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.

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