Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Strategy for Responses and Proactive Offense on Issues of Cultural Patrimony:


We are losing the PR war on issues relating to Cultural Patrimony. We have neither a cohesive response nor strategy that properly and pro-actively states our side of the story. The government, media, archeological groups, and others believe or may eventually believe that all dealers, collectors, and institutions that buy, sell, and own tribal art or other cultural objects are basically criminals, “trafficking” (a term that already denotes illegal activity) in illegally obtained artifacts.

Those opposed to our activities are trying to characterize individuals that market artifacts legally obtained from private lands, acquired directly from the lawful owners (including families or villages), or acquired prior to current laws restricting this trade in the same category with individuals that market artifacts and human remains dug up illegally on Federal land and other protected sites worldwide, or items clearly stolen from others. This also applies to those items traditionally adorned with animal parts in antiquity by the original native peoples with items using newly acquired animal parts.

Most often, when I read articles on this subject, I rarely hear a direct response that clearly separates one group from the other or makes any point about the costs to the public of investigating and persecuting individuals engaged in legal activity.

We need to take a page from the conservative political playbook and go on the offensive. When they have an issue they want to bring to the public, they create and disperse a few very simple buzzwords or phrases that are repeated (in lock-step) over and over again, until the message sticks.

I believe that we need to use the same methods to get our message across to the general public, as well as ill-informed legislators, who at this point have no reason to disagree with the government and media versions of our business activity. Generally the public and most legislative bodies really do not understand the full extent of the issue. They automatically assume that the negative version of events is likely true and therefore would side with law enforcement when they open investigations, harass individuals, search museums, galleries and residences, confiscate goods, and make arrests.

What I propose is a clear set of prepared responses and eventually a more direct offensive on the forces that oppose our activities. We have to keep statements simple, to the point and include a mention of costs, so the general public and undecided legislators realize they do have a potentially negative financial stake in this debate.

Prepared responses should include statements, such as these listed below:

As individuals interested in cultural material, we strongly oppose those who violate laws relating to illegal removal of artifacts from government or tribal lands.

We do not purchase stolen artifacts and agree with the rights of individuals and native cultures to use and protect their own property.

When buying cultural property directly from indigenous sources, we only buy material legally obtained from individuals, families, and villages that willing agree to sell these artifacts.

That these sources are often people who no longer use these artifacts, because of changes to their traditional lifestyle (perhaps due to conversion to a “modern” religion, entering the cash economy from a barter system, radical environmental changes to traditional lands, restrictions or interference from local governments, or other influences from outside the local culture.

That these sellers directly benefit from the sale of artifacts, generally no longer in use, because they use the funds to purchase medicine, food, clothing, home repairs, farm improvements, or pay for educational and other work opportunities.

Those artifacts purchased from non-indigenous sources, such as other dealers, collectors, or institutions, were also legally obtained with full title or acquired prior to any recent changes in the law.

That the buying and selling of cultural objects benefits the public through the payment of sales and income taxes as well as providing materials for the education and understanding of these formally traditional societies and cultures.

That the persecutions of the dealers, collectors, and institutions, the vast majority who buy, sell, and own legal artifacts costs the public millions in wasted tax dollars.

Other important points:

1) It is patronizing to indigenous peoples when claiming they need western governments to protect them from willingly selling their own cultural property. I hear this argument all too often, along the lines of “unscrupulous western dealers take advantage of simple village folk when negotiating prices for artifacts”. It is unfair to state that tribal peoples, who have been trading, bartering, and selling for generations, are not capable of making a fair deal that satisfies their needs. I have always found that the people I am doing business with overseas are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and making clear decisions.

On another angle, does an artist in New York have more rights to sell his art to a foreign buyer, than does a villager in Africa? Further, do this artist’s heirs have more rights to sell their art to a foreign buyer than the villager’s heirs?

The second part of the argument is the gap in prices paid in third world countries to the prices realized in first world countries. The counter argument to this is the cost of living is equal to or more than that price gap. For example, in an extreme hypothetical situation where a western dealer might pay $100 for an object that is resold in the West for $5000, one must keep in mind that the indigenous person probably has an average monthly cost of living of $100 while a westerner has a monthly cost of living of $5000 or more.

*A side note on this subject: the average sale of a cultural object often comes from decendants of the original owner. The seller in fact exerted no labor or expense in the creation of the object, normally something that was handed down through the generations. In a sense any money realized is a gift, exactly like wealth handed down from to heirs in our own country.

2) This argument has been used before, but worth stating again and that not all source countries are in control politically to protect their own cultural property. The example of the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist statues is a point to be emphasized. The fact that many artifacts were sold into the world marketplace is what protected many objects that otherwise would have been destroyed.

It makes more sense, in any event, to have wider distribution of cultural property around the globe, thus preventing total destruction due to political upheavals, environment damage, and natural disasters.

