Friday, February 29, 2008


I was one of approximately 100 dealers exhibiting at the recent Tribal Art show in San Francisco, California, over the weekend of February 7th – 10th , 2008. The show is held at the Fort Mason Center, in the Marina District, with a panoramic view of the Bay, Alcatraz, and Marin County. We were lucky to avoid the rain storms of the previous weekend, during the Asian Show, with each day more stunning than the last.

This is THE Tribal Art show to do and nearly all of the best American dealers are in attendance. The show has also drawn a large (and growing) wave of major European dealers. One significant addition: the show organizers were able to convince a small collective of European dealers to abandon their previously successful downtown gallery show (Crossroads) to exhibit at the Fort Mason venue. There has always been a long waiting list to get in, but recent demand to exhibit has caused some problems. To make room for others, some exhibitors have been moved out of their prime spaces or dropped from the show.

The Opening Night Gala on Thursday evening benefits the departments of Textiles and the Art of Africa, Oceania, and Americas in the de Young Museum. As usual it was packed with all of the local tribal art illuminati, backers of the de Young Museum, and an impressive contingent of important collectors from outside the Bay Area. There was plenty of great food, an open bar, and lots of socializing, but it was unclear if there was much across the board business.

The crowds returned on Friday and Saturday and it is my understanding most of the major sales went down at this time. Certainly, most of my sales occurred on these two days. Despite some gloomy economic forecasts, it didn’t appear to keep most collectors at this show from making significant purchases! However, by Sunday it seemed that the air had been sucked out of the room and the buying enthusiasm was over. Some buyers returned to pick up their purchases and there were, of course, a few stragglers making their way through the aisles, looking for deals, but not much else. As usual, sales were mixed, with some exhibitors reporting record sales and others just getting by.

At the entrance to the show was an engaging special exhibition: “Outer Garments-Inner Warmth, Power, Protection, Prestige.” Organized by Lee and Vichai Chinalai, there a dazzling array of jackets, shawls, and other wearable art in a variety of materials from a wide range of cultures.

From my Tribal “Southeast Asian and Western Pacific Island” perspective, there were some major pieces on exhibit in the main hall. The rarest and most impressive objects were two archaic Dayak ironwood cave guardian figures with strong muscular postures and anvil like heads. There were several wild Borneo masks (Hudoq); a very rare mini Dayak figure wearing a Hudoq style mask that resembled an American Indian Kachina; a pair of Dayak ironwood sacrificial posts; a couple of wonderful Dayak shields; a monumental Sumba Island stone; a variety of Dayak outdoor sculptures (Hampatong) including one with unusual tattoo motifs on the thighs; two sets of elaborate and complex Dayak roof finials in the form of dragon heads; and a beautiful Dayak chief’s door with intertwined snake motifs. Clearly in this region, Dayak art from Borneo Island is the 8000 lb Orangutan!

Perhaps the biggest sale of the show was Mindja Yam Cult Figure from the Sepik area of Papua New Guinea. It’s a beautiful example and came with impressive provenance: the Masco Collection. Oceanic art, especially New Guinea pieces, were selling well, still able to draw attention in the Bay Area because of the strong presence of the Friede Collection at the de Young Museum. As usual, textiles were well represented, especially carpets, ikats, and embroideries. There was a nice selection of Pre-Columbian pieces and other arts of the Americas (although most of the dealers in this area hold out for the big Marin County Indian Show two weeks later). Oh yeah, and a bunch of things from Africa…yawn!

This show just continues to build momentum and every year dealers and collectors alike look forward to this event. Without question it has become the most important Tribal Art show in the US and arguably the world. Sure, there are major Tribal shows in Paris and Brussels, but the emphasis is on African art without the variety of material and dealers at the San Francisco venue.

