Friday, February 26, 2010


The week of February 11th through 14th , 2010 brought to San Francisco the first Tribal Arts Weekend, combining the regular SF Tribal & Textile Arts show with the Marin Show: Art of the Americas, usually scheduled a week or two later. The show organizers, Bill Caskey, Liz Lees, and Kim Martindale, along with their PR teams, put together this concept, with the intention they would create a bigger and better experience for the tribal art market. In addition, Tribal Arts Weekend was part of an even larger concept: Arte Du Monde SF, which included the Arts of Pacific Asia show, held on the previous weekend and the Bonhams & Butterfields auction on Friday, the 12th.

Arte Du Monde SF and the Tribal Arts Weekend partnered with the Asian Art Museum, the Marin Museum of the American Indian, SF Tribal (a local dealer organization), and ATADA (Antique Tribal Art Dealers Assoc) to offer special programs within the larger framework. There were lectures on a Kiowa pictorial calendar and on basketry plants of North America, an exhibition of Southwestern pottery at the Marin Museum, and an ATADA sponsored panel discussion on Collecting and the Law. The Tribal & Textile Arts show had their opening on Thursday evening and the Marin Show had their first opening night in many years on Friday. In addition to the official Arte Du Monde SF programs, the De Young Museum sponsored a mini-symposium on Scientific Testing of Art and Textiles and held a lecture on Turkmen carpets. There were also the usual openings at Michael Hamson’s gallery and at Dave DeRoche’s home gallery, as well as two special previews at the new Tribalmania gallery in Half Moon Bay (with transportation provided by limo from the Fort Mason Center).

I don’t have the exact count of participants at each event, but it appeared all were well attended and well received, especially considering that several events conflicted with others. I am not sure at this time how to gauge the effectiveness of so many events scheduled during that week, but personally I found it difficult to make the rounds, missing out on several openings and lectures that I would like to have attended. As much as I appreciated the effort, it may have been too ambitious to have so things going on in such a short time.

My impressions of the events I participated in:

The mini-symposium on Scientific Testing at the De Young was a big hit for me, although I had to duck out half way through to make it in time to sit on the panel on Collecting and the Law across the bridge at the Marin Center. I am fascinated by the use of science in helping institutions, dealers, and collectors with the process of determining authenticity and possible antiquity of tribal art artifacts. Expert discussions were provided on the use of X-Rays, Radiocarbon, visual examination, and conservation. What was made clear is that science, while extremely helpful, is only one tool in making these determinations and that additional scholarship and research was needed to confirm testing data.

I was asked to participate on the panel discussion concerning Collecting and the Law. Frankly, I had no idea what to expect and if there would be an opportunity to discuss issues I was most concerned with. The other panel members were: Kate Fitz Gibbon, a former dealer in Central Asian art, she served on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to the President, and is currently a lawyer specializing in cultural property issues; Steven F. Gruel, a former prosecutor, now defense attorney; and Ann-Marie Holmes, supervisory wildlife inspector for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Attempts to include archeologists and other government officials for counter points to the cultural patrimony issues were not successful.

The primary discussion focused on the law as currently enacted and examples of recent enforcement were mentioned. What was obvious is the law is very complicated and several overlapping and occasionally contradictory laws apply. For example under Fish and Wildlife, you may have to deal with CITES (Convention on International trade in Endangered Species) if animal parts are imported, the Endangered Species Act if transported across state lines, and state law for sales within the state. One law may allow the sale while another one would not. On a hopeful note, Inspector Holmes, made it clear that their department was more than willing to answer any specific questions and to assist with advice and paperwork to make transportation and sales of permitted animal parts as easy as possible. Just give them a call!

My participation was negligible, because frankly I support the intended goals of the Endangered Species Act and other laws meant to protect threatened flora and fauna. My position is that the tribal art community should do everything possible to comply with these laws while finding ways to still possess and trade in authentic or antique cultural objects that may include animal parts, acquired legitimately and used by indigenous peoples. As far as the issues with cultural patrimony, there were no participants present opposed to our activities, therefore no debate was needed at this time (I will include a paper on my views on this subject in a separate posting on my blog in the near future).

I did preview the Bonhams and Butterfields auction, but was not able to attend the actual day of sale, as I was attending my own booth at the tribal art show. I don’t have a lot of details, but it is my understanding that Oceanic material sold well, but African art sales were flat. I believe about 60% of the lots were sold.

