Spring 2010 Tribal Art Auctions

The Spring 2010 auctions of African, Pre-Columbian, Oceanic, and American Indian art are, as of yesterday, complete with mixed reviews in both results and quality. Amidst the expected bad news there was definitely some positive indicators that ethnographic art is at least to some extent holding on in a down economy that promises to be around for awhile. For those that are selling middle level material this market is not for the faint of heart. If you have cash there are good bargains to be found in all areas.

Skinner, Boston - American Indian and Ethnographic Art - Sale 2506 - May 15, 2010
Out of a total of 641 lots only 69 went unsold at the auction. Presumably some of those sold in the after sale. At a slightly less than a 11 % buy in Skinner has to be pleased with this result. Significantly Skinner was reasonable in their estimates and were consequently able to sell a great deal of middle level material. Indian expert and Skinner curator Doug Deihl must still be be slightly stunned with the Segy Mobole mask that was estimated at $8,000 - $12,000 but sold for $106,650. The only other six figure lot (367) was a Plains pictorial beaded suitcase, which was estimated at $40,000 - $60,000 but sold for $124,425. One immediately concluded that this sale was the result of two crazy bidders locked in mortal combat. Not so for I am told the ultimate winner was a museum, which is bewildering to me. Considering what you could buy in American Indian for $125,000, this looks like quite a reach.

Bonhams, New York - African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian Art - Sale18189 - May 13, 2010

The Bonhams New York auction was by almost any measure a disaster with 187 lots being offered and 105 passed. The highest lot (2010) in the sale was a Tongan club which sold for $39,650. In this sale Bonhams offered a collection of Hawaiian material which received a mixed response. The Ex Stuart Hollander Bamana N'tomo mask was sold at$18,300 with an estimate of $50,000 - $70,000. This was the sleeper of the sale. This is a fine mask that had been exhibited and published in Kate Ezra's show at the Metropolitan. Lot 2066 featured an early ex Rasmussen standing Baga figure that was estimated at $150,000 to $200,000 but was bought in. The seated Baule that sold as lot 383 for 25,000 euros in the Verite sale In Paris in 2006 failed to make the estimate of $20,000 in this sale. There were a number of solid objects with collection history that failed to sell in this sale. While some of this can be attributed to an unpredictable market, some of the problems may be the results of estimates that were too high for this economic climate.

Bonhams, San Francisco - Native American Art - Sale No. 18132 - June 7, 2010
Of 440 lots in this sale 139 failed to sell for a buy in rate of over 30%. Certainly compared to Skinner's sale this effort fell short of what was achieved in Boston. Clearly the star of the Bonhams sale was lot 1146, the Tlingit/Haida eagle effigy bowl which was estimated at $50,000 - $80,000 sold for $146,000. It appears to me that while Skinner sold more the quality level was a bit higher at this Bonhams sale. There were 28 objects in the Bonhams sale that sold in the five figures as opposed to twelve in the Skinner sale which also had two lots in six figures.

Sothebys, New York -American Indian Art - Sale No. N08640 - May 14, 2010
Gross sales for this sale were $1,445,439 with 66 lots being offered and 25 lots failing to sell for a buy in rate of almost 38%. A fine Nez Perce man's beaded shirt (Lot 15) with an extensive collection history sold for $158,500. Two great well documented Yokuts baskets sold for $374,500 (lot 32) and $272,500 (lot 33). Disappointments included a beaded Blackfoot shirt (lot 9) that was passed with a low estimate of $70,000, a Nez Perce beaded hide dress (lot 14) with a low estimate of $60,000, and a late classic Navajo serape (lot 18) passed with a low estimate of $25,000.

Sothebys New York - American Indian, African, Oceanic and Other Works from the studio of Enrico Donati - Sale No. N08685 - May 14, 2010
In this single owner sale Sothebys offered 46 lots of which only 9 failed to sell for a buy in rate of almost 20%. Almost all of the kachinas offered exceeded their high estimates. The Eskimo Yupik mask from the Fred Harvey collection (lot 19) which was estimated to sell between $300,000 and $500,000, sold for $362,500. A large Haida feast bowl measured at 23" in length exceeded the high estimate of $90,000 by selling for $104,500. The total gross sales of these lots were $1,023,003.

