Monday, December 5, 2011



(Los Angeles, December 1, 2011)—The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has named Dr. Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts Consulting Curator of African Art to help launch a program and establish a gallery dedicated to the arts of Africa. Dr. Roberts is Professor of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, and will continue her full-time teaching position while consulting for LACMA. She was Senior Curator of the Museum for African Art in New York from 1984–1994 and Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Fowler Museum at UCLA from 1999-2008. Additionally, she was a guest curator at LACMA for the 2008 exhibition Tradition as Innovation in African Art. The goal of Dr. Roberts’s appointment is to bring greater visibility to African arts in Southern California, while creating programmatic linkages between LACMA and UCLA. As LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director Michael Govan states, “We have looked forward to launching a program for African art for several years and the timing seems right. We are excited to work with Polly Nooter Roberts as we explore new ways of understanding and presenting the richness of African artistic expression.”

Dr. Roberts has conducted research in a number of African countries and many European and American museums and private collections. She has curated such major exhibitions as Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals (1993) and Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (1996), both at the Museum for African Art, and A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (2003) at the Fowler Museum. All three shows traveled to several museums, and the latter two received major book awards. Her more recent exhibitions include Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art (Fowler Museum, 2007); Tradition as Innovation in African Art (LACMA, 2008); and Continental Rifts: Contemporary Time-Based Works of Africa (Fowler Museum, 2009). In 2007, Dr. Roberts was decorated by the Republic of France as a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters for her promotion of francophone African artists. She holds a PhD in Art History from Columbia University.

African Art at LACMA
LACMA’s growing collection of African art is diverse in form, material, and purpose. Works include masks and figures of wood and ivory, textiles, metalwork, beaded crowns, stools, and body adornments. Notable in the collection are a bronze plaque depicting a seventeenth-century official of the Benin Kingdom; a boli figure from Mali; and a selection of works from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Explore the collection online at:


The Dot.Com Art Boom.  It's Here.  It's Now.  Should You Pay Attention?
Forbes on line magazine.  August 8, 2011.  By Abigail R. Esman.

Sacred Carves.
Asian Art Newspaper.  By Lucien De Guise.

Mirror Images and Insight.
Pieces in "Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection" reflect cultural mores.
Los Angeles Times.  November 25, 2011.  By Suzanne Muchnic.,0,6360578.story

Guiding Getty.
Los Angeles Times.  December 3, 2011.  OP-ED, Patt Morrison asks James Cuno.,0,6400722.column

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Prehistoric Art Studio Found
Scientists unearth 100,000 year-old tools for making and using paints in a South African cave.
By Amina Khan.  8/14/11

For the direct link:,0,553090.story


The Dot Com Art Boom, Its Here, Its Now, Should You Pay Attention?
By Abigail R. Esman  8/8/11

Direct link:


Friday, September 9, 2011



Asian & Islamic Antiques as an Investment
By Michael Backman

Art for art’s sake is a virtuous thing. But antiques and other forms of art also can be treated as a distinct investment class. It’s an investment category that is booming – the international art and antiques market is worth around $50 billion annually. This when many other investment forms are under-performing.

The antiques and art market is undergoing an unprecedented restructuring as investors from new regions flood in. And with other economic developments such as rising inflation and commodity process, the market especially for Islamic and Asian antiques, offers an extraordinary investment opportunity.

This was apparent during the recent Islamic and Indian auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonham’s in London in April. A total of £44.5 million was raised from four auctions over a four-day period. Records were set but arguably what was more interesting was the breadth of the high results across item types and price ranges. An Indian brass hookah base that hitherto might have sold for £800-£1,200 realized £10,000. Good but not exceptional items of Indian bidri ware sold for £25,000. There were dozens of similar examples.

More generally, prices for many different categories of items within the Asian and Islamic antiques sphere have risen dramatically in the last eighteen months. For example, price rises for antique Burmese silver items, colonial Indian silver and Chinese export silver has far outstripped the rise in the silver price and perhaps has doubled or more in the last eighteen months. Why is this happening?

Demand & Supply

The supply of antiques is fixed by definition. More cannot be produced in response to rising prices. This is not so for contemporary art, or indeed for many other classes of investment products such as stocks, real estate, commodities. Even the supply of land is not fixed – land can be cleared and reclaimed. More stock can be issued, more diamonds can be mined. The fundamental problem which the Dutch tulip bubble of the seventeenth century was that more bulbs could be grown. This is not the case with antiques.

But on the other side of the equation, the demand for antiques grows constantly. Each year millions more people move into income categories for which the acquisition of antiques feasible.  And the number of very wealthy individuals who can buy high-end antiques has grown exponentially.