It is important to note, that many artifacts would have been discarded and eventually lost to the elements, if no art market existed. The fact that buyers are willing to pay money for artifacts is what has kept many of these pieces intact and appreciated. It also puts money directly into the hands of others, especially the villagers, who otherwise would not have benefited financially for these discarded or abandoned objects.

3) Who really owns world culture? For example, do the Italians own everything found within their current political boundaries? What about Greek artifacts found in Italy? Are they Greek or Italian? Are the decendants of former cultures, now dominated by new cultures the true owners or are the decendants of the current culture. Another example: who owns Moche artifacts in Peru, their decendants or the Spanish decendants that conquered them? The changing of boundaries over time and the coming and goings of cultures blur this line.

Or objects found in International waters (ex: Italy demanding the return of Getty bronze statue, found outside of Italy. This bronze statue was originally stolen from the Greeks by Roman soldiers and was not from Italy).

Which leads to the point of how far does repatriating cultural property go? Should ALL American art, including Native American artifacts, 19th century folk art, 20th century modernist paintings, and so on be brought back to the USA, never to be seen or appreciated outside our borders? Should ALL French impressionist paintings be returned to France?

*I say we draw the line at keeping all indigenous earth art on our planet and leave it at that.


For more years than I can remember, the focal points for tribal art sales in New York in May have been the Caskey/Lees Tribal Art Show and the Sotheby’s auction. That changed dramatically this year, when the Caskey/Lees group cancelled their show. But nature abhors a vacuum and within 24 hours a new set of players attempted to fill the void.

It should be noted that Bill Caskey and Liz Lees were forced to cancel their long running show, because so many dealers opted out this year. I would assume that most dropped out because show sales in general have not been as strong these last two years and the NY show in particular has its own set of problems.

The show was originally at the downtown armory, then it moved to the uptown armory, then back downtown, and this year it was to move again to the l1th floor of some art mart (or something like that). It is by far the most expensive tribal art show for sellers in America, more than double the costs of San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Santa Fe, a big consideration even in the best of times. Before 9/11 it was a strong, well-attended show, especially attracting European buyers and sellers. But, after 2001, show attendance and enthusiasm dropped off considerably and never really recovered.

I will digress for a moment and admit to being one of those dealers who opted out this year. I had actually intended to drop this show prior to 2010 because I rarely made any money at this venue, often just barely covering expenses. And I was bothered by the high costs, shipping problems, awkward set up, and poorly attended openings. Personally, I just wasn’t connecting with buyers in the same way I regularly do in SF, LA, & SFe. I hung in there far too long, still hoping for the new super client to walk in the door.

That said I did not want to see this show fail just because it wasn’t working out for me. I know some sellers have done very well at this show and I would hope that would continue. If for no other reason, it just doesn’t feel right that NYC should lack a great tribal art venue. And I was actually looking forward to attending this year as a visitor, perhaps finding a nice piece of art to buy, using the money I would have saved on booth costs!

Without the Caskey/Lees show anchoring the week, what next? The auction houses were moving forward with Sotheby’s offering a range of high-end (and expensive!) material, including several very special Oceanic pieces from the John Friede collection and with Bonhams offering more modest, but reasonably priced items. It would be assumed that the local NYC dealers would have their galleries open, perhaps setting up special exhibitions on their own. But, would that be enough to attract a large out of town crowd?

For several years prior, it was discussed amongst some of the dealers and collectors that the Caskey/Lees type of venue was not working in NYC, but a BRUNEAF or Paris style event might. Ideally, a group of dealers would take over several ground-floor galleries, grouped close together in an existing art district, with plenty of nice restaurants, etc. I was one of those people who agreed with this assessment, waiting to see if someone with the right resources would pull this idea together. I do know that at least two potential alternate show organizers were considering this concept, but were not yet willing to go up against Caskey/Lees existing venue.

As soon as Caskey/Lees announced the cancellation of their show, one group did leap into the fray. David Cassera, producer of Art Tribal Newsletter, with the backing of a few of the NYC dealers, most notably the Tambaran Gallery and Nassar & Co. created “Madison Promenade”, a proposed art walk of tribal art galleries and guests along and near Madison Avenue.

I know the organizers were hopeful that they would draw in a much larger group of dealers, but in the end they were only able to recruit a few local galleries such as Pace Primitive, Arte Primitivo, Alaska on Madison, Throckmorton Fine Art, and Gail Martin (who took a temporary space in the Tambaran Gallery) and a couple of European dealers: Joris Visser and John Giltsoff. Adding in Huber Primitive Art and David Bernstein, the “Promenade” amounted to an important, but anemic group of only 11 participants. To their credit, they were able to pull this together with a website, flyers, and catalog/guidebook in a very short period of time.

