It is, at least, reassuring to remember that, just as many rituals outlast their interpretations, so most objects outlive their collectors. They can await further owners, the fabrication of further classifications.
*1 . I thank the following for their generous help: Peter Adleril David Attenborough, Ian Auld, Nigel Barley, Lance Entwistle,William Fagg, Robero Fainello, Werner Gillon, Phillip Goldman, Josef Herman, Angela Hescott, John Hewett, Laiek and David Holzer, Tim Hunt, Antony Jack, the late James Keggie, T. F. Lemaire, Malcolm McLeod, Jonathan Mankowitz, Ernest Ohley, Hermione Waterfield, and Monica and Peter Wengraff. Ragnar Johnson and Francesco Pellizzi made informative comments on draft versions. I first learnt of how the market operates in a series of conversations with Tessa Fowler. This is the first report of an envisaged wider study of the international market in primitive art-a market that is international in both its networks and price precedents. Although I restrict myself arbitrarily to the British market, I think many of the points made also apply to the market outside
2. J. Clifford, “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern,” in Art in
3. S. Phelps, Art and Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa and the
the James Hooper
4. In R. W. Force and M. Force, The Fuller Collection of Pacific
5.P. Gatfiercole, “Obstacles to the study of Maori carving: the collector, the connoisseur, and the faker,” in M. Greenhalgh and V. Megaw, eds., Art in Society: studies in style, culture and aesthetics,
6.1 use the term primitive art throughout this article because it has become the standard in the literature. Tribal art-a modern euphemism-reflects the same public ignorance and causes the same semantic problems. Of course, the adjective in primitive art applies as much to its classifiers as to the objects it classes. On the changing content of this term, see W. Rubin, “Modernist Primitivism: an Introduction,” in W. Rubin, ed., “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, New York, 1985, vol. 1: 1-84.
7.Ohley ran the Berkeley Gallery in the
Arcade Gallery off Bond
Street; Meier had a shop in Cecil’s Court, almost opposite tl-ie National Gallery.
8.For the lesser sale rooms (steven’s, Glendinning’s, Puttock and
Simpson’s), objects had to be submitted only four days before a sale. The catalogue was printed that night and issued the next morning. Sotheby’s and Christie’s, who sold much less primitive art, demanded that objects be given them a month before the sale.
9.As one dealer said, “A whimsical buyer may not buy much, but you can get a lot of whimsical buyers.” And is whimsy our ignorant term for a variety of motives, difficult to ascertain, hard to categorize neatly?
10.But to some collectors this was their point. Epstein wrote that the object and inspiration of most African art objects was “religion.” These objects were deliberately direct and simplified in manner in order to produce feelings of awe and fear (in The Sculptor Speaks,
90). Also, the British artist Edward Paolozzi mentions that in the postwar years “most people in England were just not interested in carvings from Africa and the Pacific and art students were rarely, if ever, encouraged to go and look at such things” (in Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl, An Exhibition at the Museum of Mankind, London, 1985: 9).
11.See 1. Cooper, Under the Hammer: The Auctions and Auctioneers of
F. Herrmann, Sotheby’s: Portrait of an Auction House,
12. See G. Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste, vols. 1-111,
1960, 1963, 1970; R.
Hughes, “On Art and Money,” in The
13.1 have decided not to discuss the illegal aspects of the market.
Although an inquisitive anthropologist hears many stories about theft, the manufacture of fakes, and the illegal importation of items, these tales are difficult to check and dangerous to quote.
14, One dealer said that what is sold in
15. Of course, serious American collectors are not included in these generalizations, African Arts, the most widely circulated American journal in primitive art, is read by people with an average age of forty-four years. Sixty-three percent of its readers have an income between $2S,000 and $40,000. Seventy percent of them have university education beyond the B.A.
Teachers and educators form the most numerous single occupational group among its readers, followed by professionals (doctors, lawyers, dentists).
16. The idea that objects should be bought “back” for the sake of
“national pride” because they are part of that nation’s “treasures” is, of course, a modern Western notion based on the nineteenth-century European conception of “nation.”
17. However, important objects from Eastern and Central European museums have appeared on the market. These museums, for instance
18. The auction-house concealed the fact that there was no buyer prepared to bid above the reserve by “buying” the object itself. This is one of the strategies used by the auction-houses to maintain the myth that prices are constantly rising-a necessary tactic if investors are not to lose faith in the market. (see B. Burnham, The Art Crisis,
19, W. Fagg in W. Gillon, Collecting African Art,
20. S. Phelps, op. cit.: io.
21. F. Willett, African Art: An lntroductioi),
22. S. Vogel, “Bringing African Art to the Metropolitan Museuni,” in
African Arts, February
1982, XV, no. 2, pp. 38-45: 40.
23. Bourdieu, speaking of art in general, states, “Everything seems to suggest that even among professional valuers, the criteria which define the stylistic properties of the ‘typical works’ on which all their judgments are based usually remain implicit” (in
Distinction: A Social Critique of the judgement of Taste,
24. Some American collectors speak of an object’s rightness.
25.One could quote, ironically, the words of Clive Bell in 1922 about primitive art: Here is no question of dates and schools to give the lecturer his chance of spoiling our pleasure. Here is nothing to.distract our attention from the one thing that matters-aestheti@,significance. Here is nigger sculpture: you may like it or dislike it’,@but at any rate you have no inducement to judge it on anything 66t its merits. (from Since C6zanne,
27. The same occurs with the work of medieval masters-“tl)e primitives”
and for some eminent
28. M. McLeod, “Paolozzi and Identity,” in Paolozzi, op. cit., pp.
29. W. Rubin, op. cit.: 17.
30. This discussion about the created opposition between genuine and fake is indebted to the (sometimes lengthy) replies printed in African Arts, April 1976, IX, no. 3, to @ questionnaire about fakes that the journal sent to important dealers, collectors, and curators.