Sothebys, New York - African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art - Sale No. N08638 - May 14, 2010
In this sale Sothebys offered 158 lots with 34 failing to sell yielding a buy in rate if almost 22%. Many were stunned at the sale in lot 11 of the 9 1/4" very well documented wood Taino snuff tube for $290,500, which had a high estimate of $120,000. Also somewhat surprising was the sale of the Guanacaste terracottas which sold for $80,500 (lot 22 with a high estimate $12,000) and $68,500 (lot 25 with a high estimate of $25,000). The spectacular seated Helene Kamer (now Leloup) Veracruz figure in lot 46 was estimated to sell for as much as $150,000 sold for $278,500. The standing 20" Chinesco figure in lot 54 doubled the high estimate of $50,000 selling for $104,500. In lot 78 Sothebys offered a very well documented Austral Islands necklace that sold for $302,500 barely exceeding the low estimate. The Hawaiian cape in lot 84 failed to sell with a low estimate of $300,000. The Friede Mundugumor (lot 89) met all expectations exceeding the high estimate of $1,500,000 and selling for $2,089,500. Followers of Lega material had to be shocked with the sale of the Lega four-headed figure (lot 137) for $2,210,500 that had a high estimate of $50,000. This certainly illustrates the unpredictable nature of this market and suggests to me that new strong buyers are entering the market that are not influenced by past public or private sales history.

Christies, Paris - African and Oceanic art - Sale No. 5599 - June 15, 2010
This Christies sale included 144 lots of which 75 failed to sell for a buy in rate of 52%. Generally, this material was medium level which served as a drag on the better objects which failed to sell. Lot 30 included an equestrian Baule that was estimated between 350,000 and 400,000 euros and said to be "probably" 19th century failed to sell. Consensus on this was that it was not in a league to be considered at this level. A very fine Pitt Rivers Benin architectural panel (lot 59) 128 1/4" in length sold for a very reasonable 34,600 euros which was below the low estimate. The Hooper nail fetish (lot 72) has lost the clay head covering seen in the Hooper book but was estimated to sell between 400,000 and 600,000 euros but failed to find a buyer. This seemed to me based on the collection history and size (33 1/4") to be a bargain. The very fine rare early Fiji tapa cloth (lot 105) is documented as 19th century or earlier and sold for 19,375 euros. A fine possibly 19th century Sepik River Mei mask (lot 126) sold for 34,600 euros.

Sothebys, Paris - African and Oceanic art - Sale No. PF1017 - June 16, 2010
The gross sales for the 82 lots in this sale was 6,816,250 euros ($8,361,630). 29 lots were unsold giving a buy in rate of 35%. Although this buy in rate would generally be considered high with 13 pieces in six figures the sale certainly indicated both interest and market strength in this economy. John Friede's Oceanic art accounted for 3 of these lots selling for a total of over 1.5 million euros. Clearly the stars of the sale were the Kuyu head ( lot 72) selling for 576,750 euros, Hemba figure (lot 73) selling at 840,750 euros, the Chokwe staff (lot 74) selling at 660,750, and the small seated 19th century Chokwe figure (lot 75) which sold for 456,750 euros.

Pierre Berge, Paris - Ethnographic art - Kerchache Collection - June 13, 2010
This sale was a general auction of both fine art and 171 ethnographic items. 41 of these lots were unsold. With Kerchache's reputation and the obvious quality of the objects many pieces exceeded the estimates. The very fine early Bidjogo piece in lot 237 had a high estimate of 12,000 euros but sold for 42,000. The Dogon head (lot 248) was a rather esoteric object with a high estimate of 80,000 euros but ultimately sold for 140,000 euros. The Hongwe reliquary in lot 255 had some significant condition problems and a high estimate of 150,000 euros. This too was surpassed with a sale of 200,000. The Fang figure (lot 274) had a low estimate of 600,000 euros but did not sell. The star of the show was clearly the superb 19th century Chokwe seated figure which sold for 1,445,599 euros just missing the high estimate. A lots of interest were also the Konso figure in lot 376 which sold for 140,000 euros and the Jivaro shrunken head from lot 377 that sold for 60,000 euros, which I believe is a record price for this type of object.

In summation great object continue to sell well while everything else is very unpredictable. In the above sales there were a numbered of objects that should have sold but didn't . There were certainly some objects that never should have reached the prices they did. The good news we can take away from all this is that there is still some stability in this market. For all the negative news the auctions at this time appear to be doing better than the dealers. In this sort of economic climate there will always be opportunities.