|Photos: Tom Carraway
As originally published in "Art & Auction" Feb 1984
|Religious content [in the wider sense of pointing beyond itself to the realms of ultimate
concern] may . . . well be the reason why emotionally we prefer African tribal sculpture to other
forms of primitive art which we admire without wanting them for permanent companions, "wrote
Ernst Anspach in 1967 at the time that his and his wife Ruth's collection was exhibited at the
Museum of Primitive Art in New York. According to the standards of many of today's collectors,
Anspach's rationale for collecting is an odd one: he doesn't do it for prestige, nor for
investment, nor — apparently — does he live for the day a museum will name a wing after him.
As a student of theology, philosophy, sociology and economics, Anspach (who is a lawyer by
profession) finds in African sculpture both a focus for and an extension of his other intellectual
pursuits. He is the kind of collector whom scholars adore, even if (and despite the fact that his
first 60 pieces came from dealers J.J. Klejman and Julius Carlbach) some dealers do not.
And the sentiments are — most emphatically — reciprocated.
— George Nelson Preston
ART & AUCTION: You didn't start out as a collector of African art, did you?
ERNST ANSPACH: No, I had sculptures mainly by Barlach, Kolbe, Maillol, Archipenko, Calder. I
still have some things. I have that painting by Gabriele Miinter. But I couldn't go on collecting
all of them and African as well. I had to give up something. Besides, I found myself in a difficult
position. Much of the contemporary art stopped saying something to me, and if it doesn't have
meaning for me, I can't collect it. Moreover, I couldn't help having the suspicion that for every
innovator there were dozens who were of technical capability, but who felt, "If this sells, I can
make it." So much of it started becoming art made for sale. Meanwhile, in its absence of a
market orientation, African art began to appeal more and more to me.
What was the first African piece you bought?
My very first piece was a Bambara antelope, a doe with a little buck standing on her back. It
was in 1956, and I bought it half on a whim. My son had just been born, and I bought it as a
gift for my wife, so at that time it was rather symbolic. I had seen these pieces before, but the
time was right. A Bambara antelope is easier for Western taste to digest, it's more accessible
to our taste than, say, my dearly beloved Songe fetish. But I would certainly not have bought
the Songe as a first piece — not at that time! But even if it was for the wrong reasons, the
Bambara was easier for me to live with and, eventually, it allowed me to see more difficult
pieces. It was a gradual process, not a conversion like Saul on the way to Damascus.
What was it about African art that appealed so strongly to you?
It was certainly the expressiveness and dynamism of the pieces and their impact on me. And
because of my background in social and political science, I was intrigued by the interplay of
aesthetics, social control cum religion expressed in African art which seemed to pre-date the
arbitrary separateness of the wholeness of human experience that Western culture
introduced. But I have another idea. It may be totally cockeyed, but when I started I had pre-
Columbian. Luristan and Oceanic, but like the modern an, they too were eliminated. I like the
aesthetics of pre-Columbia and Oceanic, so why did I make the switch? My reason may be no
more than a rationalization, but my hunch is that I believe —like my teacher Paul Tillich —that
all good art is religious. Although much of religious art is neither art nor religious. I'm not
talking about subject matter. I'm talking about the spiritual which is the dimension that cannot
be ex¬plained by cognitive reasoning. I think what got me about African art was its expression
of the affirmative of life and of life's forces. There are some exceptions, of course, but that's
what is basic to African religion fitting into my own belief that creation is essentially good, even
if existentially corrupted. Pre-Columbian and Oceanic is to me rather playful or cruel in its
context, and although I can admire these sentiments —I can live without them.
Which are the pieces you can't live without?
Many of them are on that wall. I spend a good deal of my sitting time at home in my favorite
easy chair facing that wall. My favorite "Janus" Songe, that Ba Vili mask, that Fang mask. I
wanted pieces on that wall that had a strong impact. The things on this wall are as important to
me as the ones on the highboy in the bedroom, which are the first pieces I see when I wake up
and are particularly important if I don't get up in my best mood. I can see the pieces on that
wall without getting up. Both the BaVili and Fang masks came from Carlbach. In fact, when I
first saw the Fang I felt it was alive, but Carlbach assured me it had been dead for as long as
he'd had it in this country. Ten years. But I realized that as dearly as I loved it for itself, I fell in
love with it for the wrong reason. It reminds me of the head of a Romanesque Christ.