So with fixed supply and rapidly rising and broadening demand, the price for antiques can only rise. Within the broad rubric of ‘antiques’ demand shifts and some categories fall from favour. But antiques still are very much a growth story as an investment class, particularly antiques that appeal to those in newly wealthy economies:  India, China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and even South America where large fortunes have been amassed quickly and increasingly broadly.  By 2030, China’s GDP per capita will be seven times what it is today but already it is home to at least 500,000 US dollar millionaires for example.

The demand for Islamic and Asian art items is relatively new. Such demand until recently was scholarly. This means that there is no well-established history of prices and trends. New prices are quickly accepted as precedents by the market. And so auction estimates often are meaningless. Christie’s New York offered in 2009 a Chinese inkstone stand and cover dated 1778 with an estimate of $20,000-$30,000. It sold to an Asian buyer for $1.4 million. A small silver snuff box thought to have come from the Summer Palace near Beijing and with a pre-sale estimate of £300-£500 sold at a regional UK auction house in May 2011 for £20,000.


Japanese antiques are an exception among Asian and Islamic antiques as a class. The market for them has faltered. Japanese buyers tend to underpin the market for Japanese art. Japan’s economy is flat, its population is among the world’s most rapidly ageing - more than 25 million Japanese are aged over 65 but only 18 million are under 15 - and with almost no immigration, Japan’s population has now started to fall in absolute terms. By 2030, there will be around 20 million fewer Japanese compared with today. The market for Japanese antiques, like Japan’s economy, probably will never recover.

China, Indian, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South America do not have this problem. They have large, young and increasingly affluent populations.

Monopoly Power

What other factors drive the relative attractiveness of Asian and Islamic antiques as an investment class?

Many art objects are unique; particularly items from Asia and the Middle East for which production rarely reached the factory-like production levels of say English silver or English period furniture. The relative uniqueness of an object confers on its owner something akin to monopoly power and the ability to set its price.

The more unusual the item, the more this is true. Truly unique items have few reference points when it comes to a market value and the market value becomes the asking price: the item becomes worth what the owner says it is worth, subject only to a buyer’s willingness to pay.

Antiques and art do not produce an income stream by and large so it is not possible to price them today according to the net present value (NPV) of their future income stream. In many respects this helps to generate high values because such values cannot be pinned down to expected future earnings. What price is ‘too much’ for a rare antique? Who can say? But we can all point to an over-valued stock.

Ironically, whilst art cannot be valued in NPV terms, it does represent a tangible asset and so does have an inherent value unlike many classes of financial assets such as derivatives, which are intangible. An antique can be ‘enjoyed’; a stock or a derivative cannot. The ‘tangibleness’ of art and antiques is appealing to many investors particularly those from cultures (Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures for example) where intangible assets tend to be undervalued. The inherent value of art helps it to retain its value during financial crises and periods of uncertainty.

Imperfect Markets and Arbitrage Possibilities

Another important characteristic of the market for antiques is asymmetric knowledge: items routinely are offered to the market by sellers who are only vaguely aware of the value of the items they are selling. (The contrast with the stock market here is very stark – where teams of competing researchers analyze stocks in the search for hidden value thereby largely ensuring that there is none.)

This relative lack of knowledge allows for plenty of opportunities for gain: antiques can be bought at one price, be identified and researched and then re-offered at a higher and more appropriate price. The more research and context that can be provided for an antique, the greater becomes its intrinsic value. Collectors are able to enhance the value of their collections with their own research. This research has the effect of transforming the object and adding value to it. For the true collector, the investment is not passive. One does not ‘buy and hold’ an antique in the way that one ‘buys and holds’ stocks. The true collector interacts with it and with research, enhances it.

Antiques as a Convenient Store of Wealth

Antiques generally are portable. This is one reason why the newly rich in South America, China and Russia prefer them. They are relatively easy to ship should a quick exit be necessary. In this way they are comparable to other forms of wealth such as gold, jewelry, diamonds and even human capital much favoured by commercial minorities (education is a portable store of wealth which is why persecuted minorities have long preferred it as an investment – no-one ever escapes with only their clothes.)

The value of antiques is also unclear to the non-expert which makes antiques a useful means of hiding wealth in the face of voracious government, customs officials and so on. What is an antique worth as it moves across borders? Chinese customs officials are not very expert at valuing porcelain. This has helped drive the price of Chinese porcelain on international markets in the face of tighter reporting requirements when it comes to international cash movements in the wake of 9/11. It also makes antique porcelain a useful gift for government officials. Anti-graft agencies find it difficult to value but everyone knows the value of a Mercedes Benz.

Low Minimum Investment

Antiques have a low minimum investment, usually starting in the hundreds rather than thousands of pounds or dollars for the novice investor. This allows the ‘investor’ base to be enormous – most households possess at least a few treasured ‘old’ items.  And as many individual’s income grows so does their allocation to antiques having had an early exposure.

