|For those up to a little reading, this article delves into the history of collecting, influences on the tribal market,
dealing with fakes and much more. It's an EXCELLENT article and definitely worth the read!
I've highlighted sections that I found particularly interesting.
There are sections that I don't agree with and sections that people get upset over, so read at your own risk.
|Click above to see this
article in plain text form or
right click on the link and
save the file to your
|A natural curiosity
The British market in primitive art
Reprinted with permission from Jeremy MacClancy (ed.) Contesting Art. Art, Politics, and
Identity in the Modern World, Berg Publishers, Oxford, 1997, pp. 27--62
Certain objects are today dubbed "primitive art." They are bought by people who value them.
Others sell these objects for profit. Once this market exists, historians can employ themselves
describing and interpreting this "primitive art." The objects gain pedigree, the collectors prestige,
the historians jobs, and the dealers money. Collectors, experts, and dealers coexist and mutually
support one another. They cannot be separated.
The market in primitive art is distinctive for its central metaphors, for the degree of passion
displayed by committed collectors, and for the difficulties that arise when a European taxonomy
drawn from a fine art tradition is imposed on objects that come from other cultures. Primitive art
is so varied in style, so broad in its global reach, and still so relatively little researched that many
purchasers are unsure of what they are buying. A collector with eye may perceive the soul and
mystery of a previously ignored masterpiece but may not be sure that the object is authentic. The
definition of fake is itself problematic, for most primitive art is anonymous. In this atmosphere
of uncertainty (aggravated by the risk of losing money), the role of a dealer with reputation
becomes more central, and supplementary criteria are employed to bolster confidence: patina,
provenance, and tribal prestige. But the power of these dealers to determine taste is limited by
the pronounced individuality of certain collectors. In this small, highly volatile market-one
strongly affected by fashion-price remains particularly difficult to assess.
This essay is an exploration into the culture of capitalism, an investigation into a culturally
constituted pattern of consumption by tracing the trajectory of exotic objects in a Western
setting. After describing the sociology and development of the British end of this international
market, I examine the criteria by which these objects are classified. I conclude with a native
account of collectors' psychology. These objects may come from non-Western contexts, but,
installed in the homes of Western collectors, their context of origin becomes but a small part of
the meaning they bear. We are, after all, dealing with a Western process. 1
In the eighteenth century, members of the nobility and the very-well-to-do placed artificial
curiosities alongside natural curiosities (minerals, crystals, and dried plants) in the curiosity
cabinets of their living rooms. Exemplars of other worlds, these foreign objects attested their
owners' openness to the savage and strange. Within a century these items were reclassified as
curios, a pejorative term signifying their lowly status on the racist, universalizing hierarchy of art
established by Western high culture. These ethnographical now unconfined by cabinets, were no
longer juxtaposed with pieces from natural history. In Britain, these byproducts of the colonial
enterprise bore witness to the Increasing knowledge by which its expatriates categorized and
ruled their subject races. To the main British collectors of the early twentieth century (Beasley,
Fuller, Hooper, Oldman, Webster), these objects had ethnological import, one often framed
within "an allegory of redemption."2 Hooper confessed that he wished "to preserve the relics of
dead and dying cults" 3 Fuller, an ethnologist himself, said, "The guiding principle in forming my
collection has been, and is, the study of comparative technology and the evolution of design"; his
aim was to select specimens of "Neolithic Man," that is, objects made before contact with
whites.4 Gathercole, speaking of these men's collections of Maori objects, says the vision that
they reveal of an essentially timeless Maori was
a compound of the eighteenth century Noble Savage, the nineteenth century economic
man and the European stereotype of the valiant tribesman honorably defeated in colonial
wars.... [This] romantic, a historical tradition . . . made the conquering plight of the
Maori more palatable and his past more appealing.5
Only Epstein, the one other big collector of the time and a sculptor himself, amassed objects for
their artistry. Epstein's peers, modern artists in Continental Europe, differentiated objects made
by what were then called "uncivilized races" from those produced by Eastern civilizations (for
example, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian)- yet they saw objects made by Africans, native
North Americans, and Pacific islanders not as curios, but as primitive, or Negro, art. To them,
these objects were concrete solutions to artistic problems, works of art in their own right. Like
most art movements, this change in aesthetic appreciation came late to Britain.6
Throughout the late I 940s the British art market generally was in a slump. People were short of
money. Most primitive art sold cheaply- if not in job-lots. The small market in this art was
effectively run by a coterie of dealers, collectors, and curators.7 Dealers used to attend sales in
the London auction-houses and scour London markets and curio or junk shops-odd mixtures of
paintings, primitive art, antiquities (archaeological objects), and other bric-a-brac. Some dealers,
such as James Keggie, used to visit other towns around Britain, searching for objects in their
curio shops. The market was small. Dealers could not afford to deal exclusively in primitive art:
Ohley dealt in all types of fine art; Keggie specialized in both anthropology and history of
science." By word of mouth, dealers slowly built up their own networks of favoured customers,
committed collectors, many of whom already were, or became, their friends. Dealers would
telephone particular collectors if they had obtained a piece that they knew would appeal to their
taste. A number of dealers also sold their good pieces abroad. Some collectors (such as Hooper
and Oldman) were dealers themselves. Hooper used to sell objects to dealers on the Continent
(especially those in Brussels) in order to finance the purchase of objects he particularly liked.
Dealers also sold items through the auction-houses."8
In the immediate postwar years the only British buyers of primitive art were the big prewar
collectors (minus Beasley, who died in 1939), artists, writers, and the occasional whimsical9
purchasers Unlike the French bourgeoisie, the majority of the British middle class had not (and
still, to a comparative extent, has not) any understanding of primitive art. To them, these objects
were frightening, fearful, awesome.10
An emergent group of collectors were those who had learnt of primitive art through their great
interest in contemporary art. This small group became all the more important, given the rising
purchasing power of the British middle classes in the early and mid-1950s. Influential dealers
who entered the market and sold them pieces were Herbert Reiser, John Hewett, and (slightly
later) Phillip Goldman. They were men of repute, each with his own gallery. Together with
other established gallery owners who exhibited primitive art, they gave confidence to buyers and
lent stability to the market. It is with them that the close dealer-client relationship started to
become the most common way of selling expensive items. They acquired the big clients
(Hewett's included Pablo Picasso, Nelson Rockefeller, Stavros Niarchos, the Hunt brothers, and
Sir Robert Sainsbury); others gained lesser ones.
In 1958 Hewett joined Sotheby's at the request of Peter Wilson, its recently appointed chairman.
Wilson's entrepreneurial gifts and talent for the kind of showmanship appropriate to the patrician
traditions of the firm enabled it to develop from a small London based huddle of gentlemen
appraisers to its present leading position in the international art market."11 Hewett, a well-built
bearded ex-Guardsman of much dignity, was brought in to enliven the Antiquities and Primitive
Art Department. By advertising more and by increasing the number of sales, he raised its annual
turnover within a decade from £34,000 to £250,000.
By the mid-1960s art was securely recognized as a commodity to invest in."12 As prices for
valued paintings rose so far that all but the richest of collectors were priced out of the market,
less moneyed individuals began buying objects in other sectors of the market, areas where they
could still afford to buy good pieces at reasonable prices. At auctions of primitive art they were
joined by some more wealthy people who thought ethnographical promising potential
investments. Prices began to rise.