31. F, Willett, “True or False? The False Dichotomy,” in African Arts,
April 1976, IX, no. 3, pp.
32. The market does now include objects from a few particular primitive genres that have developed because of contact with the West, for instance, the great flourishing of the Navaho blanket.
33. Dealers in fine art speak of schools; dealers in primitive art speak of styles.
34. W, Gillon, op. cit.: 33. In Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogues pieces may be called very fine, rare, unusual, or classical works, uncontaminated by expatriate influence. They may have sculptorly qualities, a sensitive face, and a good worn creamy patina, or maybe a crusty sacrificial dark rich one.
35. R. P. Armstrong, “Sorts of Collectors,” in African Arts, IX, no. 3, p. 30.
36. Z. Velavka, “The Fight against Forgery,” in African Arts, IX, no. 3, pp. 63-65: 65.
37. “40,000 Years of Modern Art,” at the
“Traditional Art of the British Colonies,” at the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1949;
“Traditional Art from the Colonies,” at the Imperial Institute in 1951. William Ohley staged seven exhibitions of primitive art in his gallery between 1945 and 1951.
38. The opening of the Rockefeller Wing at the
Art was expected to stimulate a wave of collecting, but prices in the following auctions were not appreciably higher.
The exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, “’Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art,” in late 1 984 was similarly expected to increase interest in primitive art, and one or two New York dealers state that a few people, after visiting the exhibition, did begin buying primitive art for the first time. But the May 1 985 sale in
39. The Museum of mankind no longer includes objects from private collections in its shows because too often the object was sold at a greatly increased price very shortly after the exhibition closed. In November 1978, African Arts abandoned its policy of using photographs of objects from private collections. Its editor confessed, “it is with bitter regret that I contemplate how our innocence was manipulated to provide startlingly aggrandized
re-evaluations of art pieces” (XIII,
no. 1: 6).
40. In 1983 Peter Adler, a successful London-based dealer, was finding it more and more difficult to discover good pieces of primitive art that were not prohibitively expensive. So he diversified and started buying textiles and household objects. He soon built up a stock because other dealers, learning of his new interest but thinking him rnad, passed on to him any items they had or were offered. He informed African runners of his change in interest and on their succeeding visits they began to bring him the sorts of objects and cloth he wanted. in early 1984 he held a show at the Wengraff’s Arcade Gallery. Very little sold. Adler thought the show had flopped because only established collectors had been invited to the exhibition. Later that year he encouraged Sotheby Parke Bernet in
African textiles which was published the Saturday before the sale ‘ . Many came to the special viewing on the Sunday and the sale itself was a great success: stools that had sold for f3O in 1983 went for f 100 to f4OO.
Adler is now writing articles on African textiles for two prestigious decorators’ magazines.
41. Appraisers, trying to assess an object’s worth, will check through their detailed records of all major auctions in the last few decades to learn how similar objects have sold. Often, however, the piece is sufficiently individual that past prices provide no reliable guide, or is sufficiently rare that very few like it have come up for sale in recent years. Appraisers stress the volatility of the market and its relatively small size. They say that one can predict quite accurately how much an eighteenth-century miniature, for instance, will go for; but in primitive art the price is much more difficult to estimate.
42. The purchaser of the Fijian oil bowl at the North Country sale sold it to a successful
43. The second reaction of most visitors to my room, on seeing the
Melanesian objects leaning against one wall, was to ask how much they would sell for. Their first reaction was most often a surprised cry.
44. L. Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things,” in A. Appadurai,
ed., The Social Life of
45. Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign,
117. Museums act as guarantees for these socially restricted exchanges: they “play the role of banks in the political economy of (primitive art)” (ibid.: 122).
46. P. Bourdieu, “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception,”
Sciences journal, 20, 1968, no. 4, pp. 589-612.
47. R. W. Force and M. Force, op. cit.: 14.
48. S. Phelps, op. cit.: 10.
49. S. Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection,
50. One serious collector, concerned with the educative value of primitive art, says that he cannot “learn” from fakes: “They bear a false witness” (D. Attenborough, Tribal
51.”The Vincent Price Collection” op. cit.: 21.
52.It is worth noting that greed turns easily into theft. But, as I said, I do not explore the illegal aspects of the market.
53. The comments of a correspondent to a conservative British magazine about the prize lot in Christie’s June 1 985 sale reveal the persistence of these uneducated attitudes: Rather to my surprise, the adjective used to describe the bowl, not only by Christie’s learned cataloguer but by other specialists, is “superb”, as if it is to be compared with the Parthenon or Michelangelo’s Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. How wide a gulf there is between the dedicated anthropologist and people like myself. It is, nonetheless, a carving of exceptional quality as these barbarous objects go. (from Country Life, 1 5 August 1 985, pp. 442-43). It is not just conservative art collectors who ignore primitive art. When burglars recently raided the home of one
55.W. Fagg, in W. Gillon, op, cit.: viii.
56. “Introduction,” in D.
57. Stewart argues that collectors necessarily experience nostalgia:
“For the nostalgic to reach his or her goal of closing the gap between resemblance [of objects in the collection] and identity, lived experience would have to take place.... an experience which would cancel out the desire that is nostalgia’s reason for existence” (op. cit.: 145). 58. S. Stewart, ibid.: 147. One woman said her collection was as important to her as her children. One
59. See, for instance, “A Private Passion for Art,” in Newsweek, June 15, 1987, pp. 50-51.
60. W. Fagg, African Tribal Images: The Katherine Reswick Collection, Cleveland, 1968: xiii.
61. K. W. Reswick, “Preface,” ibid., pvii-xi: xi.