Prudent Diversification

Quality art and antiques largely are insulated from the volatility of investment markets providing prudent diversification particularly when investment markets are falling. Numerous studies have shown that when part of an investment portfolio, art and antiques show little or no correlation with other classes of investment items, thereby acting to lower the overall riskiness of the portfolio. This means that allocating a proportion of an investment portfolio to antiques is not speculative, it’s prudent.

Growing Liquidity

Antiques as an investment are relatively illiquid. But that illiquidity is lessening. Broadening and deepening of the antiques market has occurred with more auction houses and major antiques fairs. But the most important development has been the Internet, which has allowed the antiques market to become truly global. The Internet has revolutionized the market for antiques.

Most auction houses list their lots on-line and many now broadcast their auctions live on the Internet. This has dramatically increased options for the rapid disposal of antiques in front of a wide if not global audience. Most Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions are now live on the Internet for example and the auctioneer now can take bids from the room but also from anywhere in the world be it Mongolia or Peru in live-time as the auction progresses. This has helped make buyers comfortable to buy antiques from the Internet.

Increasingly, commercial galleries sell via the Internet. Michael Backman Ltd has premises in central London that are open to visitors each business day but most clients are based overseas (United States, Singapore, Australia – in that order - and then a myriad other countries) and most clients first view the gallery’s stock via the Internet. Ten years ago this barely would have been possible.

Antiques a Hedge against Inflation

The world is entering an inflationary period driven by higher commodity policies and a period of loose fiscal and monetary policy regimes run by Western governments.

Antiques are a hedge against inflation. The real value of antiques tends to stay either constant or rise. And with negative real interest rates in many Western markets currently, the imperative to reduce cash and bank deposit holdings is even greater.

Certainly in high-inflation economies such as Argentina, the conventional wisdom long has been that in periods of high inflation, individuals with wealth should invest in tangibles – real estate for example, and art and antiques.

With growing inflation but with new wealth, investors in economies such as Argentina, Brazil, Russia, and so on are even more disposed to acquiring art and antiques as a way to avoid holding cash. But as inflation becomes more apparent in the West and China too, the incentive to dump cash for antiques and other tangible investment classes rises.

Commodity Prices

Rising commodity prices are likely to have a negative impact on the broader economy but they also have an important distributional impact. Consumers generally lose as they must pay more, but what must be remembered is that commodity producers gain. Huge amounts of wealth are being generated in new areas: China, Russia, the Middle East, South America, Kazakhstan, Australia and even parts of Africa. Rising gas prices for example have turned the Qatar Royal family into the world’s wealthiest family but it has also allowed them to become probably the single biggest acquirer of antiques and artworks in the world. New and big collections are being formed in Mexico, China, Australia, India, Kuwait, Indonesia and so on. Not only are these collections being formed, they are being formed quickly.

As the price of coal has increased (the price increased five-fold between 2002 and 2008) hitherto unknown coal mine owners in China have emerged with great wealth and subsequently have become very important on the international art scene. Many buyers come from Taiyuan in China’s Shanxi province, which holds around 80% of China’s commercial coal deposits. The Taiyuan buyers emerged only in 2009 as major buyers of Chinese art on the international art scene, and quickly gained a reputation for fierce bidding at auctions and for having deep pockets.

Taiyuan-based coalmine owner Zhao Xin is an example of the new breed of buyers. Ten years ago no-one in the art world had heard of him. Probably today he is the world’s most important private collection of ceramics provenanced to the Qing Emperor Daoguang (reigned: 1820-1850).

Hundreds of new collectors have quickly emerged onto the art market in a short period and from regions that never before have been prominent in the international market for art. It is an unprecedented structural change for the market. The market is broadening and deepening like never before. It’s worth repeating that all this interest is for items that are in fixed supply – it doesn’t matter how high prices rise for genuine antiques, more cannot be produced to meet additional demand. The demand now is for Asian and Islamic antiques and art because of fast-changing wealth and demographic patterns. And so as an investment opportunity, this puts such antiques in a class of their own.

© Michael Backman.
No part may be copied or reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Michael Backman is a collector and gallery owner. He is the author of five books on business in Asia published by Palgrave-Macmillan and John Wiley & Sons. He holds a First Class Degree in Economics.

Friday, July 29, 2011


Art of Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay, New Guinea
May 6 to August 28, 2011
The Menil Collection, Houston, TX

Features 50 objects, including a group of highly stylized and abstracted wooden sculptures and decorative bark cloths.  Many of these works of art were acquired by two pioneering visitors to the region: Swiss explorer, ethnologist, photographer, and collector Paul Wirz and French adventurer, art dealer, photographer, and author Jacques Viot, both active during a notable period of research and collecting that began in 1921.

Curated by Virginia-Lee Webb, an art historian specializing in non-Western art and a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Ancestors of the Lake juxtaposes selections from the Menil's permanent holdings with pieces borrowed from public and private collections in Australia, Europe, and the United States.

