The Journal offered the essay, “A Guide to Appraising African Art” authored by appraiser Alvah Beander as a helpful fact based how-to approach to valuing African art. The article is a combination of inaccuracies and USPAP rehash woven together in a poorly constructed confusing and unfocused mess. And believe me I am being kind.
PRODUCT KNOWLEDGE VS. METHODOLOGY Let’s start at the beginning. Appraising is comprised of methodology and product knowledge. Offering USPAP quotes in an article on the subtleties of appraising African art becomes mere filler for meeting word quotas. In an advanced journal of appraisal studies one would hope that your readers would have knowledge of basic appraisal mechanics and requirements. Otherwise your journal would be called the Beginner’s Journal of Appraisal Studies. Unless I miss the target readers implied by the name, we can all have access to current copies of the Core Courses and USPAP.
PRODUCT KNOWLEDGE FOR UNTRAINED So the assignment really boils down to what useful product knowledge can the author impart to readers that have limited or no background in African art? I would argue that there is a great deal that could be included that would be interesting, thought provoking, and maybe even entertaining. How much can be included that will actually be useful to an estate appraiser sifting through room after room of stuff. In reality when confronted with this idealistic “ah-ha” moment – very little of the facts from such an article will come streaming into your head to assist you in your moment of triage. So Ms. Beander’s article was doomed from the beginning. For this she gets a pass because no matter how well written and how factual the article was, it really wasn’t going to be very helpful. She doesn’t get a pass, however, for sloppy writing and inaccuracies.
Now to the Beander article….
FAKE ART You will note in the photographs in her article the tribal attribution and in some cases the function of the object are stated in the labels. When you do this, you imply that this object is authentic. While I will reserve final judgment after looking at the objects in person or reviewing high quality photographs, at this point I find it highly unlikely that most of these objects from the author’s collection are authentic. When the first line of your essay defines the geographic boundaries of traditional African art and you then quote definitions of authenticity by Frank Willett, one of our greatest African scholars, your objects should be authentic. For me this one fact alone undermines the credibility of the entire article.
INCOMPLETE INFORMATION In one paragraph Ms. Beander jumps from suggesting that Picasso legitimized African art to the sale of a Fang mask that inspired Picasso and sold at Sothebys in Paris in 2006 for $7.5 million. Quite a leap.. if you go in this direction you might want to mention at least once the word Cubism, a movement inspired by Braque and Picasso around 1907. It might be important to note Picasso’s important painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon completed in 1907 that had obvious influences from the artist's love of African art. It is also important to note that labeling a work cubistic during this time was considered by many to be derogatory and was enough to have the work barred from exhibitions. If you are talking about history it’s significant to note that Matisse and Derain, according to Picasso’s companion Fernande Olivier, came to African art before Picasso.
INACCURATE INFORMATION Sothebys did not sell the Verite Collection it was sold by Enchères Rive Gauche in Paris. As to the mask inspiring Picasso, the catalog made no such direct assertion. The New York Times was somewhat more circumspect when they said: “Though it was kept out of public view for most of the 20th century, the collection made a big impression on celebrated artists such as Picasso, Henri Matisse and surrealist Andre Breton, who saw it in the 1930s.” So could this particular Fang mask have inspired Picasso.. maybe.
NO CONTEXT After the author listed no less than 8 elements of what makes African art authentic, she fails to tell us how this impacts on the appraisal of African art. Instead she quickly transitions to ethical concerns on Kikangu grave posts (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/11/sfe/ho_1993.522.htm) ; but again she does not tell us how these ethical concerns impact on value.. As an estate appraiser what do you do if you see a Kikangu grave post or for that matter anything else that comes under the header of ethical concerns?
INACCURATE INFORMATION The reader is quickly swept away from ethical considerations to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But again Ms Beander fails to instruct us on how we deal with our concerns. The author does tell us that there “is a strong effort to overturn this agreement”. I suspect this was just sloppy writing for there is no strong international effort to overturn the CITES agreement. There have been negotiations with some African countries to re-negotiate aspects of CITES related to elephant ivory. Ms. Beander should tell us why this matters. Can we sell ivory? Have prices increased if laws have changed? How does it impact the appraisal of African art?
NO CONTEXT Under the broad heading “Geographical Differences” the author only mentions Southern Africa omitting North, East, and West Africa. Again are the works from southern Africa worth more, less, and if they are different, why does it matter? Beander does make the statement “they have no tradition of masking or figurative sculpture.” Not true, figures are rare but they do exist. I have thirty works in my auction database that have sold over the past 30 years.
FILLER QUOTES The balance of the essay is a re-hash of Core Courses and USPAP. The author advises you what information to collect about each object of African art. She never tells you why you are doing this or what impact this information may have on your value or triage determinations. I could deal with these one by one; however, ultimately, since she has failed to tell us why this is important, it is irrelevant.
IRRESPONSIBLE FALSE INFORMATION One paragraph caught my eye and must be dealt with. Ms. Beander stated “In New York there are Runners. These African gentlemen travel throughout the country selling to collectors and museums alike. You would need a reference to ensure that you are dealing with a reputable individual. Street vendors are generally selling African art described as fake by Willet.” These statements are nonsense and about as far from reality as one can get. First runners are not only based in New York, they are all over the country and go wherever they think they have a client. In the 1970’s you still had a reasonable chance to find something authentic offered by these vendors. Now unless you are extremely knowledgeable, this is the WORST place to buy or gather information about African art. It has been my experience that these runners are the primary source for many of the fakes I have to deal with in my appraisal business. As a general statement, anything that these runners say must be considered to have little credibility until proven otherwise. For me street vendors and runners are in the same category. Ms. Beander’s recommendation of these runners as being a good source for museums and collectors suggest that runners might well be the source she has utilized. I cannot recall a serious collector or curator acquiring any important African art from runners in the past twenty years. And even if someone got lucky, this good fortune ignores the incalculable misery these runners have caused in the field in the past three decades.
THE JOURNAL DEBATE In my opinion the Journal staff should certainly, at a minimum, have verified Alvah Beander’s credentials. The Journal did promote their publication as “peer reviewed”, which is a term that they now have decided to drop. The editorial position seems to be that the Journal is not responsible for content. That caveat requires some examination, for it is far different to say that a publication is not responsible for the opinions of the author than it is to say that the publication is not responsible for basic facts. If a publication cannot rely on their authors to be factually correct, do you have a journal of advanced appraisal studies? When the Journal ventures into areas that they can’t fact check, they are asking for the types of problems Alvah Beander has created. The choices are simple. As an option, you can lower the standards of the journal and make it an open forum for ideas that everyone knows may or may not be factually supported. The second option is to restrict your topics to methodology and decorative arts which can with ISA volunteers be fact checked. A third alternative would be to check thoroughly writer credentials and hope for the best. The fourth and final option is simply don’t do what you can’t do well. I hope the Journal opens debate on what the readers want in their journal. Whatever happens, the final product should be advertised for what it is – and that is not going to be peer reviewed any time soon. JB
More information about the Journal can be found at http://www.appraisaljournal.org/