My Word March 2011

Reflecting on 36 years of collecting, dealing, and appraising art is in some ways exciting and in many other ways somewhat depressing.  Technology has given us many tools that make our professional lives easier and more fulfilling. It was not too long ago that I was sitting in my hotel room somewhere in the Midwest waiting for a client to show up for an appointment that was scheduled for two hours before. We had no internet, no cell phones, and hotel switchboards that were hit or miss at best. At that point we didn’t have great libraries or google to make research easier. We actually traveled to the local library to find our books and we thumbed through catalogs to find that mask that we thought was sold at auction four years before. No I don’t miss being on the road three weeks at a time or trying cook food in my hotel room, or for that matter unpacking and unpacking things in the car several times a day. Nostalgic thoughts are not what I have  for pushing boxes through the snow hoping that you weren’t going to break those pieces that were consigned and wondering if you were going to sell something on this stop. I don’t miss the strain of checking $200,000 work of consigned Northwest Coast art as baggage hoping to see it on the carousel after landed.  
I do miss being able to walk into a New York dealer’s gallery to admire a great piece and then walk out the door with it an hour later with an admonishment to bring back the piece or the money. All this was done with no paperwork. Everybody was easier to work with then and I include dealers, scholars, collectors, and curators.  Attitudes were more laid back because there really was less to worry about; and in this sense, it was more fun to be a part of something that many professionals did because it was enjoyable. We did have  our bandits and characters that were certainly in part a pain in the butt but they also in their way lent color to a field that was known for its oral history of bad boys and their exploits. I miss NOT having to deal constantly with the threat of making a mistake either by purchasing something that was fake or by acquiring an object that  has a questionable collection history.
Which is a perfect lead in to the purpose of this essay. Where are we going and what is the future of  the business of tribal art for private and public collectors and dealers?  Clearly we are not heading in a very favorable direction. Restrictions in the acquisition of both Pre-Columbian and African terracottas have impacted those markets. With museums reluctant to acquire anything that can’t be documented as having been in the U.S. prior to  1972 collectors know that their collections of this material are not going to be accepted for donation by museums either.  With unsettled economic conditions killing the lower and middle level markets and significantly reduced activity in the upper end among US collectors, the future of Pre-Columbian art is not bright. After reading Peter Watson’s The Medici Conspiracy  it is fairly obvious how dealers and collectors will attempt to overcome these obstacles. There certainly appears to be a trend worldwide for governments to become involved in our lives, so I see the possibility of more restrictions.
In my world stolen is stolen. It is a simple concept that doesn’t involve  what I term as a do over.  If a Native American sold something that he owned to a traveler 150 years ago and it didn’t violate any laws at the time, you don’t get to rehash the sale in the present because the laws are different now. A legitimate buyer and a legitimate seller make a legitimate sale that we define with property rights. The ability to redefine property rights after the fact is against everything that I believe the country stands for. But that’s just me and the trends are against private property rights for the individual. We need to focus on the rationale for doing what we do. Is it about the objects or is it about some political agenda that needs to be satisfied? This world needs museums to teach us where we have been so that we may better respect not only each other but also our past. It is my feeling that without the economic power of private collectors museums will lose interest in the objects that make it possible for them to teach us about what defines us all as special and unique in our own ways. I fear that the future will bring holographic images that will only serve as artificial icons of what many of us now take for granted as we spend a Sunday afternoon walking through a museum.