How have you gone about your collecting?
In America, collecting remains a hobby, and hobbies aren't quite serious. But although I've
been in this country since 1936, and consider myself a good American, I haven't entirely
shaken the influence of my formative years in Germany, and part of that is the fortunate —or
unfortunate —habit of the country of my birth where if you do something, you do it seriously.
Even play is a kind of half-play in that sense. So from the very beginning, although I wanted to
follow my own taste. I had contacts with museum and university people. Much more so than
with other collectors. Not that I don't often appreciate what other collectors say and do. But I
have worked at creating a background that would permit me to buy spontaneously.
|Anspach illustrates the influence of African sculpture on modern Western artists,
such as Brancusi, with his Congo-Kinshasha "contemplative" female figure with
What have you observed about the collecting — and collectors — of African art in
the time that you yourself have been involved?
Helena Rubinstein was a great collector. The Rubinstein sales [at Parke-Bernet in
1966] were to the African market what the Cognacq sale was to modern art in the
1950s. Rubinstein was a great collector who also had inferior material, however,
because she was, you know, a pack-rat. But she also had a good eye, and, in
people like F.H. Lem, she had good sources of supply. She obtained an astounding
number of good pieces when lots of them were available. And she collected from
honesty and love. But I do not respect Rubinstein as a collector to the extent I
respect [Paul S.] Wingert, who collected from great love and great knowledge, and
[Katherine White] Reswick, who had knowledge, great enthusiasm, and wasn't
influenced by what other collectors would think of her collection. And although they
collected at a time when a mistake wasn't likely to bankrupt you, all these people —
if not, perhaps, for the same reasons —were secure in their decision-making.
|In the nearly thirty years that he has been collecting African sculpture, Ernst
Anspach has had as many as 1,000 objects. Today, the collection numbers 552,
including gold weights — down from 563 a year ago. "I'd like to get down to 400,"
he says. One of his favorite pieces is his much beloved Songe "Janus" fetish, which
many visitors to his home find difficult to look at directly, so powerful is the spirit
which inhabits it. Anspach, on the other hand, can stare at it for hours on end.
Has collecting changed very much in the time since those people formed their
I think the difference is the degree of ens relationship to their collections. There are
some young collectors who seem to be collecting for all the right reasons, with no
ulterior purposes. Many of the newer collectors collect from love. Some to be avant
garde, or because compared to other fields it is still relatively easy to build a
collection. And if they could spend a few million dollars, they could finally get their
museum exhibit which would establish them as great collectors. Many of the rich
people who collect art are also very busy. It takes less time to write a check, you
know, than it takes to acquire true knowledge of the material. They are rather more
willing to pay for expertise than to acquire it.
Do you avoid other collectors?
If I do, it has something to do with that situation peculiar to collecting primitive art
which I do not fully understand. The amount of competitiveness in African art
collectors is unbelievable! There is a franticness in wanting people to see their
collections, and to reciprocate. I wouldn't mind seeing other peoples' collections —
and I wouldn't mind their seeing mine. But I prefer to have them walk around
unaccompanied by me because I certainly do not want to do to them what has so
often been done to me, which is to explain the merits of every piece, almost forcing
me to find a piece which I might think is only all right, and describe it as sensational!
There seem to be very few collectors who are secure in their own judgment and are
willing to sink or swim in that judgment. Other collectors' approval doesn't interest me
a great deal — but it seems to interest them a great deal. I am, however, always
interested in the expert opinion of a scholar, and I can always be convinced that my
judgment has been wrong.
Your Igala bronze pectoral mask is certainly not something most collectors would risk
buying on their own — it's so odd. Yet when you brought this home you were sure it
was authentic. I remember your saying., "It feels right."
Aren't you the one who told me that if a piece gives you the right "vibrations," it's
right? As for the "surface criteria" —as you would put it —the piece comes from an
old French collection. It was mistakenly labelled "Yoruba," circa 1830. It is actually
Igala or Idoma, because stylistically it belongs further East. I had never seen a bronze
so technically everything a casting should be. Somewhat idiosyncratic even, at that.