As the primitive art market started to expand, new dealers entered the trade. Some opened
galleries, some worked from home, some set up stalls in Portobello (there were eight there in 1
971), some did all three. Dealers remember the mid- to late I 960s as the beginning of a boom
that lasted until 1980. Although certain astute dealers had already bought the best objects owned
by private British museums, good pieces were still available cheaply and not too difficult to find;
dealers could then still sell items bought at the major auction-houses to collectors because most
collectors had not yet started attending the sales rooms; African runners were still visiting
London calling on dealers with bags full of "high quality" objects. Few dealers themselves left
Europe in search of objects. Phillip Goldman's repeated tours of Papua New Guinea were
The British home market, however, remained small: serious collectors (never more than twenty),
dealers, and curators continued, and continue, to be a loose group of mutual acquaintances.
Today about sixteen dealers have stalls in Portobello. They buy from country dealers who come
up to London on Fridays to sell their objects (not only primitive art) from stalls in Bermondsey
Market. They also tour Camden Lock Market on Sundays, Camden Passage Market on
Wednesdays, and the auction-houses on viewing days. Some advertise in country newspapers.
A few tour the country themselves, but most find it more worthwhile to buy from runners who
comb their home region attending local auctions and visiting nearby antique shops. Most arevisited
by collectors who wish to sell or exchange something they have tired of or that they have
just bought cheaply in another market (such as Greenwich). Almost all have their own clients.
Few buyers are strangers; the majority are dealers from America or the Continent who visit two
or three time a year. Most Portobello dealers also have to deal with others types of objects (such
as Oriental, Islamic, Himalayan, Ancient Egyptian) if they are to survive, although they also tend
to specialize within some subsection of primitive art.
All maintain contact with the upmarket dealers. Most of the latter operate from home, receiving
clients there or going round to see them. "There's a lot of legwork in this trade," complained one
dealer. Another said that to be successful, one had to be very social. He wasn’t, and so he
The majority of business is done with other dealers, buying and selling objects with one another.
Since different dealers tend to have different sorts of clients who buy within different price
ranges, this constant passage of objects within the trade ensures that pieces ..of different quality
eventually reach the appropriate type of buyer. Some dealers at Portobello (most of whom are
undercapitalized) prefer selling to the trade because dealers tend to know what they want, they
tend to know what they are prepared to pay, and they will pay. Dealing with other dealers
guarantees a faster turnover. As one said, "You can get higher prices from private clients but
you've got to dance around with them. That's not my style." A few dealers at the top end of the
market may make large amounts of money in a series of spectacular deals, but they appear to be
the exception. Several dealers who operate from the street markets refer to their own collections
as their retirement pensions."
As a general rule in the art market, people who buy objects of the highest quality will always
eventually get a good return on their money. Dealers stress that, compared to other sectors of the
art market, it is much more difficult to sell second-rate pieces of primitive art. This tendency
does not influence sales of North American Indian or Polynesian objects since so few pieces are
in circulation. But it did affect dealers in African objects in the 1 960s and 1 970s because there
were so many items on the market. (After the Biafran war, many objects of Nigerian origin ended
up in London.
Some collectors, scared by the number of fakes, 13 only buy pieces from reputed dealers and
may refuse to consider valuable objects offered at low prices by other dealers. Hewett, for one,
has reputation. Dealers and collectors agree that he also has presence. They speak of his
mystique, panache, sophistication, character, charisma. By the early 1970s he had been in the
business so long and had been so successful that newcomers to the trade, confusing reputation
with image, began to emulate his style. One even grew a beard. Such dealers, ones with name,
can charge a premium. It is said that Hewett could sell a spoon till then valued at f5 for f5OO.
But even reputed dealers can lose their eye, sell fakes, or otherwise stitch up their clients. Said
one collector, "Dealers are bastards!"
Upmarket, image is very important. A dealer must be known to constantly have good pieces. He
may buy an expensive item, even if he cannot sell it for much more, if it will impress his clients.
He may have to buy a whole collection from a private seller in order to get its best pieces. The
remainder he can sell to lesser dealers who have more customers for objects at that price level.
One particularly successful dealer said that he advertised not in order to sell certain objects but
in order to present an image of himself as a dealer in objects of the highest quality. He
accumulates pieces of a certain type (say, Maori objects) because he knows that he will get a
better price for them as a collection than if he sold them separately. He has set up a network of
stringers on the Continent and in the British provinces; they pass good pieces on to him and
receive a commission when he sells them. He thought the way to success in the primitive art
marketplace was "to set up as many vassals as possible."
Under British law any form of agreement, unless highly formal and open, between dealers to buy
pieces jointly is illegal. But some dealers admit that if they meet at a country auction and know
they are, after the same object, they will often agree not to bid against one another and to share
the object afterward. This is an especially advantageous arrangement if the bidding exceeds their
individual upper limit. Dealers stress that rings in the primitive art market are highly informal
and are nothing like so well organized as, say, those controlling the rug trade because they
cannot remove the possibility of an outside buyer out-bidding them: the market includes some
very individual personalities
Even at the level of the major auction-houses, the market remains a small, loosely knit collection
of individuals. When organizing a sale, they write to particular collectors warning them that
certain objects are coming up for auction. After the viewing, appraisers have drinks or dinner
with well-known collectors (often their friends), encouraging them by chatting about certain
pieces, describing them in detail, assessing their possible value and their potential as
Although the British home market is much smaller than the American one, 14 London remains a
world center because of the sales that Sotheby's and Christie's can stage. Their success is due
partly to their great international prestige and partly to the quantity and quality of objects still in
the country-most of them originally obtained in colonial circumstances.
A major reason for the late 1960s-to-1980 boom in prices was the rapid increase in the American
market. (Today most British dealers say that Americans make up the majority of their clients.)
These Americans tend to be highly successful, newly rich professionals who buy a few objects as
house decoration for reasons of prestige and investment. An object hanging on the sitting-room
wall advertises its owner's taste, supposed aesthetic sensibility, and financial shrewdness: thanks
to the American tax laws and some compliant dealers prepared to overvalue pieces, Americans
who bequeath their works of art to an institution on their death can make an immediate profit on
their purchases by saving on taxes.15
In the late I 970s the boom reached its height with the auctioning by Sotheby's and Christie's of
several important collections. In 1975 in the sale of the Tara collection a Puna mask went for
F22,000-then thought a scandalous price. Next year when the Pinto collection came under the
hammer, several pieces sold for more than f 22,000 each. Between 1977 and 1 980 Christie's
auctioned off the valuable Hooper collection in four annual sales. In 1978 in the sale of the Ortiz
collection at Sotheby's, several objects reached staggering prices: a wood face mask from
Vanuatu went for F]80,000, a Raratongan wood figure for f200,000, and a Hawaiian wood
figure, apparently collected by Cook, for f250,000. These prices were particularly high for two
main reasons: (1) the entry into the market since the sale of the Pinto collection of the British
Rail Pension Fund whose buyer, Ederlstein, had a great passion for primitive art; (2) the presence
at the sale of two collectors prepared to spend a lot of money Monzino, an Italian Swiss, and
Deiaunoit, a Belgian, who bought the Hawaiian figure. Two years later Sotheby's auctioned off
the Schwarz collection thought to be the best collection of Benin bronzes in the world. For the
first time representatives of a non Western government attended a sale in order to buy 1 6 back
objects for the sake of national pride.16 In the sale, more than ten items went for over £100, 000
apiece, the Nigerian government buying the three most expensive objects.
The sales next year were disappointing. There were still some high prices, but over 30 percent of
the lots did not find buyers. Overexcited vendors and appraisers, misled by the recent trends,
had overpriced their material. In response to the increasing demand for objects, many pieces of
poor quality had been put on the market while good pieces for sale had become rare; objects
bought by or bequeathed to public museums do not reappear on the market."17 Simultaneously,
the three main purchasers at the top end of the market had all withdrawn: Delaunoit and Monzino
had stopped buying, as had Ederistein (due to public protest at a pension fund using its assets to
buy art); there were no more outstanding Benin bronzes to attract the Nigerians. Others, thinking
the market had reached i ts top the year before, had already stopped collecting and begun to
invest their money in other types of art objects. Prices stopped rising. The bubble had burst.