Ancestors of the Lake is accompanied by an extraordinary catalogue, edited by Virginia-Lee Webb, including essays by leading scholars as well as historical photographs of Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay.  The 128-page volume features new scholarship on Western explorations of northern New Guinea, including Viot's journey as well as stills by Man Ray.

For details, please visit The Menil Collection's website:


Rare 16th Ardabil Carpet on Display at LACMA

This amazing carpet, the center piece to the "Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts", is on display until Labor Day, 2011.  One of the two greatest Persian carpets ever woven (its twin is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), this is only the 5th time it has been shown since its debut in 1965.  Don't miss this chance to view a true "magic" carpet as well as the stunning display of Islamic art in the rest of the exhibition.

For details, please go to:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Where are the serious tribal art collectors in Los Angeles?  Or more to the point is there or will there again be a serious market for tribal art in Los Angeles? 

For the last couple of decades, local dealers and show promoters have pondered this question.  The assumption has been there is a market for tribal art, perhaps even a big one, we just have to create the proper set of circumstances to develop it: the right show venue, the right PR campaign, the right ad placement, the right opening night beneficiary, and so on. 

In part, to tackle this issue, I helped found LA TRIBAL, an association of dealers in the Los Angeles area, specializing in the tribal arts from Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.  The primary goals were to promote cooperation within the existing tribal art community (other dealers, collectors, and museum specialists), as well as finding creative ways to cultivate new collectors. 

LA TRIBAL members have joined local collectors’ organizations, such as the Ethnic Arts Council (EAC) and other museum support councils, with some members becoming quite active within these groups.  We participated in the primary tribal art show produced by the Caskey Lees organization, produced our own “mini” shows, offered appraisal services, and ran ads in a variety of magazines.  We tried bringing in new faces by supporting their favorite charity as a beneficiary on opening night.  We made sure to invite museum staff, local collectors’ groups, and other individuals known to have a specific interest in tribal art.

Despite these efforts, there are ongoing problems with the tribal art market in Los Angeles.  A case in point was our most recent show (held in early June); arguably the best show LA TRIBAL has ever produced.  It certainly was the show we worked the hardest on to promote.  We could not have a found a more perfect venue: a large empty space directly across from the LA County Museum of Art.  We hung a massive banner on the front of the building, easily seen from Wilshire Blvd. (one of LA’s most traveled streets) and the entrance to the museum.  We sent out nearly 18,000 mailers (five times more cards than any previous mailer), all to a well-targeted list of individuals with an interest in art.  We paid for PR and got several listing in local publications.  We sent out numerous email blasts.  We specifically invited individual collectors, museum specialists, and support council members.  We added an appraisal clinic and yet another beneficiary group, one known for its activism and support of fundraising events.  The show was beautifully set up with a full range of material: pieces priced for the beginning collector to those looking for only the highest quality items.  We had the opening night catered with a wonderful selection of Vietnamese food (a crowd favorite).  Our members made a considerable expenditure of money, labor, and time to make these preparations.

Almost no one came.  The beneficiary group promised 75 to 100 members of their group would make it to opening night, so we paid for food and drinks to make sure we accommodated their needs.  I’d be surprised if 10 people from that organization showed up.  We had about 30 others come by that evening, after expecting at least 150.  Over the next three days we had perhaps another 100 to 150 visitors.  Only four museum specialists came through: two from the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and two from the South Asian Art Department at LACMA (I would like to personally thank Peter Keller, director at the Bowers for his continued support of all of the tribal art events in California).  The Fowler Museum was missing in action, as well as all of the other local museums.  The EAC, Los Angeles’s premier tribal art collectors group with close to 200 members, once again barely showed (20 or so came through over the weekend).  Virtually no one came from the Bower’s Museum Collectors Council.  The few known collectors of tribal art in the Los Angeles area were mostly no-shows.

Despite my disappointment, it was easier to accept that our efforts were not dazzling enough to attract new people.  But, what really surprises and continually vexes me is that people who are actually collectors of tribal art, have even a remote interest in tribal art, as well as local museum staff that owe their jobs to the interest in tribal art, did not bother to come to the one tribal art sales venue left in Southern California.

I have two questions: why is there so little support or interest from the existing local tribal art community and why are we unable to attract new collectors?  I have my own theories and will address the two issues separately.

At one time, Los Angeles was an important location for collectors of tribal art.  This was especially true in the 1970s and 1980s when there were several active collectors of African art, most notably the Wallaces, the Baums, the Silvers, the Kuhns, the Dimondsteins, the Franklins, the Goldenbergs, and Jerome Joss, to name a few.  Pre-Columbian art has always had a strong following and at one time LA was the most important center for the emerging Indonesian tribal art market.  These collectors were also responsible for founding and growing the EAC, which in the past was actually dominated by a core group of serious collectors.