But it has the "spirit" of the Eastern Nigerian region. [Arnold] Reuben, [William] Fagg,
and [Roy] Sieber corroborated the "feeling," and pronounced it authentic.
It is what I would call an "Anspach piece. "A dealer might call it that too, in the hopes
of acquiring it from you and then enhancing its sale by saying it came from you.
Many dealers would use that phrase denigratingly. But I think to make my collection
valuable from that point of view I've got to die first, because as long as I live it's very
difficult for me to sell because since I supposedly know something people will always
be afraid that if I'm willing to let go of a piece I've got a damn good reason for it, and
that the reason goes beyond the fact that I might need some change.
You've said that once you have good pieces, they tend to drive out the bad ones.
It's a reversal of Gresham's Law —I'm an economist, after all. But I didn't quite mean
it the way you think. What I mean by good pieces driving out bad ones refers to my
earlier collecting years when once in a while a doubtful piece, or a piece that looked
O.K. enough to take home turned out not to be as I had first perceived it when I saw it
next to the pieces I had already acquired. I do have very humble pieces to which I am
attached emotionally — I rather playfully bought a couple of Baules, a couple of
Dogons and Bambaras. And that there are more impressive or important pieces does
not bother me.
Have you ever bought a fake?
Oh, yes. I remember buying an Oceanic fake which I never would have spotted until
an expert [Douglas Newton] explained to me what was wrong with it. On another
occasion I took a piece on approval. It was a very exciting ivory piece with many
Songe characteristics, but the more I looked at it the more nervous I got. Fagg came
by and I told him of my misgivings inspite of my excitement. He asked, "Are you sure
you don't want to keep the piece?" I said "Yes." He then explained that the piece
was a work of a Belgian carver who did not want to produce fakes at all, but who was
just fascinated by African forms. He didn't intend to deceive anybody. He carved in
tribal styles, and like tribal artists he would make subtle changes. In this case he
had decided Songe eyes were not particularly attractive so he gave it the eyes of a
neighboring tribe. It was a very pretty piece —but it was not even African!
|Another article that appeared right after the interview was called:
Collecting Primitive Art
"It is [thus not] surprising that the first wholehearted admiration for the arts of primitive
cultures came from outside the academy," wrote the late Robert Goldwater in his
catalogue introduction to the Metropolitan Museum's 1969 exhibition "Art of Oceania,
Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art." "The so-called 'discovery'
of African sculpture about 1905 by Matisse, Picasso, Kirchner, Kandinsky and their
col¬leagues was later extended by other artists to encompass the very different
qualities of Oceanic and pre-Columbian art," he continued. Prior to this century, relics
of primitive civilizations were perceived as the products of conservative societies
whose arts lacked a history of forms. They were considered curiosities first,
ethnographica second. As early as the sixteenth century, the German artist Albrecht
Diirer lamented the melting down in to bullion of pre-Columbian gold sculpture
(considered idolatrous by the Catholic Spanish conquerers). Even the omnivorous
collecting activities of Captain Cook's expeditions in the South Pacific (and those that
followed, which brought so much fine Oceanic material to England) are today viewed
as a product of European encyclopaedism. "It was his way of life, and not his 'art' that
was admired," Dr. Roy Sieber, associate director of the Smithsonian's American
Museum of African Art, once observed.
Roger Fry. a student of early Italian renaissance painting, champion of the post-
impressionists and, briefly, curator of paintings of the Metropolitan Museum, wrote
about African art in Vision and Design (1920), "I have to admit that some of these
things are great sculpture, greater than anything we produced even in the middle
ages. They have complete plastic freedom." In his essays, Fry discussed primitive art
in western formal language, comparing it to ancient Greek, Romanesque, Chinese
and Indian art. His work provided the impetus by which primitive art was moved out of
the natural history museums and ultimately into museums of fine art —the 1935
exhibition "Primitive Art" at the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New-York was,
in its way, the result of his efforts. Like Fry before him, Paul S. Wingert, an historian
of French renaissance sculpture, insisted that the products of pre-literate. pre-
industrial peoples must be acknowledged as art, and studied as such. In his books
Arts of the South Seas (written with Rene d'Harnoncourt and Miguel Covarrubias.