The market has remained soft or skittish since then. There are fewer auctions today, and pieces
bought in the Ortiz and Hooper sales now reappearing on the market sell for less than they went
for a few years ago. Appraisers complain of the difficulty of finding good pieces-owners are
reluctant to sell in a depressed market-and of selling them for more than the reserve they set.
Although the sale of a Benin bronze head in June 1985 for f320,000 at Sotheby's was a world
record for primitive art, it was widely suspected that a high percentage of the objects in the
auction were "bought in.' 18 Dealers grumble that the rise in prices means that most British
collectors can no longer afford the pieces they want. They say that more collectors now attend
the sales rooms, that country dealers are now more inclined to give their objects to the auction
houses than to themselves, and that collectors are disinclined to buy pieces from dealers which
have been illustrated in an auction catalogue: thanks to the illustration a collector can identify the
object a dealer is offering him and so assess his profit margin-an off putting prospect, And
appraisers are keen to include photos of as many of their pieces as possible in their catalogues.
Many upmarket dealers have closed their galleries and now operate solely from home. As the
market shrinks they become more important by default because, thanks to their backers, they are
more financially secure than lesser dealers who either go under or are forced to diversify into
other sectors of the art market. Although potential vendors are not now so keen to sell, they are
also not so greedy. So if they do decide to sell, they do so for a reasonable price. The upmarket
dealers, however, continue to charge high prices because their clients have money. These dealers
are relatively insulated from the softness of the market because they deal with its top end.
To overcome present difficulties, some dealers and appraisers have started selling other sorts of
objects and have thus extended the range (and meaning) of the primitive art market. New
markets have been created for Indonesian and Naga art, which is still available in sufficient
quality and quantity. The prices of textiles, furnishings, and colonial art (objects made since
contact that include European figures) have multiplied in the last five years, In each of these
three areas items of good quality can still be had for relatively little-a great attraction to
impoverished British buyers.
Museums are not isolated from the market. Bill Fagg, Keeper of Ethnography at the British
Museum from the late 1960s to 1976, has referred to the complementary developr-nent of
museums and collectors, with collectors often taking the lead in the foundation of museums.19
Hooper was greatly encouraged by his friend Henry Balfour, the renowned curator of the
PittRivers Museum at Oxford 20 Fagg himself is well known as the friend of many collectors:
they ask him to assess their latest pieces; several have donated items to his department. Fagg's
mentor was Leon Underwood, the collector, modernist sculptor, and author of three books on
primitive art. Fagg, unusual among British curators, was (and is) prepared to judge pieces
aesthetically. He started work at a time (1946) when British social anthropologists ignored
material culture and ethnologists were interested only in taxonomy. Fagg began writing in
deliberate reaction to this lack of interest in primitive art. He is now "the principal contributor"
in the English-speaking world to the study of African art: his many books are distinctive for their
accurate documentation of individual pieces."21 The consultant to Christie's since 1976, Bill
Fagg is a highly respected academic who works in the marketplace. His opinion holds weight.
These objects, categorized, then recategorized several times the last two centuries, are now given
room in national art galleries. In New York they have their own, the Michael C. Rockefeller
Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The objects exhibited there have no accompanying
text, photomurals, or music. They are to be regarded as works of art in their own right.22 As art,
they are an integral part of the international art market, and so we can ask by what criteria are
they judged, and how are those criteria ranked?
Articulate dealers and collectors speak of their objects' soul, spirit, power, sacredness, magic,
and mystery. They are visible embodiments of invisible realms, concrete forms enclosing a heart
of darkness. This language of collectors and dealers is a modern variant of the eighteenth
century's noble and ignoble savage. They are new verbal formulae reflecting our changed
conception of black ways. The makers of these objects are no longer considered unintelligent,
infantile juju worshipers acting instinctually. They are seen to have aesthetic sensibility. Their
objects, instinct with vitality, may have transcendental quality, but the power on which they draw
and to which they give plastic form is still irreducibly Other. Good Western sculptures may also
have power: what distinguishes the carver of a primitive piece of art is the exotic source of the
power he taps. The mystery of his object is thought to come from a radically different culture.
The soul it represents is not that of its maker but of its tribe. Most objects are not thought to
express a personal vision but the occult forces of a native region. The mystery that Westerners
attribute to these objects is an ultimate explanation of their fascination for us. It is a
contemporary manner of scoring the racial divide and of legitimating our attention.
If such core metaphors as soul and mystery cannot be broken down into neat sets of transmissible
verbal discriminations, how then can they be communicated? To owners of these objects,
aesthetic criteria, which are embedded in a well-documented Western art historical tradition, are
mere verbal dressing. They do not touch the soul of their possessions. If these central tropes
cannot be unpacked, then the people who can use them most convincingly are those individuals
who are thought to have eye-a notion as necessarily imprecise as soul, spirit, power, or mystery.
The idea of eye rests on a conception of a universal aesthetic: anyone with good eye can
appreciate primitive art, although the person may have no knowledge of their ethnographic
context. The object still speaks to someone scrutinizing it, although the person may be
ethnologically ignorant. When an anthropologist asks dealers and collectors what does it mean
to say that someone has good eye, some look blank. Some say one is asking hard questions.
Others say that a dealer with good eye is one who can identify -pieces that will sell well: that is
to define eye as the ability, whether or not articulable, to apply consistently and successfully the
current canons of taste to any object they regard. Most serious collectors and long-established
dealers will say that they think that they have eye and, revealingly, will admit that they either
gained or developed their eye by looking at hundreds of objects, by reading widely about them,
by seeing what sold well, by talking to others more knowledgeable than they -in short, as one
said, by learning the consensus. The circle closes, the neophyte becomes an adept by a slow
process of nonverbal, visual education.
Not all have eye. "Some have it. Some don't. No amount of education is going to help a person
who hasn't got it." People in the trade do recognize that people can improve their eye through
experience, that they can lose it with age, and that some just seem to be born with the gift. If
people are unsure of how to apply Western aesthetic criteria to non-Western objects (which seem
to mock European art categories), then the metaphor of eye becomes all the more important, as
does the role of people who are said to have it.
So in the primitive art market a dealer with eye surrounded by buyers still learning their way
becomes far more influential in determining taste than, say, a dealer in paintings of the Italian
Renaissance, where the canons of taste are far more firmly set. In the fine art market a person
with eye comes to the fore only when an unknown picture has to be identified: is it an old
master? Ask the man with eye. Art historians justify their jobs by their skillful use of verbal
discriminations; to them, eye is very much a dealers' concept.23 John Hewett has eye, people
say. He bought objects for their aesthetic value and sold them accordingly. He did not bargain.
He set a price for an object. Hewett did not give a client a long spiel about a piece. He did not
try to persuade him. Hewett just looked very carefully at an object, said, "It's very good" (if it
was), and then allowed his client to examine it. Hewett began dealing at a time when little had
been written in English about primitive art and when many British collectors of contemporary art
had only just begun paying attention to these objects. No wonder he became so influential. Such
people have authority. They help set the consensus, the specially chosen group of objects that
are thought the greatest examples of primitive art and by which all other, lesser pieces are
The fifteen or so serious collectors of primitive art in Britain are independent individuals who
have slowly come to learn what they value. They may be influenced, but are not governed, by
others' eye. One London-based collector is acknowledged as having his own, highly particular
eye. A strong personality, he ignores dealers' spiel and consistently buys crudely carved, heavy,
powerful pieces. His peers recognize the difference of his taste. They just regard it as Other.
