My Word May 2012

It is certainly not surprising to see Sothebys working hard to market their Tribal art sales to the contemporary and modern clients. What is difficult is understanding whether this is good or bad for the Tribal art market. In previous posts I had stated unequivocally radical swings up or down are bad for the market. In this Newsletter I have talked about the concept of fair market value questioning whether the sales would even fit the definition if the buyers did not have "reasonable knowledge of relevant facts". This definition is more than just a vehicle for making an appraiser's life easier. It is the foundation of a stable market. If a collector knows that a Lega mask is mediocre but that it came from Matisse's collection and hung on his studio wall, then in fact  the buyer probably does possess reasonable knowledge of relevant facts. If on the other hand the buyer is being told that the Lega mask is a sleeper and is far better quality than the estimate would suggest, most experts would say that the buyer does not possess reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.

In my post "Shut Up and Count the Money" I am suggesting that there are very strong incentives and then subsequent pressures in the art world to not rock the boat. For those that benefit there are obvious reasons to pursue this course. Ultimately we have all seen private and public sellers that have misrepresented their objects directly in the open gaze of many who knew better. Ultimately markets correct themselves but not before they drive out many prospective buyers. If some of these new buyers get the bug and seek the objective advice of those not directly benefiting from the sale, tribal art could see a renaissance that could have an impact even to the middle markets. This might be too much to hope for, at least in the short term.

We all need to do a better job checking the collection history and authenticity of the objects we buy, sell, appraise, or authenticate. Science is providing some amazing resources for this task.  The art world has been slow to embrace technology. With bright young dealers coming on the scene in both the U.S. and Europe this is changing. I am confident as the cost of scientific testing comes down this will shake things up in market place. As scientific affirmation is regarded as a value added element to making the buyer feel more secure about his acquisitions, testing will be come  more necessary to close the sale. The technology exists now to create some anxious moments for some in the near future. The day of reckoning comes in any game of musical chairs, when the status quo changes. Maybe on an institutional level testing may be pursued by the curator after the curator that made the purchase or by the director after the director that ultimately authorized the purchase. In the private market maybe in an effort to market the estate it will be the heirs of the collectors who built the collection who decide to test.  All of us who have been doing this for awhile know where many of these little surprises are waiting to be discovered. Ultimately the question on so many levels becomes whether you address the problem now or wait until later when the problems are more difficult to solve. Most of us will wait and let someone else deal with it.