The credit for this success can be shared equally with the hard work of the show organizers’ well-oiled team and their loyal exhibitors who have steadfastly held on while this show floundered in the past, eventually picked up steam, then evolved into the major event it is today. Clearly, some house-cleaning was needed and it was helpful to bring in additional big name dealers from other parts of the world, but it is important to remember that the original exhibitors were the ones that hung on when it was not THE SHOW to do.

Thursday, February 28, 2008



The information in the government affidavits may or may not be true. It is not uncommon that much of the government’s case is based on distortions or exaggerations of the facts.

At this time none of the people mentioned in the affidavits have been charged with any crime. The affidavits were used by government agents to obtain search warrants to gather evidence for possible future indictments.

The newspaper articles (either in print or online) clearly distorted at least some of the information provided in the government affidavits. To get a better idea of what is involved in this case, it is best to read the affidavits (links were provided from the online news articles).

Example of newspaper distortion of “facts”: It was widely reported that one of the participants (the Gallery Owner: GO) was offering illegally obtained Thai artifacts to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). "GO" claims that LACMA was a stickler for provenance and proper paperwork, but the museum was aware of a “loophole” that would allow him to donate these items. In the affidavits it was made clear that LACMA museum officials were not “in” on this loophole, but that "GO" was able to provide false documents that would satisfy museum standards. That “small” distortion by the media of the information provided in the affidavits would make it appear LACMA was complicit in the donation of illegal artifacts when this was not the case.

Another distortion stated by the media is that museum officials at some of the targeted institutions assisted in providing high values on donated artifacts. This is not true, as museum officials are not involved in any way with the stated value of donations. That information is provided by the donor or an appraiser and given to the IRS for tax purposes. Obviously, museum officials hope that a donor will receive a high appraised value for the item as it is more likely it will be donated, but the ultimate value is not relevant to the reasons a museum wishes to obtain a donated art object.

It is alleged that some of the participants provided false tax appraisals to the undercover agent (UA) and valued items higher than was paid. There may be problems with these appraisals, such as falsified signatures and dates of purchase, however, it is not illegal to evaluate items at a higher value than what was paid (the IRS does require that items be held for one year otherwise the value is set by cost). Assuming that the items in question were held for more than one year, valuations are based on the fair market value at the time of the appraisal and it is possible that the items were in fact worth what was stated in the appraisal.

As an aside, it is also possible that some or all of these artifacts are not, in fact, authentic, but reproductions of Thai antiquities. The government alleges that an expert of their choosing claims they are authentic, but it is not clear if this expert actually examined the artifacts in person. It should be noted that the vast majority of “antiquities” and “artifacts” publicly offered in source countries, such as Thailand, are reproductions, so it is very likely at least some of the items are not authentic.

Assuming they are authentic, these items are not significant cultural artifacts, but rather common and inexpensive. The Thai government did not instigate this investigation. The Thai government is also aware that several museums in the US and Europe have these artifacts in their collections, but have made no effort to re-claim them. If these artifacts were eventually confiscated and returned to Thailand, they would most likely be stored and forgotten about. It is also possible many of them would find their way out the back door and resurface in antique shops in Bangkok.

It is possible the participants will face charges relating to the importation and sale of illegally obtained antiquities, although that is difficult to gauge at this time. What is more likely are charges relating to possible tax fraud. If the allegations are true, it would seem a more solid case.

Why the big fuss? Why did the Feds send 30-40 agents, arriving early in the morning, with cameras rolling, to acquire the evidence that could have easily been obtained by 2 or 3 agents in suits making an appointment with the museum? Why the big expense for a relatively minor offense? If the allegations are true, then the government has a right to act, but clearly they wanted to make a larger point.

What they were able to do was to scare the hell out of every museum official, appraiser, art collector, and art dealer involved, even remotely, in the antiquities trade. You can bet that within 24 hours, every museum in the US was re-evaluating its acquisitions and donations policies. In addition, any appraiser, collector, or dealer assisting in over-evaluating objects for donation is rethinking their involvement.