(Some forgers especially make fakes for the particular eye of certain collectors.) Another London
collector has, over the years, educated his eye in such a way that, unknowingly, he has put
together the best, most consistent collection in Britain of fakes.
A stable market needs more than eye to fix the value of an object. It needs the security of
criteria that do not depend on individual sensibility. Thus appraisers and dealers, using terms
borrowed from the fine art market, talk of objects' patina, age, rarity, and provenance-no matter
how inappropriate these criteria are when applied to objects from a non-Western context. 25
Works of primitive art have no signature. An object can be attributed to a particular region or
tribe, but almost invariably not to a particular individual. The tribe is the artist; its plastic
traditions are its signature. And to at least one collector "the anonymity of a creator enhances a
work of art." 26 It is only recently and still rarely that certain objects have been identified as the
work of particular individuals. In these cases, the objects are often attributed to the same (dead)
artist by experts exercising their educated intuition. The artist remains anonymous. His stylistic
signature is an imposed construction of Western experts. 27
Collectors want objects that have been used traditionally. Evidence of an object's use increases
its associations with the Other. It augments its evocative power and thickens the context within
which its soul is sited. Dealers and appraisers like to talk of patina, the smoothed surface of an
object that has been much handled and so is that much more a part of the tribal traditions it
represents to Westerners. A fine patina evokes associations of foreign dirt, sweat, labor, and age.
It is as though many collectors seek the exotic equivalent of a well-preserved Tudor oak table,
one burnished by centuries of careful polishing. The age of a piece is also important, although
relative to particular tribes. (One reason given for the recent popularity of colonial art is that the
uniforms worn by the white figures in these pieces make them easier to date.) As a general rule,
however, the older an object is, the more valuable it is, for then it is all the more embedded in the
history of its tribal tradition. A strongly suspect, but I cannot show, that although collectors and
dealers may boast of objects' age, this does not affect their a historical view of traditional African
society. It is as though the age of an object is evidence of the antiquity of the traditions of a tribe
but that those traditions are conceived in an a temporal sense, an unchanging period situated in
Patina is here no necessary index of antiquity. Many objects were stored or put away after ritual
use; when brought to Europe by a runner they can look as though they were made yesterday. In
the world of fine art, dealers and restorers can foresee what restoration will bring out in a
painting, and a restored painting will generally sell for more. This is not necessarily the case
with primitive art. Since many collectors seek evidence of an object's use, they will often pay
well for a damaged piece fixed by its original tribal owners. Western restoration would remove
this further sign of its native origin. So old Benin bronzes, which, restored, would look like
modern imitations, are often left as they are just as the death of a Western artist fixes the number
of goods labeled with his name on the market, so the demise of a tribal tradition stabilizes the
number of goods manufactured within that tradition. Decay, misuse, and destruction only aid the
process. Oidman's advertisements in the I930s in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological
Institute stressed that the objects he had for sale were no longer being made; their number could
only diminish. "If they can make objects today as good as those when they were first collected,"
said one appraiser, "then the price won't rise." Any Plains Indians or Polynesian artifact is
considered blue-chip stock because the societies that produced these objects no longer exist. The
criteria of age, rarity, and patina can be seen as ways by which the upper end of the market
controls the number of goods within it by effectively excluding any objects made recently. In the
Sotheby's sale in June 1985, for instance, none of the objects was less than sixty years old. Good
Central American terracottas, made in the last century, in the style of pieces several hundred
years earlier are now accepted as genuine."28 They may be copies, but they are still old, no
longer manufactured, and considered of high quality. One upmarket dealer, emphasizing the life
and power of good primitive art, said that objects recently carved were dead: their evocative
context was too thin.
The provenance of an object may also contribute to its value. It is easier to sell a piece whose
European past is known. The more complete the record the better, while the prestige of certain
ex-owners rubs off on their former possessions as though it were part of the patina. An item
brought back by one of Cook's crew can be worth ten times that of a similar piece whose
collecting history is unknown. Objects from the collection of people renowned for their eye (for
example, Ratton, Rasmussen, Hewett, Kismier) are regarded closely. It also adds interest if an
object once belonged to a well-known early twentieth-century painter, one known to have been
influenced by primitive art. But this criterion can work both ways, for these artists bought pieces
that best exemplified their own artistic theories. They did not care if an object was roughly
finished, crude, or fake. They bought simple, bold, primitive pieces and disliked the subtle
realism of Benin bronzes, which they thought betrayed a non African influence. Many dealers
and collectors, however, judged fine art and primitive art according to the same set of values.
(Many still do so.) They preferred more naturalistic pieces of subdued expression with smooth
surfaces and fine patina. These were easier to appreciate and sold accordingly. In 1930 a pair of
Benin leopards were sold in London for 700 guineas; in 1953 Sotheby's sold a head of a Benin
queen for £5,500. It was only some time after the rise in the number of collectors who came to
primitive art through their interest in modern art that the value of bold, imaginative, abstract
pieces began to rise, although today a fine Baule mask still fetches more than an extraordinary,
inventive Mumuy figure.29
A market for good, genuine objects stimulates the traffic in fakes.30 As the number of good,
genuine items decreases, the production of fakes rises in step with a rise in prices. The sorts of
objects faked most often tend to be relatively rare, aesthetically appealing, and of confirmed
popularity. Authenticity is a graver problem here than in other sectors of the art market because,
as I said above, primitive art has no signature. This problem is centrally important to the market,
for if people cannot tell or be told the difference between genuine and fake, they will not invest.
What we are looking at here is that the role of nondesthetic criteria for aesthetics makes no
distinction between genuine and fake. Fakes, though, must have at least a certain minimal
aesthetic appeal: the ugliness of an object is sometimes taken as a guarantee of its authenticity.
"It's so ugly it can't be a fake!".
Baldly put, a fake is something intended to deceive. But who is deceiving whom? The answer is
complex because fake and genuine are not the two halves of an unbridgeable division (although
some may use them that way) but polar terms of a finely graded continuum.
Willett describes this spectrum well:
The most obviously authentic works on which all would agree are those made by an
African for use by his own people and so used. However, this category can be
subdivided because the piece so made and used may be of superior, average or inferior
aesthetic quality. A little lower on the scale is a work made by an African for use by his
own people but bought by an expatriate before use. Then comes sculpture made by an
African in the traditional style of his own people for sale to an expatriate; then sculpture
made by an African in the traditional style on commission by an expatriate; then
sculpture made by an African in a poor imitation of the traditional style of his own
people for sale to an expatriate; made by an African in the style of a different African
people (though it may be well done) for sale to an expatriate; made in the style of a
different African people but badly done for sale to an expatriate; made by an African in a
non-traditional style for sale to an expatriate. Finally we have works made by an
expatriate, i.e., a non-African, for sale to other non-Africans but passed off as being
African. This, at the other end of the continuum, is the unquestionable fake31
Willett's description is too straitjacketing, for it depends on a view of foreign societies as static
and lacking innovation. Change is seen as decay. But if certain societies (such as many
Melanesian ones) tolerate, if not actually encourage, innovation, when can we consider an
established innovation to be part of their tradition? 32 If the tribe (itself a Western conception of
Other peoples) provides both the artist and the signature, are we then to see ethnographic
examples of where, traditionally, the people of X make objects for those of Y, or where the
people of X imitate the objects of Y as, in either case, producing fakes? More ethnology could
provide useful information clarifying the ethnographic situation. But any answers to such
questions would be decided by those influential in the primitive art marketplace.
