The primitive art expert Guy Loudmer discussed this growing and possibly undervalued market following the June 2006 auction of the Verité Collection in Paris. Since then, the market has been attracting greater interest.
The public's appetite for tribal art is at a salacious high. Setting multiple new world records, drawing over 15,000 visitors, and doubling its estimate to reach 43 million euros in sales, the Verité collection auction held this past June in Paris will be remembered as a historical benchmark for the tribal art market. Timed to coincide with the opening of Paris' ambitious Musée du Quai Branly — a sprawling 40,000 square meter Jean Nouvel-designed complex devoted to indigenous art — the sale rivaled, if not surpassed, the new institution as the tribal arts event of the season.
A secret chef-d'oeuvre as rich in quality as vast in profusion, the Verité collection belonged to the father-son art dealing dynasty whose Carrefour Paris gallery was a famed destination for collectors. Boasting some 520 impeccable treasures, including many prized icons, it's appearance on the block has not only sent an uncharted electric bolt through the international market, but perhaps paved a fertile ground for future sales.
Legendary tribal art expert and one of the consultants for the Verité sale, Guy Loudmer weighs in on the future of the market on the eve of this historic event.
What is your definition of luxury?
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
An object of my dreams — a gothic object that I wanted to steal one day from the Langeais museum in the Loire Valley.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
A deep snow in Val D'Isère.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
How would you define tribal art?
It's a form of communication for societies that lack a formal literary language. For cultures in which writing does not exist, subjects such as health, sickness, weather, war and fertility are communicated through specific objects. The Pounder, for example, is not a decorative sculpture. It's made instead for a ceremony, such as a spiritual dance in the village center.
Why are these objects more "aesthetic" than those created for daily use?
Since they were commissioned for special occasions, the village blacksmith who created them gave his very best artistically. Many of the objects are portraits. When you compare the White Mask, of the Musée de L'homme, to the White Mask from the Berlin Museum, you realize that they're entirely different because they are individual portraits, not stereotypes.
Do we know the names of the artisans who created these objects?
There were certain masters who were commissioned extensively. Yet, while their works are recognizable and identifiable, many of their names remain unknown. We're not entirely sure who the artist of the Pounder is, for example, but we know that he received a great many commissions for his exceptional talent. We know the name of the artist of the Shokwe sculpture because it was passed down orally from generation to generation.
How has tribal art influenced Western art?
Let me respond with a story. When the Eiffel Tower was first inaugurated the city of Paris invited blacksmiths from Gabon and Congo to create sculptures for the event's on-site market. An artist passed by, bought one, took it home and said to himself "wow, this has exactly the volumes and shapes that I'm exploring in my work." What did he do? He re-sculpts it, he doesn't copy it, he embellishes it, and signs his name: Paul Gaugin. That sculpture belongs to me. I tell this story to prove the point that there is no such thing as influence, but a common creativity tension and voltage that is shared between artists.
Is that what we'd call a trend today?
I think that for good artists, there is simply an intrinsic understanding of the laws of volume and proportion. Going back to the Gaugin story, he simply took an artisan object and corrected its proportions. He wasn't influenced. He didn't care. He was just having fun.
What determines the price of an object at an auction?
An object is worth more when it is composed of outstanding aesthetic qualities that are the result of exceptional talent, time, and preservation. Ultimately this combination is rare for many reasons: because the blacksmith wasn't in a great mood when he created the object; because the village chief burned it during the ceremony; because it was damaged during its travels; or poorly conserved, etc.
How has the market evolved over the last century?
Towards the early 20th century in Paris there were several primitive art aficionados with specialized boutiques. Little by little, their objects began attracting people, but the group was relatively small and tight. Eventually the bourgeoisie found that the messages in the artwork fit well with their modern paintings and their Louis XV furniture. Today, despite the market's recent record-breaking figures, the unique, museum-quality pieces that are up for auction are still quite modest in price compared to a Cindy Sherman print from a series of 12 for example.
Do you believe that the market has much more room to grow?
I think that this market is still in development as far as prices go. This will continue as long as there is a free-flow of exchange, as collections are created and eventually sold, until the day when nothing is left in circulation. Then, who knows what will happen to the figures. When there's a lack of merchandise, objects become priceless. But that may fifty to a hundred years from now.
Who is buying primitive art now?
The rule behind the value of objects is very simple: fresh money makes the market. When you have two BMWs, a Rolls, a yacht, and a private jet timeshare, and your neighbor has the same, what can you have in your living room that he doesn't? It can only be an extraordinary, unique object that is made by hand. It's a way of being oneself and standing out from the crowd. Anyone can begin collecting tomorrow if they like.
Any advice for those who would like to begin collecting?
When you place a beautiful object next to an ugly one, it stands out. But if you've only see what's bad, you don't know that it is bad. So when people ask what to look for in the market, I always tell them to seek the advice of experts who have seen a lot. They'll take 5-10%, but it's the price to pay for an eye that can distinguish quality. When someone is interested in a collection, they should first ask themselves who would be the right person to guide them through the sale.
Guy Loudmer's Tribal Art Hot List:
(in no particular order)
1. Musée du Quai Branly, Paris (www.quaibranly.com)
2. The Museum Island, Berlin (www.museen-berlin.de)
3. The Museum of Ethnology, Berlin-Dahlem (http://www.smb.spk-berlin.de/mv/e/s.html)
4. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (www.metmuseum.org)
5. British Museum, Museum of Mankind, London. (www.british-museum.ac.uk)
6. Chateau-Musée, Boulogne-Sur-Mer (http://www.musenor.com/gm/gmboulogn.htm)
7. Pierre Amrouche, Paris (www.amrcouche.com)
8. Galerie de Monbrison, Paris (www.monbrison.com)
9. Galerie Ratton-Ladrière, 11 Quai Voltaire, 75007, Paris
10. Galerie Phillipe Guimiot, Avenue Lloyd George, 16, 1000 Brussels
11. Deletaille, Rue aux Laines, Wolstraat, 30, 1000 Brussels
12. Bernard de Grunne, 2 place du Petit Sablon, 1000 Brussels (email@example.com)