The SF Tribal & Textile Arts show brought out the usual suspects: most of the top dealers from around the world; many high end collectors; buyers of more modest means; academics; and the simply curious. As the premier tribal art show in America and arguably the world (because of its depth and breadth of material) most of the sellers go all out to offer their best pieces. I am always impressed by the quality of this show and certainly do my best to make an important presentation. The lobby held a well received showing of tribal themed photography, titled: “Other Worlds” by Bay Area resident and collector Mike Glad. Attendance was actually quite high, with a good showing at the opening, Friday, and Saturday.

Unfortunately, sales were low, generally less than last year and certainly down from two years ago. Very few exhibitors reported sales of any significance. Most sold modestly, with some reporting they barely covered expenses. There did seem to be a general malaise with most attendees, either due to perceived sticker shock or reluctance to spend because of continuing economic issues. I had several collectors comment that they could not find anything they liked that they could afford. Sure, there were many important pieces offered with big numbers, but I found plenty of material that I thought was more than reasonably priced. Certainly the last two years of economic downturn has kept a lid on price increases on all but the very best pieces, so this should have been a good buying opportunity. I guess most buyers are still nervous about spending any serious money until they see a major upturn to the economy.

I was able to attend the Marin Show for their Friday night opening and clearly this show is having problems attracting as many dealers as they had in the past. To make up for shortage of booths, the organizers increased the aisle space. Most of the participating sellers cram most of their material onto tables, walls, and display cases, making it look a bit like a flea market, so it would have made more sense to allocate most of the unused space to increasing their booth size and display area. That said it is an interesting show with lots of beautiful baskets, blankets, and jewelry. If you love American Indian art, this is the show for you! Sales were mixed, with one report noting that there were several high end sales and another report indicated overall sales were generally down this year.

Having both of these shows on the same weekend allowed for an interesting culture contrast. This was pinpointed by a good friend, while discussing how to bring the two groups together on the patrimony issue. It was noted (humorously) that the many of the sellers and buyers at the Marin Show, all Americans, selling American art, in America were likely to be conservative Republicans (possibly with some membership in militias and the ‘tea party’) while the majority of participants at the SF Tribal & Textile Arts show were a mix of liberal Democrats, intellectuals, world travelers, and Europeans (most likely all socialists) selling a potpourri of primarily non-American artifacts to an international audience. Despite those possible political differences, we all have at least one thing in common and that is the love of great tribal art!

Generally speaking, I enjoyed the events I could attend. I wish I had time to get to more of them so it would be helpful if next year the event organizers can arrange schedules with less overlap. Did it bring in more buyers? I’m not sure, although I do know that several attendees at the SF show told me they took advantage of the “two shows for one ticket price” and made their way to the Marin show for the first time. I know these things take time to work themselves out and I am willing to give it another chance.

However, if sales remain elusive, what is the future of these shows? The sellers go to great expense to exhibit. Besides the cost to display (including booths, lights, cases, pedestals, & stands) there are travel, hotel, and shipping charges, as well as the cost of goods and the time and money spent sorting through piles of junk to find the few gems that are offered. There is no better buying opportunity then to come to one of these annual shows, where collectors can see, discuss, and purchase so much great material under one roof and in such a short time. I just don’t get why buyers don’t understand the dynamics and importance of these shows. The show producers and the dealers are spending considerable sums of money up front to give buyers a rare chance to make smart decisions and add authentic high quality pieces to their collections. Basically, these shows are underwritten by dealers to bring the tribal art community together, with the intention of benefiting all interested parties. All that the sellers ask; please attend, look at the art, and make every effort to buy at this time.

The bottom line: if collectors are not buying, then dealers can’t afford to pay the expenses to exhibit. If too many sellers drop out, the organizers will have to cancel shows and the best opportunity for buyers to educate themselves and find good pieces will vanish.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Two very good stories, recently published in the LA Times, illustrating the extreme ends of the trade in endangered species. In the first story, two men were charged with importing parts illegally taken from poached animals, while in the second story a collector was charged and convicted for attempting to sell a skull from a long ago deceased zoo animal, that he legally obtained and in fact saved from a rendering plant.

Man Indicted on Ivory Smuggling Charges.
Doughnut shop owner Moun Chau, who lives in Montclair, faces federal charges regarding elephant tusks bought on EBay. An alleged accomplice in Thailand also has been indicted.
By Kim Christensen, January 20, 2010.,0,2251108.story

Elephant Skull a Big Headache.
When money trouble led a collector to put his prized possession up for sale, he had no idea what lay ahead.
By Thomas Curwen, January 26, 2010,0,3894107.story