Yet more questions can be raised. What is the ethnographic difference between copying
(despised by collectors) and the continuance of a tradition (accepted by them)? Why do
collectors value an object that has been used in a ceremony more than one a European bought
just before it could be used ritually, even though its carver had intended it to be used? Some
runners pay both for carvers to make objects and for the performance of rituals in which those
objects are used. The runners' photographs of the rituals validates the authenticity of their
objects. In the trade this ceremony is known as the Blessing of the Exports. Western artists
work for money, but most collectors will not accept that non-Western carvers may do so, too,
although selling objects to Europeans is a long established tradition in many areas. By the
fifteenth century west Africans had already begun carving ivories, for Portuguese buyers.
Westerners, by imposing their own particular conception of the "tribal" associations of an object,
end up setting arbitrary limits to the market value of those objects, while the seemingly absurd
ceremony described above shows what can arise when those limits are tested.
Fakes, publicly acknowledged as fakes, can become part of the market if people are interested
enough to buy them. The most well known European faker of primitive art is James Little (1876-
1953), the forger of Maori artifacts. Fuller was a persistent collector of Little's work. In June
1985 Christie's sold two pieces by him in their sale of "Important Tribal Art." One, "an unusual
Maori-style wood bowl," went for £850.33 These fakes seem the ultimate perfection of the
market: they are objects manufactured by Europeans for sale to Europeans; although they speak
of European conceptions of the Other, they have but an art historical connection to foreign
The market engenders a written history of primitive art that reflexively stimulates the market
itself. In the last twenty-five years the publication of numerous books and several journals has
helped establish the study of primitive art and of its history as a respectable sub-discipline.
Employing the language of Western art history (and thus bringing the associated weight and
prestige of that vocabulary in its train), authors now judge certain objects masterpieces; they are
great pieces, ones of good quality, which display "purity of form, simplicity and spontaneity. "34
Invoking the critical terminology of art history helps justify artistic value. The ethnographic
associations and function of an object are ignored for the sake of subjecting it to the formal
analysis of an all-encompassing Western aesthetic. The use of these terms aggravates people's a
historical approach to primitive art for their employment, suggesting that primitive art, like all
other are, can be appreciated by an aesthetic that has pretensions of timelessness and universal
application. (In this essay I underline Western art terms used by participants in order to
emphasize the historically contingent, particular nature of these categories.
Pieces considered authentic by the strictest of collectors' definition may still be thought dubious
because dealers, preferring classical works-pieces established as good early in the history of the
market sometimes question "the authenticity of works that merely tend to differ from the
'archetypes'. .Traders in Africa and Europe are now turning up pieces that markedly diverge from
those conformations of elegance to which our eyes have become schooled by art books, and
which we now accept."35 Also, individual creativity beyond bounds set by Westerners is,
generally, unwanted. An object difficult to categorize can be difficult to sell.
The logical extension of this Western concern for a particular kind of object, one that fits the
aesthetic criteria mentioned above, is the statement by dealers that some modern, deliberate fakes
are so sophisticated that they are much better than originals. A fake is very much a product of its
time. For if every epoch views art in a different light and with new eyes ... [then] a forgery can never
correlate entirely, in its formal apparatus, with the time and space Of its pretended
origin, It far more reflects the taste of the forger's time and the idea of his epoch about
that particular art."36
It is the forgeries of past periods that are more evident than the deliberate fakes of today, which
almost invisibly fit into, and not between, our artistic categories: some dealers, though, do state
that while good modern fakes are difficult to sniff out, some can be identified quickly because
they pander to the pretty. London dealers and appraisers may joke and complain about the
number of fakes of African objects on sale in New York, but it seems that the subsector of the
market with the highest proportion of skillful fakes is North American Indian art, where items
can be artfully "reconstructed" from bits of skin, quill, beads, and European trade cloth.
The growth of this sort of art historical information allows objects to be identified more easily,
grants them pedigrees, gives substance to the notion of style areas, and lends respectability (and
thus confidence) to the developing market. These books are not set within the context of the
market; they become part of it, helping to define its shape. Fledgling dealers can now educate
themselves in an armchair. No dealer or collector mentioned to me any particular book that
influenced them greatly: they all stressed reading widely. If the words borrowed from art history
plus the central metaphors already mentioned (such as soui, power, eye) can be regarded as the
rhetoric of the market, pervasive tropes in terms of which we think of these objects, then
appraisers, dealers, and primitive art historians become the rhetoricians of the marketplace,
choosing pieces that evince these verbal qualities and determining the way we view them.
The effect of exhibitions on the market is difficult to gauge. Several exhibitions were held in
London in the late 1940s.37 Although they received favorable press reviews, none seems to have
influenced the sale of primitive art much. Such shows may make people more aware of these
objects as works of art; they do not automatically get people buying them."38 just as authors can
turn their books to their own advantage-one collector illustrated his one on primitive art with
unusual pieces from his own stock-those he could not sell-so exhibitions can benefit owners
whose pieces are put on display and illustrated in the accompanying catalogue."39 An expensive
piece in an auctioneer's catalogue now almost demands detailed credentials with an account of its
form, its use, and its provenance, a bibliography of references where it is illustrated or its
ethnology discussed, and a list of exhibitions where it was shown. Perhaps this article itself will
be appropriated by marketers. If it cannot become another reference on some object's
provenance, for no objects are illustrated, it may help to boost confidence by showing, at least,
that the market itself is an object worthy of study.
Price is also strongly influenced by fashion. Appraisers say that only the market in contemporary
art is as affected by fashion. Certain types of objects suddenly become much sought after for
short periods until the popularity of some other (available) kind of piece begins to rise. In the
early 1970s, jukun figures sold for high prices. In 1976 Crowley spoke of the recent Luba craze,
and earlier paroxysms over the alleged Tellem figures, Baule weights, Yoruba ibejis, Kuba cups,
and Senufo porpianong birds. No one is certain how fashions arise. As one appraiser said, if he
knew he could make a lot of money. One recognized way, however, is that of the collector who
starts amassing a particular kind of object and purchasing almost every example that comes up
on the market. Dealers, who do not normally buy particular objects for particular collectors
because they find them fickle, start buying pieces to sell to him. As prices rise, other collectors
become interested and so the rise in prices accelerates. In the mid-1970s, Aboriginal objects
from Western Australia were going cheaply. A thin shield cost F I 00 to F 1 50. Then a very big
collector began to buy greedily. Prices have multiplied ten times since (especially for
churingas), all thanks to his initial stimulus. Another recognized way of creating fashion is that
of the collector with many examples of one kind of object who puts one of them into the sales
rooms. He then bids against himself, so pushing the price right up, sometimes to ten times its
former value. This new price level established, he can start to unload his other examples on the
The prestige of one tribe's art can also influence price. Prestige here is marketers' shorthand for
the rich history of art history of these objects and for the history of the high prices they have
reached. Success feeds success. Classical tribes are created. As one dealer said "A Dan piece is
a Dan piece is a Dan piece. It's almost outside fashion." A weak Fang will normally go for more
than a good Yoruba because Yoruba is considered too folksy. People can also expand the market
itself. Some have started to call old objects that were made specifically for sale to Europeans
"early tourist art." Now a subcategory unto itself, this novel class of objects becomes worthy of
study and, therefore, of purchase. In recent years primitive art has come to mean not just objects
but also textiles and furnishings, thanks to the efforts of dealers such as Peter Adler.40 In North
America, indigo and white cloth used by the lower orders of the Asante now costs as much as the
multicolored Kente worn by the elites because indigo and white appeals to decorators who use
them as cheap substitutes for expensive American patchwork quilts (R. Johnson, personal
communication). Fake textiles-modern imitations with no soul or spirit, which are not a product
of Western-approved traditions-are now being fabricated: the market, once opened, is now being
While application of the criteria I have listed (such as rarity, fashion, and dealers' repute) can
contribute to the value of an object, they do not, determine its price. For, ultimately, any sale in
this small market-where the objects are so varied and so variable in price and where so many are
unconfident of what they are buying-is an individual financial arrangement, the result of a
personal interaction between two 41 personalities, the seller and the buyer. Many dealers,
especially those at the expensive end of the market, iterate that there is no fixed price. An object
will sell for what the market will bear. It is simply a case, dealers say, of finding a buyer who
will pay a price they like. 42
The setting that most strikingly reveals, in a concentrated fashion, the present state of the market
is a major auction room at sale time. This collective self presentation includes dealers,
collectors, appraisers buying on commission, and the absent presence of others phoning in. The
numerous, well-dressed spectators and the occasional television crew only augment the sense of
significant event. It is here that one can see, spectacularly displayed, the assembled congregation
transform surplus income into prestigious valuables. It is an arena of competitive individualism
where potential purchasers fight with bids and, sometimes, with fists. People watch who bids
and who buys. The atmosphere excites. The adrenaline flows. Record prices are set.-There is
lust in the room.