What happened?  To be fair, most of this original core base has aged, with many having passed away.   It is understandable why this generation is no longer as active, because their houses are full of art and today their primary concern is the disposition of their collections.  Unfortunately, with very few exceptions it does not appear this “old guard” spawned a new generation of tribal art fanatics to carry on their passion.

There has always been a mid-range collector base that still survives, but no longer thrives in Southern California.  This group consists of passionate collectors of more modest means (god bless them for hanging in there!), non-serious collectors who focus on bargains (which often means objects of lower quality and reproductions), and so-called “tribal art tourists”, non-collectors who like to view and talk about tribal art, but rarely if ever actually purchase anything.  We always keep hoping that the first group will win the lottery or inherit money from a rich relative, that the second group will suddenly realize the error of their ways and buy quality over quantity, and that the last group will finally fall in love with the art and step up to the plate.  Unfortunately, this rarely happens.

We keep imagining that fabulously wealthy contemporary art patrons, known to pay fortunes for squiggles of paint on canvas, a whirling mobile made of soup cans, or a metallic sculpture of a balancing bear with a bottle stuck in its behind (actually seen a recent contemporary art show in LA!), will finally see the light.  We are sure that, once exposed to our magnificent tribal artifacts, they will divert most of their expendable income in our direction.  Certainly, the scholars that have written numerous books on the links between so call primitive art and the roots of modern art are practically begging these collectors to pay attention to us!  Well, so far we have not significantly benefited from this potential metamorphosis. 

We also have banked on getting in that big celebrity client, who will fall in love with tribal art and go around Hollywood promoting how cool it is, thus bringing in yet more celebrity buyers.  LA TRIBAL, the Caskey-Lees shows, and nearly every private dealer or gallery has tried to open that door. Some of the public art galleries in the Beverly Hills area will get celebs in for a while, but with few exceptions they rarely become long-term clients and when they do, it is nearly always for contemporary art. 

So we are left finding new collectors from a different pool of potential art enthusiasts in Los Angeles.  I am sure we all assume that under the right circumstances, by exposing this new, presumably younger crowd to the wonders of tribal art, we will finally find our market.  Following are my hypotheses for believing otherwise.

Los Angeles is a relatively new city that barely came into itself until the 1940s.  Most people here seem uninterested in history or tradition.  There is barely an awareness of the Spanish mission period let alone anything before that time.  Nostalgia for an earlier era in their own lives is about as far back as they will go.  Second-generation immigrants quickly shed their ethnic identities to blend in and have little interest in their own cultures.  People came here to break free from the past, to make their own future, to reinvent themselves.  Angelenos tend to look forward, more concerned about what will happen next, not what happened before. 

Because of this lack of interest, they have no connection to the past, including old world cultures or so-called primitive societies.  And art buying, even for decoration, is not high on their must-do list.  This is especially true with younger people, who disdain “antiques” as useless old dusty things their grandparents owned. 

Additionally, wealthy Angelenos do not appear to be very sophisticated when it comes to art.  There is a lot of new money that often comes without a background in the trappings of wealth.  They know they have to buy a big house and an expensive car (or two). They are aware they need to fill their house with some stuff, but art and antiques are not something they know much about and perhaps find a bit intimidating, so they tend to follow commercial trends or the recommendations of their friends or decorators.

In my experience, collectors in Los Angeles buy contemporary art, classic cars, photography, retro furniture, and pop cultural artifacts because it is modern, hip, accessible, and comfortable.  Everyone knows that paintings are real art, that a movie poster is cool, and so are those chairs that look like 1950s rocket ships!  ;-)

The few exceptions are those people who have traveled abroad, say to Bali on vacation or to India to visit their guru.  But, even that group tends to be satisfied with the collection of souvenirs, purchased on their trip.

Lastly, people in Los Angeles tend to be outdoor oriented.  Their homes are larger and so are their yards.  It is warm, sunny and bright, forcing you outside.  We have beaches, mountains, and deserts to visit and lots of cars to get us there.  Angelenos just don’t worry about getting stuck indoors and therefore think less about what is in their house to entertain them.

In contrast, those living in older cities, like NYC or Paris, even an office worker or mid-level bureaucrat will own art.  Most urban residents on the East Coast and in Europe are focused indoors because of colder weather, closer neighbors, and louder street noise.  An indoor lifestyle encourages you to think about what you have in your house. You need art to dress up that dark and dreary apartment!  

There may be some hope from the growth of the local museum scene in Southern California.  The LA County Museum of Art purchased a major collection of Oceanic art a couple of years ago and have expressed interest in building an African art collection.  The Fowler Museum at UCLA is more active under the direction of Marla Berns.  Outside of LA, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Museum of Art in San Diego, and the Mingei Museum of International Art, also in San Diego, have good collections of tribal art.  Important, regular exhibitions, especially at LACMA may encourage existing art patrons to take tribal art more seriously.

