Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Dealers and Profits

It has been my experience there is a long standing prejudice against tribal art dealers because it is assumed that they are only motivated by commercial concerns (oddly enough, I rarely see this attitude against dealers in the contemporary art market). Of course this is a business and it is normal to make a profit, like anyone else selling a product or service. But, if profit was the only factor, not one person I know would be an art dealer as there are better ways to make money than selling art. With very few exceptions, most tribal art dealers make a good living at best, but rarely get rich. In fact, the only wealthy tribal art dealers I know started out that way, usually with family money or funds from other businesses.

Art dealers have to invest considerable sums into inventory and then spend additional funds on shipping and importation fees (when necessary), restorations/repairs, presentation (including stands and pedestals), photography, advertisements, storage, sales locations (such as galleries or exhibitions spaces), travel, websites, etc, as well as all of the normal personal expenses. All of these are out of pocket costs before any sales are made and any return on the investment is realized. In addition, there are loses from bad purchases, financial and physical risks when traveling in third world source countries, and inventories that sit for months, sometimes years before they are sold.

Then how does one value all of the time that dealers put into their business? So much of it is a long learning curve, including reading every relevant publication, visiting every relevant exhibition and collection, studying and handling thousands of objects (especially when buying), and making sense of all manner of misinformation (deliberate or not) that is thrown about when buying tribal art. Most art dealers are generous with their time, experience, expertise, and inventories (such as loans to museums) and do a lot more work than they get paid or recognized for.

Making a reasonable profit on this investment of time and money would be considered completely acceptable in any other business, but I am constantly surprised when academics, curators, and even collectors practically sneer at dealers making a profit (which is often falsely assumed to be astronomical). This is especially hypocritical considering that nearly everyone involved in the tribal art world is making money as well.

Frankly, the largest profit made in tribal art (and probably in most other art fields) is ultimately by the collectors who eventually sell or donate their pieces. And of course auction houses charge fees for sales and museums make money on art by selling tickets to exhibitions, selling publications, and receiving donations of cash and artifacts from collectors (and dealers). Academics, researchers, and anthropologists are funded for their work, again ultimately tied to the generosity and interest of collectors and the public. And don’t forget that locals in source countries also make money off of the items (admittedly not much) that often help pay for medical care, school, food, debts, etc, that would not have been possible without a financial demand for these pieces. Yet, the dealers are the only ones who are scorned or scolded for making a profit off the art market.

With the exception of personal heirloom objects, most tribal artifacts would ultimately rot “in situ”, un-appreciated by anyone outside the immediate area. Without the interest (financial and otherwise) of art collectors and dealers, there would be virtually no one (other than a handful of academics and students) who would care about these objects, preserve them, attend exhibitions, or read any publications.

Of course there are art sellers that just move out “merchandise” with little interest other than profit, but I find this the rare exception. Most dealers I know are - at heart - collectors and have the same passion for these objects that others have. When dealers rave about an object they are doing so because they actually believe what they say and not just because they are trying to sell it. Yet it is assumed that any expression of enthusiasm is motivated by profit alone. Dealers also enjoy the hunt for rare objects, having them in their homes, and appreciating their power and beauty. By providing most of the collectable and important artifacts, as well as a considerable amount of the information, dealers are an integral part of the tribal art community and should be respected for their contributions.

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