I know some of the other NYC dealers were not on board because of issues concerning costs and management. With such short notice and lead-time to properly prepare, others, especially those of us who do not live in NYC, were not convinced the concept was going to work out this year and didn’t want to take the financial risk. I definitely took a wait and see attitude.

Not unexpectedly, several of the other NY galleries put together an alternate version, titled “Tribal Art Week New York.” Participants included Bruce Frank Primitive Art (with guests Craig Delora and Michael Oliver), Art for Eternity (with Howard Nowes and guests Dave Deroche, David Zemanek, and Sebastian Fernandez), Michael Rhodes African Art, John Molloy Gallery, Mark Eglinton Gallery, and the AKA group (Jo De Buck, Peter Michael Boyd, Kellim Brown, Amyas Naegele, and James Stephenson) who set up shop in two adjacent hotel rooms in the Sutton Place Hotel. I was surprised that Joe Gerena, one of my favorite NY dealers, did not appear to have a special showing this time.

With two auctions and approximately 25 dealers showing at various locations (not counting any that may have set up in other hotels), NYC suddenly had a tribal show!

Please excuse me for not having the time to visit every location, as I only had two full days in Manhattan and I had to cram in a few private appointments as well. I tried at least to get by the temporary set-ups. Also, my focus is on Asian tribal and Western Pacific tribal art, so I really am not the best judge on the overall merits of material from Africa, other areas of Oceania, and the Americas.

My favorite venue on this visit was the Tambaran Gallery. It is a relatively spacious and attractive space and I liked the way Joris Visser and Gail Martin integrated their material in the lower gallery. Gail, as usual, has amazing textiles, included feather pieces and ikats from Central Asia. Joris had a very nice group of objects, including a beautiful mask from New Britain, which I believe he sold rather quickly. Joris reported good sales, including some pieces to new buyers. In the main upstairs gallery, there was a very unusual archaic Tau-Tau figure with long legs, which has to be the tallest example I have ever come across. I also like the South Sumatra throne back, somewhat hidden, near the office.

Although completely out of my normal area of interest, I really enjoyed the group of African pieces for sale at the AKA group show at the Sutton Hotel. Another highlight, was visiting the Bruce Frank gallery, because he has the best Indonesian pieces in town. Of special note were a small, archaic style Dayak ossuary fragment and a Dayak “knocked knee” post figure. Bruce also had a wonderful small, somewhat colorful, New Guinea figure, I believe from the Sepik area. At John Giltsoff's temporary location on Madison, I particularly loved a simple, but elegant Inuit mask he had on display.

All of the galleries I visited had wonderful objects for sale, but obviously some stood out over others. It was enjoyable to walk around the upper part of Madison and visit a few places in one loop.

On the downside, there were really only a handful of galleries in the upper Madison area, so most of the other venues required a taxi or ride on the subway. It isn’t that big of an issue in NYC, but it really didn’t feel like a “promenade” with so little concentration of galleries in any one area. Another issue was nearly everyone had a Wednesday evening opening, when considering the actual distance from place to place, made it impossible to attend each one.

Because events were spread out across town, I have no idea how many people showed up for all of this. I did see some familiar faces coming in and out of the galleries and there were crowds at the auctions, of course. From the few sellers I did talk to afterwards, sales were generally modest and attendance was concentrated around the first day or two.

The auctions were a real contrast. I was able to attend most of the Bonhams sale, which appeared to not go well. Way too many lots went unsold and what items did make the cut, generally went for less than expected. There was just no energy in the room. Clearly, there were few significant pieces offered, especially in comparison to Sotheby’s sale but in my opinion there were plenty of solid modest quality pieces that could have been picked up with reasonable bids. And in this economy, I would have expected more sales in this price range.

On the other hand, the Sotheby’s sale was insane! Several pieces went for very high numbers, in particular a fantastic and rare New Guinea flute stopper and a multi-faced Lega sculpture that each sold at around two million dollars. The Friede provenance and Sotheby’s hype machine, certainly helped, but with the exception of the flute stopper (which really is a masterpiece and a rare buying opportunity) it still amazes me how many buyers are willing to pay much, much more for similar items at auction than they would directly from a dealer, gallery, or private party.

The bottom line is I am happy to see that the tribal art banner is still flying high in NYC. I hope there was enough momentum to make this happen again next year. I would like to see more galleries and guests participate, especially if they can find some way to concentrate the venues. It might be helpful if there were a few “anchor” locations, with more than just a few dealers (but not too many, because I like the intimacy of smaller venues) at each end of Madison or perhaps in other prime locations around the city. I still love the idea of a larger group of dealers taking over part of an art district, like Chelsea. With a much longer lead-time and more cooperation amongst the various factions, at least for advertising and marketing purposes, it may be possible to re-energize the tribal art scene in NYC.