Otherwise, in my opinion the above factors make Los Angeles an unlikely place to find new, serious collectors for traditional antiques of any kind, let alone tribal art.  Is it time to throw in the towel and re-focus our efforts elsewhere?  Perhaps, but I am still hopeful there may be a few more angles to try before we completely give up on my favorite city.


VIRGINIA FIELDS, 1952 - 2011
By Suzanne Muchnic, LA Times, June 20, 2011

Virginia M. Fields, a leading scholar of early Mesoamerican art and archeology who joined the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's curatorial staff in 1989 and devoted 22 years to making the museum a vital center of Latin American culture - partly by organizing major exhibitions such as last year's "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico" - had died...

To read the complete article online, please go to: 

Monday, March 21, 2011


Tribal Art: Magical Pieces, Sensible Prices
Build a museum-quality collection for under $100,000.
Nearly 50 years ago, a young, bespectacled man named Michael Rockefeller went looking for tribal artifacts in the swampy coastlands of New Guinea. He was never seen again. He may have been attacked by sharks; he may have drowned; he may have encountered cannibals or headhunters. To this day, no one knows. Michael Rockefeller's memory, however, has lived on in a novel, a rock song, at least two plays and, spectacularly, the tribal-art wing of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The wing is named after him, and many of its 1,600 pieces came from his father, former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, the most voracious collector of such art the world has ever seen. For today's growing number of tribal-art fans, Rocky did good.
Luckily, you don't have to risk your own life to start collecting. You don't even need a giant bank account. Museum-quality objects from Africa, the Pacific and the Americas can be had for as little as $5,000. Though prices have been rising lately, with some sales setting records, you can still build a striking collection of masks, figures, textiles and other tribal pieces for well under $100,000. The works can lend an air of the exotic to any home; they show especially well in minimalist settings.
Kevin Conru Gallery
Collectors' interest in tribal art was on full display in San Francisco last month at the 25th annual Tribal and Textile Art Show. Some 7,000 patrons buzzed through a veritable city of booths on an enclosed, antiquated pier. Sunlight from the windows above brought the objects to life. A highly rare, seventh-century turquoise and gold mosaic piece from Mexico, which served as an elite's funerary mask for transcendence into the afterlife, reflected piercing hues of blue and green. Dark wood and ivory handles of Indonesian daggers practically glowed, revealing intricate carvings.
Renowned tribal-art collector Bill Jamieson, who was followed by a television crew, purchased a coveted late-19th-century mask from the Ivory Coast for $40,000. The mask, shown by the Milan-based Dalton Somaré gallery, is from the African tribe of the Dan People and was used in rituals to head off fires in the dry season. The wooden mask has wonderfully high cheekbones and an ultra-narrow chin. It has been unusually well preserved and boasts an impressive pedigree: It previously belonged to three leading collectors in Paris and Barcelona. Jamieson figures he got not just a striking piece of art but an entirely respectable investment. "I'm going to make more money on this mask than the same money would make sitting in a bank," he said.
Huber Primitive Art
If the label "tribal art" seems vague, it's because it is. An umbrella term that covers more than three continents, it encompasses thousands of vastly different cultures. During the late 19th century, European colonists in Africa whet the appetite of artists and art collectors when they returned with colorful "curiosities" that flouted realism. Even early modernist painters like Picasso and Matisse collected the art themselves and were quick to incorporate the exotic aesthetic into their own masterpieces.

However, the prices of modern art and tribal art remain worlds apart. While a Picasso sold last year for $106.5 million, the highest price ever for a painting sold at auction, the top level for African art is about $7 million. Only two pieces are known to have hit that level, including a stool from the Luba tribe in the Republic of the Congo that went for $7.1 million at Sotheby's last year. Made in the 19th century by an artist known as the Buli Master, the stool is held up by an intricately carved woman who is leaning forward to bear the weight. With her eyebrows arched high on her elongated face, she seems both surprised and bemused to be lifting a leader, typically the users of such stools.
  Demand for the best pieces of tribal art is almost always strong, reflecting the relatively limited supply of art and artifacts from these cultures. "I sold a very nice Easter Island figure 15 years ago for about a $100,000 and now you couldn't buy one for under half a million," said dealer Kevin Conru, who operates out of Brussels.