The objects themselves, stripped of their original use value and granted exchange value, have
become fetishized commodities, both in the Marxist sense and, as we shall see, in the sense of
the fetishistic relation of an owner with his exotic object. These objects are also investment
commodities, their economic value part of the meaning they bear.43 While the employment of
distinguishing criteria (such as pedigree and provenance) may serve to make a piece of primitive
art more singular, its status as commodity (and hence exchangeable with other commodities)
negates that very effort at singularity.44 It is money, the point of exchange between buyers and
sellers, that mediates their divergent interpretations of the objects and their value.
These objects have been made Western totems distinguishing the primitive art-collecting upper
classes from other social groups. Purchasing primitive art is a socially distinctive act confirming
one's class. Collectors' agonistic speculation in an auction "seals their parity . . . and thus their
collective caste privilege." 45 Training one's eye demands a certain freedom from economic
necessity-a liberty not available to the working classes and so distancing them even further from
appreciators of primitive art.46
The auction over, their value set by their price, the objects become part of collections.
I began this essay on an emotional note: people's desire for objects. I end it with a native
phenomenology of the emotions-committed collectors' comments on the psychology of their own
obsessions. To the serious collectors of the early twentieth century, the hunt was very important:
"The compulsive quality of [Fuller's] devotion to collecting was compelling. To him, the search
was exciting, the discovery fulfilling." 47 Like Fuller, Hooper collected objects until his death;
he "derived enormous pleasure from seeking them out, the act of discovery itself, the fascination
of the elusive bargain and the thrill of its capture." 48 Some dealers today speak of the pleasure
of the quest, but bargains are now much rarer and the search all too often fruitless.
To collectors of primitive art, ethnography is relatively unimportant, except as an adjunct. It is
sufficient that the object comes from a radically different culture. Which culture it comes from
is insignificant to most collectors unless, of course, it was made_ by people famed for the quality
of their objects. To Stewart, ownership of such an exotic object represents distance and time
appropriated, the cultural Other tamed.49
The age, patina, and provenance of an object may increase its associations to a Westerner. But
they do not define its central meaning to a committed collector. Serious collectors admit they
pay more attention to a piece that is highly priced or was once owned by someone renowned for
his eye. But they say they attend to the piece to see if it has some latent aesthetic quality that
justifies its high price or was noticed by its previous owner. Following their argument from
aesthetics, whether an object is fake or not should logically be irrelevant. But most collectors,
mindful of their pockets, do not seek to acquaint themselves with the soul of a forger working for
financial, profane ends.50
Works of primitive art are normally objects, not paintings. They can be touched, fondled, picked
up, and carried around -a series of tactile sensations that many collectors emphasize. Sir Robert
Sainsbury mentions the charge an object can give off, "not unlike a sexual experience." Vincent
Price, a longtime collector, writes of the "feeling that to know and appreciate a work of art
requires repeated touching and in some instances possession."51 Above all, collectors own
objects. They acquire them in order to possess them. This is the pleasure of ownership, of
knowing that an object not just belongs to one but that one is the only person who can repeatedly
touch, feel, and stare at it, so strengthening one's personal relationship with it.
The desire to acquire shades easily into greed, a trait few collectors admit to. One exceptionally
honest collector confessed he could not refuse pieces offered to him if he thought they were both
of good quality and cheap. He emphasized that every collector was motivated by greed and fear;
they suffer the same anxieties as those who play the stock market.,, But most cannot admit that,
to them, economics is as important as aesthetics, for if they did confess, their aesthetic
pretensions would be diminished and they would be despised by their peers, uneasy at such
revelation. Thus, as we have just seen, collectors can justify their avoidance of fakes by
reference to nonfinancial terms, such as soul and mystery.
In Britain serious collectors are rare. They tend to be individuals committed to their pursuit,
although they may also collect other types of art. Unlike collectors of, say, Impressionist
paintings, which can be admired easily by the most visually ignorant of visitors to their homes,
collectors of primitive art have often to endure their visitors' grimaces or squeals of shock when
they see their collection for the first time. Collectors become that much more isolated. They
need the strength of , their aesthetic convictions if they are to continue their eccentric pursuit. 53
Collectors and most dealers (many of whom are collectors who started dealing in order to
support their habit) stress that one must love the subject, that one must have the courage to pay a
high price for an object that one believes in. (The number of fakes on the market only raises the
stakes.) To these people collecting is a passion. Many dealers say that they buy for themselves.
Some are even unprepared to have to persuade potential purchasers to buy an object. "If they've
no eye and no interest in the stuff," said one, "I'm not interested in them." Generally, participants
in this market state that their devotion is greater than that of dealers and collectors in other types
of art and that the personal, emotional experience an object gives them is more important to them
than it is to collectors of fine art. Hooper confessed to "a sense of mission."54 Veteran
collectors remember that many dealers in the 1940s and 1 950s were very generous and gave
extremely easy terms of credit. These dealers thought that primitive art deserved to be promoted,
that they had to encourage potential collectors if these objects were to be generally recognized as
works of art. It was almost a vocation.
Serious collectors collect over time. They start ignorant and slowly learn. Their taste changes as
their eye develops and as they themselves change. Many collectors, bored by some of their
pieces (not their best objects), sell them to buy new objects from which they can gain further
experience. To some this continuing refinement of taste is a spiritual process, a form of
selfknowledge mediated by objects. Keggie thought the best pieces feed the spirit. Fagg argues,
"All [collectors) are surely, embarked in some sense upon a journey towards the liberation
through art of the human spirit."55 To Nelson Rockefeller, his collection was "an enrichening
experience and a balance to the pressures of business and politics-a constant source of spiritual
refreshment and strength." 56 On this reading, primitive art becomes therapy, soul food for
Love, touch, greed, fear, courage, passion, ownership, belief, devotion, taste, spirit,
psychological charge, emotion (akin to sexual thrill), self-knowledge, the spending of one's own
money: the whole personality is involved in serious collecting.57 The collection expresses its
collector's personality, for he is no visionless accumulator, no mere magpie. He makes
individual objects part of a greater whole-the collection-and this is but an aspect of himself.
These appropriated items, recategorized according to his own personal mythology, become the
specimens and trophies of his cultural hunt.58 Chosen, then juxtaposed in a way decided by him,
these objects lose their individuality in that of the collector. By their contiguity they collectively
become his creation, an advertisement of his power of selection. Given seriality by their
collector, they now become pieces "from the collection of X." Collections, despite the
pretensions of their owners, are not atemporal creations: whiie a collector may be an independent
personality, he still thinks in the categories of his time. But the fetishistic power of the relation
between collector and collected can threaten to become symmetrical. The collection
appropriates its collector, its creator is overtaken by his own creation, which both possesses him
and is possessed by him. The owner and his objects become the home of a decentered self.
Little wonder, then, that some strive for immortality by having museums specially built for their
collections.59 Their vision will live. Fagg, speaking of the collector Katherine Reswick,
mentions "the extraordinary dynamics, the dynamism, of collection and collector alike-for they
have become one as no others that I have seen." 60 Reswick confesses that her collection
"absorbs, nearly controls me through self-curiosity, aesthetic restlessness, and above all the
ineradicable desire to live immersed in beautiful things. It is a hunger. . . . Omnivorous, a little
mad, I live among the game trails of circumstance." 61
It is, at least, reassuring to remember that, just as many rituals outlast their interpretations, so
most objects outlive their collectors. They can await further owners, the fabrication of further
1 . I thank the following for their generous help: Peter Adleril David Attenborough, Ian Auld,
Nigel Barley, Lance Entwistle,William Fagg, Robero Fainello, Werner Gillon, Phillip Goldman,
Josef Herman, Angela Hescott, John Hewett, Laiek and David Holzer, Tim Hunt, Antony Jack,
the late James Keggie, T. F. Lemaire, Malcolm McLeod, Jonathan Mankowitz, Ernest Ohley,
Hermione Waterfield, and Monica and Peter Wengraff. Ragnar Johnson and Francesco Pellizzi
made informative comments on draft versions. I first learnt of how the market operates in a
series of conversations with Tessa Fowler. This is the first report of an envisaged wider study of
the international market in primitive art-a market that is international in both its networks and
price precedents. Although I restrict myself arbitrarily to the British market, I think many of the
points made also apply to the market outside Britain.
2. J. Clifford, "Histories of the Tribal and the Modern," in Art in America, April 1985: 164-177.
3. S. Phelps, Art and Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa and the Americas: the James Hooper
Collection, London 1976: 13.
4. In R. W. Force and M. Force, The Fuller Collection of Pacific Artefacts, London, 1971: vi.
5. P. Gatfiercole, "Obstacles to the study of Maori carving: the collector, the connoisseur, and the
faker," in M. Greenhalgh and V. Megaw, eds., Art in Society: studies in style, culture and
aesthetics, London, 1978, pp. 275-288: 283.
6. 1 use the term primitive art throughout this article because it has become the standard in the
literature. Tribal art-a modern euphemism-reflects the same public ignorance and causes the
same semantic problems. Of course, the adjective in primitive art applies as much to its
classifiers as to the objects it classes. On the changing content of this term, see W. Rubin,
"Modernist Primitivism: an Introduction," in W. Rubin, ed., "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art,
New York, 1985, vol. 1: 1-84.
7. Ohley ran the Berkeley Gallery in the West End; Wengraff had the Arcade Gallery off Bond
Street; Meier had a shop in Cecil's Court, almost opposite tl-ie National Gallery.
8. For the lesser sale rooms (steven's, Glendinning's, Puttock and Simpson's), objects had to be
submitted only four days before a sale. The catalogue was printed that night and issued the next
morning. Sotheby's and Christie's, who sold much less primitive art, demanded that objects be
given them a month before the sale.
9. As one dealer said, "A whimsical buyer may not buy much, but you can get a lot of whimsical
buyers." And is whimsy our ignorant term for a variety of motives, difficult to ascertain, hard to
10. But to some collectors this was their point. Epstein wrote that the object and inspiration of
most African art objects was "religion." These objects were deliberately direct and simplified in
manner in order to produce feelings of awe and fear (in The Sculptor Speaks, London, 1 946:
90). Also, the British artist Edward Paolozzi mentions that in the postwar years "most people in
England were just not interested in carvings from Africa and the Pacific and art students were
rarely, if ever, encouraged to go and look at such things" (in Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six
Paper Moons from Nahuatl, An Exhibition at the Museum of Mankind, London, 1985: 9).
11. See 1. Cooper, Under the Hammer: The Auctions and Auctioneers of London, London, 1977;
F. Herrmann, Sotheby's: Portrait of an Auction House, London, 1 980. I do not include any of the
graphs produced by The Tirnesl Sotheby's Art Indexes: these statistics may have lent credence to
the idea of art as a sound financial investment, but they are essentially rhetorical devices
suggesting that mathematical formality can be applied to a nonformal subject-people's decision to
buy and sell.
12. See G. Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste, vols. 1-111, London, 1960, 1963, 1970; R.
Hughes, "On Art and Money," in The New York Review of Books, 6 Dec. 1984: 20-27, for
details of this transformation and its reasons. Although primitive art is now accepted as art by
most curators and directors of national art galleries, the British Customs Excise Department still
holds a more old-fashioned view. "Works of art" are not subject to duty. But British Customs do
not consider primitive art as "works of art." Dealers importing primitive art must call them
"collectors' items of ethnographic interest" if they are to avoid paying duty on them.
13. 1 have decided not to discuss the illegal aspects of the market. Although an inquisitive
anthropologist hears many stories about theft, the manufacture of fakes, and the illegal
importation of items, these tales are difficult to check and dangerous to quote.
14, One dealer said that what is sold in London in a year is equal to what is sold in New York in
15. Of course, serious American collectors are not included in these generalizations, African
Arts, the most widely circulated American journal in primitive art, is read by people with an
average age of forty-four years. Sixty-three percent of its readers have an income between
$2S,000 and $40,000. Seventy percent of them have university education beyond the B.A.
Teachers and educators form the most numerous single occupational group among its readers,
followed by professionals (doctors, lawyers, dentists).
16. The idea that objects should be bought "back" for the sake of "national pride" because they
are part of that nation's "treasures" is, of course, a modern Western notion based on the
nineteenth-century European conception of "nation."
17. However, important objects from Eastern and Central European museums have appeared on
the market. These museums, for instance Budapest and Dresden, sold in order to buy things they
did not have.
18. The auction-house concealed the fact that there was no buyer prepared to bid above the
reserve by "buying" the object itself. This is one of the strategies used by the auction-houses to
maintain the myth that prices are constantly rising-a necessary tactic if investors are not to lose
faith in the market. (see B. Burnham, The Art Crisis, London, 1975, esp. pp, 191-213.)
19, W. Fagg in W. Gillon, Collecting African Art, London, 1979: viii.
20. S. Phelps, op. cit.: io.
21. F. Willett, African Art: An lntroductioi), London, 1971: 40.
22. S. Vogel, "Bringing African Art to the Metropolitan Museuni," in African Arts, February
1982, XV, no. 2, pp. 38-45: 40.
23. Bourdieu, speaking of art in general, states, "Everything seems to suggest that even among
professional valuers, the criteria which define the stylistic properties of the 'typical works' on
which all their judgments are based usually remain implicit" (in Distinction: A Social Critique of
the judgement of Taste, London, [I 9791 1 985: 4).
24. Some American collectors speak of an object's rightness.
25.One could quote, ironically, the words of Clive Bell in 1922 about primitive art: Here is no
question of dates and schools to give the lecturer his chance of spoiling our pleasure. Here is
nothing to.distract our attention from the one thing that matters-aestheti@,significance. Here is
nigger sculpture: you may like it or dislike it',@but at any rate you have no inducement to judge
it on anything 66t its merits. (from Since C6zanne, London, p. 1 2 1)
26."The Vincent Price Collection," in African Arts, winter 1972, pp. 20-27: 22.
27. The same occurs with the work of medieval masters-"tl)e primitives" and for some eminent
28. M. McLeod, "Paolozzi and Identity," in Paolozzi, op. cit., pp. 15-59: 46.
29. W. Rubin, op. cit.: 17.
30. This discussion about the created opposition between genuine and fake is indebted to the
(sometimes lengthy) replies printed in African Arts, April 1976, IX, no. 3, to @ questionnaire
about fakes that the journal sent to important dealers, collectors, and curators.
31. F, Willett, "True or False? The False Dichotomy," in African Arts, April 1976, IX, no. 3, pp.
32. The market does now include objects from a few particular primitive genres that have
developed because of contact with the West, for instance, the great flourishing of the Navaho
33. Dealers in fine art speak of schools; dealers in primitive art speak of styles.
34. W, Gillon, op. cit.: 33. In Sotheby's and Christie's catalogues pieces may be called very fine,
rare, unusual, or classical works, uncontaminated by expatriate influence. They may have
sculptorly qualities, a sensitive face, and a good worn creamy patina, or maybe a crusty
sacrificial dark rich one.
35. R. P. Armstrong, "Sorts of Collectors," in African Arts, IX, no. 3, p. 30.
36. Z. Velavka, "The Fight against Forgery," in African Arts, IX, no. 3, pp. 63-65: 65.
37. "40,000 Years of Modern Art," at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in 1 948;
"Traditional Art of the British Colonies," at the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1949;
"Traditional Art from the Colonies," at the Imperial Institute in 1951. William Ohley staged
seven exhibitions of primitive art in his gallery between 1945 and 1951.
38. The opening of the Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was expected to
stimulate a wave of collecting, but prices in the following auctions were not appreciably higher.
The exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art," in
late 1 984 was similarly expected to increase interest in primitive art, and one or two New York
dealers state that a few people, after visiting the exhibition, did begin buying primitive art for the
first time. But the May 1 985 sale in New York of the Robert Plat Armstrong collection showed
no great change in public interest: art collectors whose interest in the primitive had just been
awoken by the exhibition were not yet prepared to spend big money.
39. The Museum of mankind no longer includes objects from private collections in its shows
because too often the object was sold at a greatly increased price very shortly after the exhibition
closed. In November 1978, African Arts abandoned its policy of using photographs of objects
from private collections. Its editor confessed, "it is with bitter regret that I contemplate how our
innocence was manipulated to provide startlingly aggrandized re-evaluations of art pieces" (XIII,
no. 1: 6).
40. In 1983 Peter Adler, a successful London-based dealer, was finding it more and more
difficult to discover good pieces of primitive art that were not prohibitively expensive. So he
diversified and started buying textiles and household objects. He soon built up a stock because
other dealers, learning of his new interest but thinking him rnad, passed on to him any items they
had or were offered. He informed African runners of his change in interest and on their
succeeding visits they began to bring him the sorts of objects and cloth he wanted. in early 1984
he held a show at the Wengraff's Arcade Gallery. Very little sold. Adler thought the show had
flopped because only established collectors had been invited to the exhibition. Later that year he
encouraged Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York to hold an auction of textiles and furniture, using
mainly his collection. To Adler, selling these objects through Sotheby's was the best way of
promoting these objects, the prestige of the famous auction-house lending respectability to this
new category of goodsespecially important for the American market because Americans, he
thought, were particularly ignorant of textiles: they had not had a chance of looking at them
seriously before. The sale was deliberately aimed at decorators, designers, collectors of
contemporary art, and people in the music business (mainly friends and acquaintances of Adler, a
successful pop musician). Although the original intention to advertise the sale in contemporary
art journals and in designers' and decorators' journals was not in the end fulfilled, a
correspondent for the New York Times did write a long article about African textiles which was
published the Saturday before the sale ' . Many came to the special viewing on the Sunday and
the sale itself was a great success: stools that had sold for f3O in 1983 went for f 100 to f4OO.
Adler is now writing articles on African textiles for two prestigious decorators' magazines.
41. Appraisers, trying to assess an object's worth, will check through their detailed records of all
major auctions in the last few decades to learn how similar objects have sold. Often, however,
the piece is sufficiently individual that past prices provide no reliable guide, or is sufficiently
rare that very few like it have come up for sale in recent years. Appraisers stress the volatility of
the market and its relatively small size. They say that one can predict quite accurately how much
an eighteenth-century miniature, for instance, will go for; but in primitive art the price is much
more difficult to estimate.
42. The purchaser of the Fijian oil bowl at the North Country sale sold it to a successful London
dealer for over f2O,OOO. His peers thought him extremely rash to pay so much and that he
would be unable to find a buyer. But there are only five such bowls in the world. Three are
already in museums and the fourth is already bequeathed to a museum. The dealer did find a
buyer among his wealthy clients, and he sold it to him for four times what he had paid.
43. The second reaction of most visitors to my room, on seeing the Melanesian objects leaning
against one wall, was to ask how much they would sell for. Their first reaction was most often a
44. L. Kopytoff, "The Cultural Biography of Things," in A. Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of
Things, London, 1986, pp. 64-91: 81.
45. Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis, 119721 1981:
117. Museums act as guarantees for these socially restricted exchanges: they "play the role of
banks in the political economy of (primitive art)" (ibid.: 122).
46. P. Bourdieu, "Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception," International Social
Sciences journal, 20, 1968, no. 4, pp. 589-612.
47. R. W. Force and M. Force, op. cit.: 14.
48. S. Phelps, op. cit.: 10.
49. S. Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the
collection, Baltimore, 1984: 1 46. Stewart quotes Baudrillard, who suggests, in Le Systi@me
des Objets, that an exotic object fascinates by its anteriority, which links it to the analogously
anterior world of the childhood of the object's owner.
50. One serious collector, concerned with the educative value of primitive art, says that he cannot
"learn" from fakes: "They bear a false witness" (D. Attenborough, Tribal Encounters, Leicester,
51."The Vincent Price Collection" op. cit.: 21.
52.It is worth noting that greed turns easily into theft. But, as I said, I do not explore the illegal
aspects of the market.
53. The comments of a correspondent to a conservative British magazine about the prize lot in
Christie's June 1 985 sale reveal the persistence of these uneducated attitudes: Rather to my
surprise, the adjective used to describe the bowl, not only by Christie's learned cataloguer but by
other specialists, is "superb", as if it is to be compared with the Parthenon or Michelangelo's
Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. How wide a gulf there is between the dedicated
anthropologist and people like myself. It is, nonetheless, a carving of exceptional quality as these
barbarous objects go. (from Country Life, 1 5 August 1 985, pp. 442-43). It is not just
conservative art collectors who ignore primitive art. When burglars recently raided the home of
one London collector, they stole all his antique wooden boxes. They did not remove the set of
valuable African ivory lions he had left on the dining-room table.
54.S. Phelps, op. cit.: 13.
55.W. Fagg, in W. Gillon, op, cit.: viii.
56. "Introduction," in D. Newton, Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller
Collection, New York, 1978, pp. 19-25: 25.
57. Stewart argues that collectors necessarily experience nostalgia: "For the nostalgic to reach his
or her goal of closing the gap between resemblance [of objects in the collection] and identity,
lived experience would have to take place.... an experience which would cancel out the desire
that is nostalgia's reason for existence" (op. cit.: 145).
58. S. Stewart, ibid.: 147. One woman said her collection was as important to her as her
children. One New York collector has pieces of colonial art on his sitting-room mantelpiece as a
witty, humorous contrast to his collection of serious objects, which he keeps in his library. Each
piece of the Raymond Wielgus collection "is part of an overall association, linked together by the
overriding sensibility of the owner" ("The Raymond Wielgus Collection," African Arts, winter
1972, pp. 50-55: 50).
59. See, for instance, "A Private Passion for Art," in Newsweek, June 15, 1987, pp. 50-51.
60. W. Fagg, African Tribal Images: The Katherine Reswick Collection, Cleveland, 1968: xiii.
61. K. W. Reswick, "Preface," ibid., pvii-xi: xi.