1946), American Indian Sculpture (1949), and The Sculpture of Negro Africa (1950),
Wingert opened the way for the first university courses in primitive art (at Columbia
University), and ultimately to the establishment in 1957 of the Museum of Primitive Art
in New York. That museum's incorporation into the Metropolitan Museum (the Michael
Rockefeller Wing) signifies better than anything the position of primitive art in the
world of art today.
THE AFRICAN ART MARKET
The history of collecting African art — as art — is relatively recent, and with the
exception of the artist-writer intelligentsia was still uncommon as late as the 1930s
when people like Clark and Frances Stillman (whose collection is now in the Dallas
Museum of Art) started collecting Congo art in Brussels under the guidance of Frans
Olbrechts (then a young professor of anthropology at the University of Ghent, who
was later to write the pioneering Plastiek van Kongo). Gustave and Franyo Schindler
(whose collection, coincidentally, is also in the Dallas Museum) began to buy African
sculpture only after a return trip to their native Germany in the late 1940s.
The boom in African art can be dated to 1966 when Parke-Bernet in New York sold
the collections of cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein in a wildly successful series of
sales. Rubinstein's collections were assembled by first-rate students of Sudanic
cultures, such as F.H. Lem and venerable French and Belgian dealers, and buying at
the Rubinstein sales was practically fool-proof. One couldn't underpay, one couldn't
overpay, one couldn't buy a fake or an object without a pedigree. The only thing one
could do wrong was not to buy at all. For the first time, African wooden sculpture
realized prices in the five figures.
Confusion, however, reigned for some time after the Rubinstein sales, as African
"runners" flooded the market with inferior objects which they sold out of suitcases in
flea-bag hotels. At the same time, more serious and scholarly dealers like Merton
Simpson and Alfred Scheinberg — the successors to the great pioneer dealers J J.
Klejman and Julius Carlbach, tapped the fine old European collections for more
distinguished objects which they sold to America's new collectors. By this time the
source for African art was not Africa. Wholesale destruction and natural disintegration
of fragile materials through extreme climatic conditions and insect infestation depleted
the treasures; pillage by European colonial expeditionary forces in the last century
carried whatever was left that was portable to the West. England, thus, became rich
in Yoruba, Nigerian, Ghanaian and Sierra Leonian art (much of which is now in the
British Museum); Belgium gained art from the Congo (Tervuren Museum); and
France, art from the Ivory Coast, Gabon and the West Sudan (Musee d l'Homme,
Paris). In the 1970s the African market expanded still more when contemporary
galleries — like Pace in New York — began to organize some important didactic
exhibitions, and to sell African art to a clientele already accustomed to paying modern
art prices. The juxtaposition of modern and primitive art that we so often find in
collections today, of course has its roots in the early modern artist's appreciation of
and response to the primitive forms. The Museum of Modern Art is planning an
exhibition for next fall, "Primitivism in Modern Art," which will document these
relationships. Curiously, collectors of more difficult contemporary art have found that
the presence of primitive art seems to "authenticate" the other.
Some sense of the amazing growth of the market can be demonstrated through the
ex¬ample of sales of African bronzes (which — particularly those from the kingdom of
Benin —have received much attention since their discovery by the West in the late
nineteenth century). In 1956, a Lower Niger bronze figure of a hunter carrying an
antelope (now in the British Museum) was sold at Sotheby's in London for £650 —a
good price, perhaps, then, but modest by later standards. In 1978, Sotheby's sold a
bronze female figure holding a vessel from the collection of George Ortiz (which Ortiz
had identified as being by the same hand as the British Museum's example), for
£120,000 ($222,000). Sotheby's, in 1980, sold a circa 1600 Benin bronze plaque of a
warrior chief with retainers for £180,000 ($423,000). Sculpture from any civilization,
including our own, has rarely sold for such prices — Henry Moore and Giacometti
|This elephant mask is featured in "The Art of Cameroon," through April 1 (1984)
at Washington's National Museum of Natural History.
|At Sotheby's London in 1978 this Lower Niger bronze from the George Ortiz
collection sold for £120,000 ($222,000).