Amyas Naegele Gallery
But you do have to watch out for the traps: forgeries and smuggled items. The best defense is to find a dealer who is trusted and well regarded by others. Scientific technologies such as carbon dating can work with older pieces but are imperfect and expensive. Amyas Naegele, a top dealer based in Manhattan, advises collectors to carefully study museum pieces before buying similar objects. Shows like the one in San Francisco are also great places to learn more, and they often have committees that vet pieces and ensure authenticity.
Cultural patrimony laws have put a limit on the number of items that can be taken out of a country. The law is especially strict in Peru and other countries with art from the Pre-Colombian period -- early 15th century and older. Until recently, Yale University and Peru had a long-running feud over a collection of pieces that were obtained in 1912 by Yale archeologist Hiram Bingham III. Now, almost a century later, a resolution has been reached. Yale will send the pieces to a newly created center at Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Inca site in Peru, and the university and the country will run the center jointly.
Pre-Columbian objects from the Americas still surface from long-held private collections. Africa's laws are somewhat looser, meaning more new items are making their way to dealers. Naegele has been showing some new pieces from the less-collected Cameroon grasslands of Africa, including a vibrant blue and red headdress and an accompanying whisk that's topped off with a grinning feline figure. The beaded set would have been used by dancers at initiations, weddings and other ceremonies. The headdress is priced at $15,000, the whisk at $20,000.
Mark A. Johnson Tribal Art
Material from Indonesian cultures drew heavy attention at the show in San Francisco, partly because the region is yielding the most new finds. A mask from the Dayak tribe of Borneo, offered by the Mark A. Johnson Gallery, featured a captivatingly morphed face of a pig, dragon and bird, painted in red and black and adorned with a plume of feathers. Used during harvest ceremonies in the 1940s-50s, it's on the market at $6,500.
Oceanic art like this is on prominent display at the Met. Items collected by Michael Rockefeller before that final trip are displayed in a stunning, slope-walled glass room. The de Young Museum in San Francisco also has a large collection of Oceanic works. But enjoyable as it is to look at all that, there is something even better: admiring great tribal art outside glass cases and inside your home.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Horse Bridle from Timor Island
San Francisco Tribal & Textile Arts Show
February 11-13, 2010

Nearly 100 international dealers of tribal arts from Asia, Africa, Oceania, & the Americas exhibited at the 25th annual Caskey/Lees show at the Fort Mason location in February.  Over the last 10 years, this show has evolved into the most important and interesting tribal art fair in the US and in my opinion the world, based on the breadth and depth of the objects offered.  The quality of the material ranges from modestly priced pieces perfect for new collectors to museum masterpieces, thus attracting buyers from all economic levels.

Due to the economic downturn starting in 2008, sales at this venue were tepid in 2009 and anemic in 2010.  Expecting another slow year, several dealers, mostly Europeans, dropped out.  However, it took no time to fill these open slots with other dealers (mostly American), eager to take advantage of the opportunity. 

The good news is sales were up over last year.  Most were in the mid price range, of course, but some important pieces were sold by shows end.  Perhaps because expectations were low, the usual complaints by dealers were down and most were even cautiously optimistic about the future of the market.  Attendance was up and collectors were in a buying mood after two years of holding back.

Another indicator of a healthier market is sales amongst exhibitors, and it was clear that several of my colleagues were making deals and re-investing into new inventory.  I picked up a few pieces, including a rare old painted bark cloth vest from Borneo Island.

I really can’t think of any bad news.  The weather was fantastic with clear, blue skies.  The City was beautiful, as always.  Everyone was cooperative, friendly, and up beat.

Because my interest is with tribal art from Asia and the western Pacific, I was aware of a considerable increase in objects from that region, especially Indonesia.  Regular exhibitors of this material: including myself, Tom Murray, Bruce Frank, Jack Sadovnic, Miranda Crimp, John Ruddy, Erik Farrow, and Rudolf Smend, were joined by Frank Wiggers (after a long show hiatus), returning exhibitors Louis Nierijnck and Curtis and Margaret Keith Clemson, and new exhibitors Bill Sutterfield and James Barker.  Fortunately, each of these dealers had their own style and material, allowing for a wide range of sculptures, masks, textiles, beadwork, and jewelry with very little duplication.  To my surprise, a wide variety of stone sculptures were on display in many of these booths, with unique examples from Sumba, Sulawesi, Nias, and Sumatra.

Highlights:  An exciting collection of Javanese batik cloth, curated by batik expert Rudolf Smend, was on exhibition in the lobby, Tom Murray sold his large collection of Neolithic stone blades, Bruce Frank exhibited a rare Dayak ironwood sculpture and an archaic style Tau-Tau ancestor figure from Sulawesi Island (sold), Frank Wiggers also sold his rare tattooed Tau-Tau, Jack Sadovnic offered a beautiful Nias Island coconut scrapper and a pair of throne supports with carved serpent figures, from Sumatra Island (also sold), Louis Nierijnck displayed a Mentawai Island painted wall carving, and Bill Sutterfield offered a collection of Dayak shields and weapons, several of which he sold.  I showed a large old stone figure from Sulawesi Island (sold), a decorated horse bridle from Timor Island (sold), a collection of masks from the Lampung area of Sumatra Island, and an unusual ritual post from Borneo Island, with hermaphrodite features.

