The tribal art market in France has survived Macron’s restitution policy. Can it survive the changing tastes of a new generation?

After French President Emmanuel Macron decided to return 26 bronze artifacts looted from Benin during colonial times, uncertainty persisted as to the impact this would have on France’s leadership position in the classic African, Oceanic and American art.

This week, Christie’s raised concerns about how this might affect the private collection, as it declared its “highest annual turnover” for the category totaling 73.3 million euros (82.9 million euros). of dollars). This is largely explained by the sale of the collection of the late French dealer Michel Périnet in June, which generated 66.1 million euros ($ 74.6 million), and its category auction on 2 December for 6.2 million euros ($ 7 million).

These results would indicate that Paris will retain its reputation as the historic center of this market, even if a new generation of collectors emerges with different tastes from the baby boomers who cemented it. However, while the market is strong for rare and quality coins, small items of minor importance struggle to find buyers.

Statue of Uli, Aire Mandak, New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea. Image courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021.

“Our sales in 2021 were very successful with a combined sale rate of 91% sold by lot and 99% by value,” Alexis Maggiar, African and Oceanic art specialist at Christie’s, told Artnet News. “While the Michel Périnet Collection has entered the history of the art market, the remarkable results of December 2 show the strength of the market and underline the passionate know-how of our team, offering exceptional pieces. Paris is the historic market place and the exceptional results obtained clearly demonstrate its attractiveness.

The December sale sold for 73% by lot, led by a statue of Uli, Mandak area, from Papua New Guinea which brought in 1.8 million euros in the estimate ($ 2 million) (final prices include buyers’ premium, but not pre-sale estimates). The piece had impressive provenance, having belonged to the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart, to leading tribal art dealers Roberta and Lance Entwistle, and later to collectors Nancy and Murray Frum. The result illustrates the growing interest in Oceanic art in recent years. According to a recent report published by Artkhade, Oceania was the second most profitable region for tribal arts last year (after Africa but ahead of the Americas and Asia). Next is an Ndoma Baulé mask, attributed to “Master Rubinstein” of Côte d’Ivoire which more than tripled its low estimate of € 300,000 ($ 338,000) to reach € 920,000 ($ 1 million), claiming the continued attraction of masks.

“The Uli figurine is an icon of oceanic art and one of the last masterpieces of New Ireland still in private hands, while the Baulé mask is a rediscovered masterpiece, never before seen on the market. and is exactly what the greatest collectors are looking for: quality, rarity and beauty, ”said Maggiar. Christie’s presented the sale alongside its design sale, attracting collectors from 23 countries. This curatorial and transversal approach is part of a strategy launched a few years ago to juxtapose tribal art with contemporary and modern art and design to attract new collectors and stimulate their curiosity.

Asked about the impact of the restitution of Beninese bronzes from the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum on the market, Maggiar replied: “no impact”. Other experts interviewed by Artnet News further believed that the market for coins that have been legitimately traded rather than looted has not been negatively affected.

Lucas Ratton Gallery, Lalanne Exhibition May-June 2021. Photo © Aurélien Chauvaud.

Lucas Ratton Gallery, Lalanne Exhibition May-June 2021. Photo © Aurélien Chauvaud.

Sotheby’s sale on November 30 delivered a moderate total of 2 million euros ($ 2.3 million), at the lower end of its pre-sale estimate of 2 to 3 million euros (2.3 to $ 3.4 million), with just 42% of much attracting buyers. The best lot was a Sénufo tugubele figurine from Côte d’Ivoire, which sold for € 339,200 ($ 382,669), exceeding its high estimate of € 180,000 ($ 203,065), followed by a Songye headrest. of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which reached one euro in the estimate. 252,000 ($ 284,291) Sotheby’s declined to comment on the results.

The fact that unimportant pieces have not found a taker reflects the demographic and generational evolution of the market, believes Nicolas Rolland, a tribal arts dealer on the left bank. “The baby boomers who were very passionate about collecting works from the African continent in the 1970s and 1980s, and went to all the fairs and galleries and read a lot, are now old or dead, and people entering the market have a more superficial look or aesthetic approach, ”he said.

“They may be able to afford a very expensive piece of art for their living room but don’t collect more in the traditional sense. Very high level coins sell for large sums while historic but not exceptional coins are in free fall [in value]. Rolland also observed that the market is expanding with increasingly international collectors. “One could not have imagined 10 years ago selling primitive art to collectors in Thailand,” he said. .

Lucas Ratton, who also owns an eponymous gallery on the left bank where Parisian art dealers gather, offers another look at the evolution of the market. “There are more and more collectors of contemporary art and modern paintings who want to discover new things and are looking for works that will resonate with what they already have,” he said. Just as auction houses showcase primitive art alongside contemporary art and design to attract more collectors, Ratton has juxtaposed primal art with design pieces by François-Xavier Lalanne and paintings by Pierre Soulages. Sweeping aside concerns about the debate on restitution, he quipped: “It is a political issue that has created a buzz and a moment of uncertainty, but we must not be reductive because it does not reflect the reality of the market.

Dan / We Mask, Ivory Coast.  Image courtesy of Binoche and Giquello.

Dan / We Mask, Ivory Coast. Image courtesy of Binoche and Giquello.

Expert Alain de Monbrison also underlined the different tastes of less learned collectors with broader interests. “New collectors are looking for sculptures and classical works of a certain dimension which are akin to modern and contemporary art and which relate to an aesthetic like that of Giacometti,” he said. This trend, however, has a negative effect on other coins on the market. “The small, refined and nicely weathered objects that were of interest to the older generation are less appealing to new collectors,” added Monbrison.

Monbrison collaborated on the next Arts of Africa, America and Oceania sale: Collection of Sam and Lilette Szafran and various connoisseurs organized by Binoche and Giquello, which will be held at the Hotel Drouot on December 17th. The late painter Sam Szafran collected, Monbrison said: “Sam Szafran bought them because he liked them but they are not in fashion today.”

One of the pieces that should work well is a “prestigious adze Luba, Kibiki or Kasolwa” from the Democratic Republic of the Congo which was “collected” by Commander Charles Liebrechts in 1886. Estimated between € 100,000 and € 150,000 ( $ 113,000 – $ 169,000), it illustrates how the works of tribes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal remain popular despite controversy over how some of them have left the African continent.

On the left bank, a dealer who is modernizing his way of working to attract young collectors is Julien Flak, director of the Galerie Flak. Today he launched the third edition of Art viewing space with 10 other galleries specializing in contemporary and modern art as well as ancient art and design. The organized online viewing room shows an eclectic and very heterogeneous vision interweaving styles and eras. To reach its new collectors, Flak used social networks and conversed on FaceTime and WhatsApp during the pandemic. “Maybe we still have more collectors between the ages of 30 and 50 than before,” Flak said of the “generational renewal” of the market.

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