Although outside of my immediate area, but definitely worth mentioning: Michael Hamson offered and sold several pieces made by the Boiken people of New Guinea.  In addition, Michael produced an important new catalog of this material that includes an outstanding selection of masks, sculptures, bowls, and drums from major private collections from around the world.  Opening this publication is a series of wonderful field photos recently taken by noted Bay Area photographer Mike Glad.

As always, I want to thank the Caskey Lees team for their hard work in producing this show.  They make every effort to accommodate the needs of at least a 100 semi-stressed out individuals.  I look forward to participating next year!


Humans likely hit their stride 3.2 million years ago, a bone rom Ethiopia suggests.
LA Times, February 12, 2011.  By Thomas H. Maugh II.
"A fossilized foot bone from Ethiopia indicates that  human ancestors had largely abandoned swinging from trees by 3.2 million years ago and were spending virtually all of their time walking upright, researchers said this week..."
For a direct link to the story on the LA Times website, please go to:,0,5062313.story

The 3-year old died 11,500 years ago and was apparently buried in the family home.
LA Times, February 26, 2011.  By Thomas H. Maugh II.
"Alaska researchers have found the cremated remains of a 3-year old child whose parents were among the first immigrants to North America, crossing over the then-existing land bridge from Asia to the New World through the region known as Beringia..."
For a direct link to the story on the LA Times website, please go to:,0,4017312.story

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


San Francisco Tribal & Textile Arts Show
February 11-12, 2011.
Preview Opening: February 10, 6pm to 9pm.
Fort Mason Center, Festival Pavilion, San Francisco.

The San Francisco Tribal & Textile Arts Show (SFTTA) celebrates its 25th anniversary this February at the historic Fort Mason Center. Taking place February 11‐13, 2011, the SFTTA is considered the best tribal art event in the world. The show features an elite roster of the world’s most respected Tribal & Textile arts dealers and more than 15,000 museum‐quality art and antiques from the Oceanic Islands, the Middle East, Central, and South America, Africa, Polynesia, Indonesia and the remote tribes of Asia.

The SFTTA has consistently received outstanding reviews from reputable arts and cultures media, including Art & Antiques, Art + Auction, Antiques Roadshow, and the San Francisco Chronicle which in 2010 stated that, ‘for those taken with the finest examples of antique ceramics, sculpture, fabric, paintings and jewelry, the SFTTA Show is the place to be.” Both seasoned and novice art collectors have been drawn to the Tribal & Textile Show to find pieces they love, and / or develop art investment collections.

The very nature of the Tribal & Textile buying world almost ensures that the pieces increase in value through time because authentic pieces are in such short supply. An ever‐growing demand for what is becoming a ‘disappearing art’ has created a demand for particular pieces and collections. Yet, many pieces are still quite affordable for the new collector. As the modern world becomes smaller, fewer and fewer people living within tribal communities are continuing their traditional art forms. The SFTTA Show is a nexus point where these disappearing arts can converge with the public.

The 2011 Show will feature a special exhibit of Batik textiles from Indonesia. Curated by Rudolf G. Smend of Germany, Donald J. Harper, Java and Vietnam, and titled, Batik – An Enduring Heritage, the exhibit will be on view and for purchase throughout the show. All pieces on display were woven using the traditional wax‐resist dyeing technique.

The Show opens with a preview gala on Thursday, Feb. 10,2011 from 6:00pm‐9:00pm to benefit the galleries for Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas and the Textiles galleries in the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The gala offers a ‘first look’ at the batik textile exhibit as well as the thousands of art and antiques on display.

General admission for the Tribal & Textile Show is $15 per person. To purchase tickets for the Opening Night benefit, please call 415‐750‐7656 or email: The Opening Night benefit takes place Thursday, Feb. 10,6:00pm‐9:00pm. This event is open to the public on Friday Feb. 11, 11:00am‐7:00pm, Saturday February 12, 11:00am‐7:00pm and Sunday Feb. 13, 11:00am‐5:00pm. There will be no admittance on Sunday after 4:30pm.

For more information, please call (310) 455‐2886, or go to website:


Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley
February 13 – July 24, 2011.
Preview Opening: February 12, 6:30pm to 9pm

Experience some of the most abstract, dramatic, and inventive sculpture in sub-Saharan Africa in this groundbreaking exhibition that “unmasks” the history of Central Nigeria by examining the dynamic interrelationships among its peoples and their ritual arts.  On hundred figurative wood sculptures, masks, and ceramic vessels, as well as elaborate bronze and iron regalia reveal borrowing, adaptations, reinventions, and permutations that are varied and complex as the vast Benue River Valley itself.

For further information, please visit the Fowler Museum website at: