Monday, October 11, 2010


Following is the English translation of the Foreword by Bernard Sellato in the Italian language publication "Patong, La grande scultura dei popoli del Borneo", for the 2008 exhibition of Borneo wood sculpture in the collection of the Museo delle Culture di Lugano. Bernard kindly asked me to review his statements on the current art market and identification of Borneo art and to make comments if needed.  His original text is in black. My comments are in red and his replies are in blue. I have decided to just let the material flow naturally with comments made at specific points in the Foreword.

Bernard Sellato, a geologist and anthropologist working in Borneo since 1973, is the author of the must-have book on Borneo art: "Hornbill and Dragon" as well as several other publications and articles. His latest publication: "Plaited Arts from the Borneo Rainforest", is richly illustrated and offers a comprehensive look at the woven masterpieces created by Borneo's rain forest artists. Available in January 2011.


Bernard Sellato

(Published in Italian translation as: "Un inatteso giacimento," in Patong. La grande sculptura dei popoli del Borneo dalle Collezioni del Museo delle Culture di Lugano, Paolo Maiullari & Junita Arneld (eds), Milano: Ed. G. Mazotta, 2008, pp. 51-57)

Had it not been for the Galleria Gottardo’s and the Museo delle Culture Extraeuropee’s most welcome initiative to stage this important exhibition, I would never have imagined that the beautiful city of Lugano, which is rightfully famous for several other reasons, held such an outstanding Borneo collection. We may never know why, some day, one Lugano resident, the artist Serge Brignoni, decided to bequeath his collection to the Museo. Yet, unfortunately, for over twenty years, that collection remained in the Museo’s depot, leaving us, Borneo aficionados, totally unaware of its existence.

This sort of chance occurrence of private persons’ bequests and donations, of course, must lead one to suspect that other museums, in other Western towns and cities, with no special historical connections to Borneo, or to Asia more generally, might hold similar treasures, awaiting an opportunity to be “discovered” and exhibited. Therefore, Professor Francesco Paolo Campione’s present endeavor is to be highly commended. Also, I would like here to acknowledge Junita Arneld’s and Paolo Maiullari’s dedication to and expertise in the arduous task of identifying and making sense of the pieces of this collection.

On Collecting

Indeed, one major problem with such collections is with the almost total dearth of information regarding the pieces’ origins and functions. Serge Brignoni’s is an artist’s collection, based on an artist’s unique approach and specific criteria. It is a very personal selection of pieces that appealed to him, presumably for aesthetic reasons having little to do with an ethnographer’s or an anthropologist’s concerns. Serge Brignoni was not, we may expect, particularly eager to investigate which ethnic group of which region of Borneo had manufactured them and for what reasons, or what functions they served or what meaning they carried. Moreover, such information probably was not forthcoming, as these pieces were procured, along the years, from primitive art galleries and public auctions in European capital cities. Why Serge Brignoni collected Bornean statuary and, more broadly, Indonesian and Oceanic art, rather than, say, African art, as quite a few other famous artists did, may remain a matter for conjecture.

Although no information as to the places of origin of these carvings came with them, it is clear that Serge Brignoni had an artist’s sure eye for and fine taste in Bornean art. The 1920s and 1930s, when he gathered his collection, saw several exhibitions, held in Banjarmasin and Batavia (Jakarta), of Borneo artefacts made for the already blooming antique trade (see, e.g., Schophuys et al. 1939), and it is not that uncommon to find “old fakes” in pre-war (and even older) collections (I would question this report. I find it difficult to believe there was much of a demand for Indonesia art at this time, other than from Dutch colonists, especially for “primitive” material such as Borneo artifacts. Considering the amount of available authentic pieces at that time, it seems unlikely there was a need to create “fakes” of the same types of objects. I would really like to see proof that convincing reproductions of traditional Borneo objects were made in the 1930s. It has been my experience that objects made for sale, regardless of the skill level of the artist, rarely if ever reach the level of quality of objects made for personal or traditional use. Collectors in the field before WWII probably seldom could remove and take away old statues, for reasons of local beliefs, and no “runner” at that time would have taken the risk of stealing one, even with local complicity, so collectors sometimes commissioned work by local carvers, and so did, probably, the early local “antique dealers”. Such statues would have just the same quality. Now, would they be “authentic” of “fake”? Regarding basketry, which is more in my area of expertise, one found in the late 1940s in Kalimantan souvenir shops all sorts of “ritual” sun hats of the Ngaju, Ot Danum, and related people, except that these hats carry geometric patterns, because local craftspeople did not dare display their usual sacred patterns of godly beings on artefacts meant for sale. Those hats, therefore, were different from the “authentic” hats, though not of a poorer quality.), yet Serge Brignoni’s flair did not fail him, and his collection clearly does not include such made-for-the-trade pieces. One thus may assume that he exercised the same discrimination in selecting objects from the wider Indonesian and Oceanic area for his vast collection, and one would just hope that those objects are also presented to the public soon.

This Bornean collection, however, does reflect a few standard features, which to this day have remained widespread among collectors of and dealers in primitive art, be it African or Bornean. Firstly, most often these persons are partial to “noble” materials – metal, stone, and hard wood. Art works made of such materials are readily recognized as art; otherwise, they often barely qualify as handicrafts (see Sellato 1995). Among carved hard wood works, anthropomorphic figures are generally favored, and even more so when they come in large sizes (I am not sure I agree with this, as I have found it very difficult to sell larger hard wood sculptures. Most collectors I know tend to purchase smaller to medium size objects and rarely buy a large scale sculptures. I wish this was true! I guess you are right on this, but I would say that this trend is recent. In the 1970s in Jakarta, medium-size statues were quite cheap, and the smaller ones (up to 10cm) sold by the dozen, and even by the weight, while large hard wood sculptures were already very much sought after.). Serge Brignoni’s Borneo collection comprises principally large-sized anthropomorphic figures made of hard wood – along with the occasional war shield or baby-carrier.

Secondly, collectors and dealers have a marked bias towards the “antiquity” of primitive art pieces. While it is well known that wooden artefacts, even those made of hard wood, or the imputrescible iron wood, usually do not survive very long in the humid tropics (New evidence contradicts this view. The majority of carbon date tests, conducted in the last decade, of ironwood sculptures from Borneo, especially figures found in dry caves or recovered from river mud, are showing much older dates than expected: 300 years, 500 years, 1000 years, 1500 years old, etc. There are some sculptures carved from softer woods, again usually found in dry caves, that have also dated back as old as 500 years.  Considering that is not uncommon to find intact wooden artifacts, none made of durable ironwood, that date back 2000 to 4000 years in dry tombs in Central Asia, China and Egypt, this data should not be shocking. Even wet tomb sites in China have produced soggy, but intact 2500 year old wooden objects. Indeed, in reducing contexts, like black river mud or peat bog, even skin or hair may survive, and very old carved objects may be found in such environments. But Borneo is not Egypt, and so-called “dry” caves are not that dry, I know that from experience. I was actually referring principally to hardwood statues showing “traces of age”, such as weathering or lichen, which collectors are keen to check on, and which only occur with items standing in the open, not with items in caves. And a very weathered statue may just be fifty years old, not necessarily “mid-19th century”. -I still think solid ironwood sculptures can last considerably longer than fifty years in the open without getting too much erosion. There may be many examples that do not, and it is likely that sculptures carved from lesser hard or medium woods would not last very long in the open, especially in harsh wet environment. But, I have one very eroded Ngaju sculpture that was carbon dated to 200 years old and I know other's that have been able to get 100-400 dates on outdoor pieces they own. In addition I have owned a few outdoor pieces with good information that were more than fifty years old, that really did not show much erosion on the surface. A little bit around the top of the head and some flat areas, but the pieces were generally intact-), collectors and dealers are always quite eager to convince themselves (or their customers) that a given object can be ascribed to the “late 19th century” – and the earlier, the better – as if the label “mid-20th century” would lessen its artistic value (it would, I suspect, somewhat moderate its market value) (I completely agree with this point and I discussed this in an earlier posting on my blog. Nearly always, the very first question asked of me by collectors is “how old is it”! Never how good is it! No matter how fantastic the quality of a piece is, as soon as a date later than early 20th century is mentioned, the vast majority of collectors lose interest. It is true that most dealers will over emphasize early dates, true or not, to collectors to boost sales, but I keep trying to lead in another direction, hoping to convince collectors to look past this point and pay more attention to the art. Unfortunately, it seems to be a losing battle and I rarely am able to convince anyone to do so. I am not sure who is more responsible: the collectors who demand early pieces or the dealers that promoted this idea in the first place.). Ideally, art pieces should be “pre-contact”, that is, with Westerners, based on the assumption that they would then be more authentic, as if no other contact, or cultural influences, had ever occurred prior to Western interference. In turn, I believe, this rests on some vague notion that “primitive” cultures have somehow remained static till the arrival of their Western “discoverers” (I have also tried to make this point and agree that purity of culture is a ridiculous concept promoted by many dealers and latched onto by most collectors. With very few exceptions, most tribal cultures have had contact with others, trading for materials not found locally and borrowing ideas. Dayak groups on Borneo had contact with traders from China, Philippines, Indochina, India, and parts of the Arab world, long before they met a European. It was and still is common for people to adopt positive outside influences. In fact many Dayak aristocrats believed that owning and using materials found outside the local area added to their status. An important example of this influence is the trade in uniformly mass-produced glass seed beads from Europe had on virtually every tribal culture around the world in the 19th and early 20th century. I actually like pieces that have odd cross cultural connections and find that movement of ideas and materials fascinating. I have had better luck convincing a few collectors to get over this issue and appreciate these artistic connections. It is still a good point to make, for example, if an airplane flying over Borneo drops a milk cartoon onto the ground and a Dayak picks up, cuts some holes into it, adds some wood ears, and then wears it on his head like a mask I would absolutely consider that a piece of authentic Dayak tribal art! Do you know this movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which the main character is a bottle of Coke? Absolutely!). Furthermore, one must be aware that such period ascription very often is more a matter of marketing strategy than of scientific analysis.

Associated, to some extent, with age is, for collectors and dealers, the “patina factor”, one which is obviously of no relevance to the people who created the objects. The patina, usually amply described in catalogues, seems to bear heavily on an object’s market price (This can be true, but in my experience, the emphasis on patina is more about understanding the use of the piece which can also help with determining authenticity and possibly age. The richer the patina or the more eroded the surface, the more likely that it was used regularly and therefore more likely an authentic and older object. There can be added value in good patina, of course, but I think there is nothing wrong with that as natural wear, erosion, and continual use adds it own unique features. I believe the notion of “patina” in primitive art may have emerged from the African art market, whereby patina was supposed to derive from repeated rubbing or offerings of blood and/or egg yolk). Therefore, it is often made to undergo a delicate process of cosmetic “improvement” at the hands of experts, which is quite difficult to detect (I am sure this is true in some cases, however I find this the exception rather than the rule. In my experience, most fake patinas are produced in the source countries and meant to fool everyone in the chain of sales. The vast majority of professional western dealers would not knowingly manufacture fake patinas to enhance sales, as to be caught doing so would be a major faux pas, regardless of the ethical considerations. Frankly, it is not as easy to do successfully as many people seem to believe. I have seen many examples of carvings with faked surfaces and they are rarely ever convincing and under close examination can usually be detected. It is has been said that whatever man can make, man can reproduce, but in the case of authentic patinas nature and regular use, over long periods of time are the creators. It is more common, if needed, for western dealers to repair pieces and touch up patinas in damaged areas.). Such sophisticated doctoring is performed not only by primitive art specialists in European capitals, but nowadays also by manufacturers of fake Dayak statues in Borneo’s coastal cities, as well as in Bali and other places (This does happen, but the vast majority of professional tribal art dealers that I know would never do this knowingly or pass on pieces that they believe are fakes. What is more typical is that a dealer may also be fooled and unknowingly re-sells a fake.  If this is discovered, legitimate dealers will take back the piece and refund the buyer. The majority of fakes sold in Bali are purchased by amateurs or tourists, while professional dealers go out of their way to avoid these pieces and concentrate on finding only authentic, traditional artifacts.).

Finally, another factor, and a crucial one on the primitive art market, is the aesthetic value credited to a given object. Let me, at this point, remark that this value, in principle, should be independent of the object’s absolute antiquity or the material used, and even, to some extent, its size, but in practice it is not (Without question values are subjective and even change over time. Thankfully, there are a variety of opinions on values and what is valuable; otherwise we would all want to collect the exact same thing at the exact same price. The main reason the market functions because there is no universal agreement on aesthetics or value. One of the things that makes collecting interesting is discovering objects not yet accepted as valuable in the mainstream marketplace. I completely agree on this). While this is not the place to discuss the legitimacy of the process by which Westerners project their own grid of aesthetic values upon artefacts created by other cultures, which has been viewed by some as a new form of colonialism, I should at least stress the very subjective and culturally biased nature of such an aesthetic evaluation
(Of course Westerners project their own gird of aesthetics, just as tribal societies project their aesthetics on items found outside their culture.  Dayaks were attracted to ceramic jars traded from China, brass wares from Brunei, trade beads from Europe, machine spun yarns and dyes, and so on, easily incorporating them into their material culture. They discovered their own ways to appreciate and value these items outside the context of their origin. Is it right to criticize only Westerners for doing the same thing? I was not criticizing anyone. But see the post-modern position about this).

Likewise, a subjective assessment of an object’s “power” partakes in this evaluation. In a “powerful” object, this encompasses, in a strange mix, both the aesthetic strength that it possesses to trigger emotions, and the magical potency that it is supposedly endowed with. Minute traces of blood (or egg yolk) as could be detected – or imagined, or carefully added – are viewed as testifying to the object’s use in ritual sacrifices and, consequently, to its accommodating some sort of supernatural entity, which, in turn, is viewed as guaranteeing its authenticity. Supposed supernatural attendance in a carved figure may be regarded at will by its owner as either benevolent, and thus bound to ensure the protection of the home, or malevolent, and liable to radiate danger – only slightly so, because the owner only half believes in it, but a little shudder is always so pleasurable. And, of course, a spiritually laden object generally can command a higher market price (This is true to some degree, but I believe is missing the point. Dealers and collectors that love tribal art appreciate this aspect, which is one of the main reasons we collect these pieces. Real or imagined, it is something we all look for in a piece and often is what attracts us in the first place. Frankly, if you look at most tribal art objectively, in this case Dayak objects, there is very little that is beautiful about them, at least in the normal Western sense of art (I would disagree. Which/whose objectivity are you talking about, anyway? Are you projecting something?-it has been my experience that the average Western viewer does not understand or appreciate Dayak art-). You have to have a skewed sense of artistic appreciation and at least some ability to understand the abstract and mystical in the first place to find some Dayak monster attractive! We love these pieces precisely because they are supposed to be emanating menace, power, and protection! That said, are the descriptions accurate?  Possibly not and certainly dealers and collectors should do more “homework”, but most of this is in the eye of the beholder anyway. Without saying anything to a client, they can either “feel” this or they don’t.  Since this is a major part of the collecting/buying mentality for tribal art, it would be natural and expected to make this part of the “sales pitch”. Dealers did not invent this concept, nor can they force collectors to sense a “presence” in an object.).

In this process of evaluating an artefact’s aesthetic quality, near-total ignorance of its cultural context is nowadays trendy (I would disagree with this, at least in my experience. Most dealers and collectors I know would like to know this information and make every effort to obtain it. Unfortunately, all too often the correct information it is not available). Everyone has heard certain self-styled primitive art experts discoursing ad nauseam, with the appropriate emphatic gesticulation, on an object, with complete disregard for its significance in the culture that produced it (I don’t see this very often or at least in the way expressed in this statement. Most dealers and collectors I know do not deliberately pass on fake or overly exaggerated information. They may over emphasize some point out of passion, but not in an attempt to deceive. I was referring to particular individuals in my home country, whose sole focus is aesthetics. -in case this is not clear, Bernard is from France-). Fortunately, the present exhibition pays no heed to what for some is now the cool thing to do, and serious efforts have been made to restitute, when possible, the objects’ cultural context, particularly regarding their identification and interpretation.

On Identifying

Unless an artefact has been collected in the field, in its traditional cultural context, and information relative to its name, use, function, and meaning has also been gathered through interviews with knowledgeable participants in that particular culture, the tasks of identifying and interpreting this artefact seldom are easy ones. The first problem is with identifying its region of origin and the ethnic group that produced it. In this process, one must deal with the notion of “ethnic styles”, actually a rather hazy one. In turn, through a study of the available scientific literature, this identification may allow for a tentative interpretation of the artefact (It is rare for objects on the market to come with such precise field collection data, so dealers can only provide the best information they have available.).

Ethnic styles, however, are not unambiguously recognizable. Insofar as Borneo is concerned, only a small number of significant ethnic groups have become familiar, in terms of their “styles”, to collectors and dealers. The epithet “significant” here refers, obviously, to their prominent position on the primitive art market, not their population numbers or their political importance. These groups include, e.g., the Bahau, the Modang, the Ngaju. This is so, principally, because these groups, among lesser known others, have produced large-sized carved figures in hard wood, in which collectors and dealers recognize an (aesthetic) strength and/or (spiritual) potency comparable to that recognized in the carved works of certain African, Melanesian, or Pacific groups, and also because their respective productions, in terms of ethnic styles, seem relatively easy to identify (I agree with this statement on identification. Because there is often so little information available on the various sub-groups, dealers will tentatively identify an object with a related, but better-known group).

Collectors and dealers, therefore, have been prone to, first, view these few, particular ethnic styles as “boxes”, strict and discrete categories, and, second, include in these boxes, that is, identify to these recognized styles, all sorts of artefacts of diverse, more or less unrelated origins. One reason for this stance is commercial, as an object qualified as Modang fetches a higher price on the market and, concomitantly, this contributes to strengthening the position of Modang art, which therefore becomes increasingly sought after. In fact, a substantial part of the authentic pieces labeled as Modang are not Modang, while there are many more fake Modang than there are fake Rembrandt. (This problem arises from the fact the very little specific information is available to dealers, and therefore collectors, about the specific sub-group that produces each object. Also getting specific information about the origins can be complicated by how an individual Dayak may identify himself. Bernard makes this point in his book: “Innermost Borneo, Studies in Dayak Cultures” on page174, that Dayaks from the Aoheng group may identify themselves from their specific village amongst other Aohengs, then as Penihing to the nearby Busang or Kayan, and then as Busang as they move farther down the river, then Bahau, and then eventually just Dayak when they encounter coastal peoples. Certainly artifacts coming down this same chain, may suffer the same misidentification. Another problem is that most of the objects coming from the field start with a chain of local runners and dealers that eventually make their way to the markets in Bali. The self-interest of these runners often prevents them from telling the truth about the origin of the pieces they offer, primarily to keep others from going around them and then obtain more pieces from that area. Frankly, they may not care enough about this issue to pass on the correct information. Lastly, there are always problems with memory, personal interpretation of the data, and translation. (All this is certainly true.)

Personally, I make a point to obtain this information and beg my sources to produce accurate collection data: origin, use, etc, but this almost never happens no matter how much I plead! Because it is nearly impossible to guess or know if a particular object is from the Modang, Bahau, or one of the many subgroups, we are often forced to pigeon hole a piece into one of these basic “style” groupings. The reality is that we do this out convenience, not to deceive or enhance value. It is true that at the moment Modang and Bahau objects are more desirable on the market and therefore more valuable, but that is because they deserve to be. This “style”, again regardless of precise origin, is fantastic, archaic, and rare.  I am one of the biggest promoters of this area and their value and do so with no shame, because I honestly believe it! Virtually all of the other collectors and dealers that I know, that appreciate this style, feel the same way and we are doing this NOT because of the potential “value” issue but out of true passion for these forms. Most of the false info for strictly value sake comes from the runners and dealers in Indonesia that are now aware that this market is hot. Usually, the legitimate dealer crowd steps in and generally corrects the obvious errors in identification before they reach the collectors. Somehow, this focus (or should we call it obsession?) with certain “styles”, which creates an upward spiraling interest in them, at the same time prevents the “discovery” or recognition of other styles, which might be just as fascinating, but never make it to the market -you are right and the origins of other, similar styles should not be dismissed-).

Ethnic styles, like ethno-cultural groups, are not tight, foolproof categories (Most of us know this, but as mentioned before precise information is not easily obtainable). Along with objects, techniques, and ideas, styles have circulated widely, from time immemorial, and reached far away across the island. For example, the area of diffusion of parang ilang, the peculiar straight sword of the Kayan, has spread out to many other groups, cutting across mountain ranges and ethnic boundaries, to reach even the Iban, who have a tradition of curved swords. And Kenyah dances, and especially their inspiriting lute music, have become popular across large portions of the eastern Kalimantan and Sarawak regions.

Inter-ethnic contact, intermarriage, and trade have induced cultural exchange and cross influences, and created broad buffer zones straddling ethnic limits, where styles are typically métis. Among the Iban, one may find straight-bladed parang ilang fitted with an Iban-style hilt and sheath. And Kenyah dances, as rendered by other, neighboring groups, no longer are truly Kenyah. Styles, therefore, are not discrete categories, but rather form a constellation of continuous variations overlapping ethnic boundaries. Stylistic continuum is the norm, while stylistic isolate is an exception. And in many cases, ascribing with precision a given artefact to a given ethnic group is found to be mission impossible (I could not agree more!).

Moreover, within a given ethnic group and notwithstanding outside influences, there is broad local variability in space and time. From one village, and from one generation, to the next, local styles change or evolve. Within one single village, wood carvers have each their own personal manière, and the spectrum of idiosyncrasy at village level may be found to be just as broad as it is at the ethnic group level. Apart from this, specific technical constraints – for instance, a strangely shaped piece of wood – may give birth to a largely unconventional object out of line with the local style. Finally, impromptu local innovation may also lead to strikingly outlandish types of art work. So, identification is all but an easy task (Bingo!).

On Interpreting

Once an artefact has been identified with a high enough degree of reliability – let us note here that standards of reliability vary widely – interpreting it poses another challenge. When it comes to interpretation, it appears that collectors and dealers have consistently displayed a marked propensity to label virtually any anthropomorphic figure as an “ancestor figure” (I’ll admit to doing this all of the time, but not because I am trying to deceive or add value.  When I am not sure what a piece really represents, and again the variety of possibilities is endless, I fall back on this generic interpretation. Often I use “ancestor figure, because just saying ‘statue’ or “sculpture’ is boring and repetitive. I suspect others do it for the same reasons or out of laziness, but I really don’t think dealers are specifically using this term because it adds value to the piece.  n the end, most value comes from quality and rarity and not the terminology used. Right, but then, it contributes to disseminating wrong information on the object’s cultural background. -I agree and would appreciate getting the correct information whenever possible-). Whereas this may, to some extent, be true of such figures from other Southeast Asian islands, it is a gross oversimplification regarding Borneo (see, e.g., Sumnik-Dekovich 1985, Feldman 1994; see also Sellato 2002). Some such figures, as among the “Kayanic” groups (Kayan, Bahau, Modang, Kenyah, and related groups), are not ancestor figures at all and have no connection whatsoever with the dead and funerals. Furthermore, although many large anthropomorphic statues, especially in the set of ethnic groups described as the “Barito Complex” (Ngaju, Ot Danum, Luangan, Benua’, Tunjung; see Sellato 1989 and 1992), were indeed erected in the course of funerary rituals, they do not necessarily represent ancestors. Generally, as Nicole Revel (1988: 70) rightly noted: “[...] these large anthropomorphic statues found on Borneo have many and diverse functions [...]”.

I tend to believe that the word “ancestor” has a certain appeal to collectors and dealers, and this for several reasons. It is evocative of traditional, “pagan” rituals and, as such, it suggests that the figure dates back to pagan times, that is, prior to the period of Western contact and/or Christian conversion, and at the same time, that it may be inhabited by some potent spirit. All of this, evidently, should grant it extra (market) value. (As mentioned above, I am not sure this is an accurate read of why the term is used.  Certainly it can mean all of those things, but the concepts mentioned are really the basics of what most collectors understand “authentic tribal art” to mean anyway.  I believe we are past this point when presenting pieces in the first place, so the ultimate value will be determined by other criteria and not the terminology used.).

Therefore, as regards the functions and meanings of the large carved figures from Borneo, a brief cautionary note is compulsory. Over-interpretation and “wild” speculation have long plagued otherwise interesting exhibition and public auction catalogues, as well as some other publications. This is, I believe, quite a natural inclination. For sentimental reasons, a collector wishes to have an appealing story attached to, for instance, a carved figure. An object with a (his)story is always more engaging and, thus, closer to the collector’s heart, as well as more liable to be attractive to his visitors, than an object with no such elaborate background, which somehow, being “silent”, remains remote (This is true, of course, but frankly endearing to me! Everyone loves a good story. And I do, too!). Dealers, too, are tempted to make up such a story, for commercial reasons (Unfortunately this is true in many cases, but I still hold the position that the majority of professional dealers tell these stories out of passion for the art/culture and actually believe what they are saying. I should make the point that most dealers I know are at heart collectors and have the same passion for the objects that others have. It is a long-standing prejudice against dealers that all of our motivations are strictly commercial! Of course dealers have to make a profit, because they have invested so much time and money into their work and need to pay their expenses, just like everyone else. But, if money were the only factor, no one would be an art dealer as there are much better ways to make a profit than selling art, especially tribal art. Most dealers are generous with their time, experience, expertise, and inventories (such as loans and donations to museums) and do a lot more work than they get paid for. With a very few exceptions, most tribal art dealers I know make a good living at best, but rarely get rich.  

Frankly, the most money made in tribal art (and probably most other art fields) is ultimately by the collectors who eventually sell or donate their pieces. And of course museums make money on art and so do academics, researchers, and anthropologists. And don’t forget that locals in source countries also make money off the items (admittedly not much) that help pay for medical care, school, food, debts, etc that would not have been possible without a financial demand for these pieces. Outside of personal heirloom objects, most tribal artifacts would ultimately be discarded or lost, un-appreciated by anyone outside the immediate area. Without art collectors and dealers, there would be virtually no one (other than some other academics and students) that would care who published or exhibited anything. I do agree with you on all this.).

The collector, then, may either buy the story, at a price, with the object, or choose to construct one for himself, post facto (I rarely see this.). Therefore, through this process, otherwise “silent” objects are made to talk (Most art is silent until someone interprets its meaning. Art does speak to the beholder, which is why people are attracted to a specific object. Most art may be silent, but those objects, in their home context, are very talkative, even though they might not be “art”). And “talking” objects are more valuable, sentimentally or commercially, even more so if their story endows them with assumed spiritual or magical potency (I think this statement over-emphasizing this point as if it is separate from the primary reason to collect tribal art. Tribal art is valuable in the first place because of this perception, but not MORE valuable because of it. Really?). Interestingly, this penchant runs counter the aestheticist trend of disregarding the object’s cultural context, as observed in certain museums. However, it brings on a situation that parallels, somehow, that of a ventriloquist and his puppet.

Whenever identification of an artefact’s origins (area and ethnic group) is too indecisive and its ethnographic context is too poorly known, such a ventriloquist act amounts to wholesome fiction, and even allegedly “informed” speculation as to function and meaning may prove ill-advised (I am not sure people are doing this specifically to be deceptive, but because they believe the information, even if it turns out to be incorrect.). The figure’s “persona”, then, is but that fancied by its owner. Anyone has the right to indulge in his/her own “interpretation” of a favorite object; nevertheless, s/he certainly should refrain from peddling it to customers or proposing it to the public (I would agree if it is done deceptively, but that may be a big leap to say this is common practice or that the dealer knew his information was incorrect. In my opinion, interpretation of art is one of the things that makes collecting so much fun and is done all of the time in the contemporary art market, but I agree in the tribal art market, people should try to stick to the facts as much as possible.).

In the most favorable cases, a thorough review of the relevant literature, along with meticulous comparisons with other, properly documented artefacts, may permit a reasonably reliable interpretation of an object’s function and meaning. In other cases, with inconclusive evidence, exercising scientific vigilance should lead one to admitting one’s ignorance – and there is no shame to be attached to this – instead of building up a fairy tale (It is my policy to tell clients when I am not sure about my information, but I’ll admit this is not common. I agree that some dealers, as well as some collectors, believe that to admit any ignorance could be seen as a lack of expertise and experience. Personally, I always appreciate additional insights and data. Everyone, including dealers, collectors, curators, and academics should be promoting co-operation and the exchange of information whenever possible. Let’s all promote co-operation! The more information circulates, the better).  I am happy to congratulate Junita Arneld and Paolo Maiullari who, with appropriate circumspection, have done a magnificent job of presenting as much information as was convincingly possible.


Derlon, Brigitte, & Monique Jeudy-Ballini, 2006, “Collectionneur/collectionné. L’art primitif, le discours de la passion et la traversée imaginaire des frontières”, L'Homme, 177-178: 349-372.

Feldman, Jerome, 1994, Arc of the Ancestors. Indonesian Art from the Jerome L. Joss Collection at UCLA, Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Revel-Macdonald, Nicole, 1988, “The Dayak of Borneo. On the ancestors, the dead and the living”, in Islands and Ancestors. Indigenous Styles of Southeast Asia, Jean-Paul Barbier & David Newton (eds.), Munich: Prestel Verlag, pp. 66-85.

Schophuys, H.J., Siti Roesiah Hinting, & A.D. Ismaël, 1939,  Lalampahan ka Poelo Kalimantan. Gids bij de verzameling nijverheidsartikelen uit Borneo, tentoongesteld op de Pasar Gambir 1939. Kata pengantar tentang barang-barang berasal dari Kalimantan jang dipertoendjoekkan di Pasar Gambir 1939, Batavia: Balai Poestaka, Series No. 1354.

Sellato, Bernard, 1989, Hornbill and Dragon (Naga dan burung enggang). Kalimantan, Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei, Jakarta: Elf Aquitaine; second edition: Hornbill and Dragon. Arts and Culture of Borneo, Singapore: Sun Tree, 1992.

Sellato, Bernard, 1995, review of Beyond the Java Sea. Art of Indonesia's Outer Islands, by Paul Michael Taylor & Lorraine V. Aragon, Washington, DC: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, & New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991, in L'Homme, 135 (XXXV, 3): 150-152.

Sellato, Bernard, 2002, “Castrated Dead. The making of un-ancestors among the Aoheng, and some considerations on the dead and ancestors in Borneo”, in The Potent Dead: Ancestors, Saints and Heroes in Contemporary Indonesia, Henri Chambert-Loir & Anthony Reid (eds.), Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin; and Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, pp. 1-16.

Sumnik-Dekovich, Eugenia, 1985, “The significance of ancestors in the arts of the Dayak of Borneo”, in The Eloquent Dead. Ancestral Sculpture of Indonesia and Southeast Asia, Jerome Feldman (ed.), Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History, pp. 101-128.


Mark Clayton said...


Great discussion between you and Monsieur Sellato about the state and nature of collecting. Thanks for sharing your insights.

Regarding your lament about the typical collector's preoccupation with the age of an object, I would just like to submit the following analogy. An artifact is a bit like an item from a time capsule. Given the choice between getting to open a time capsule from 50 years ago or one from 150 years ago, I would choose the older one. Why? Because it's contents (aesthetical considerations aside, for the moment) would have a higher "the other" factor. This "other" factor is one of the main reasons that I collect.
Objects that are "other" are different from the things and the world that I know. They come from a time that is qualitatively different. And, broadly speaking, more old equals more different, and more different equals more "other." This works the same going forward in time, by the way. I would choose to open a time capsule from 100 years hence over one from 50 years hence, because the same principal of " the other" applies. More surprise, more wonder, more mystery, and less resemblance to the world with which I am already familiar. Owning an artifact is a way of "touching" another time and another place. Even to non-collectors, a dinosaur bone is more evocative than last week's chicken bone. An artifact – and its age – is my ticket to musing about the nature of a human consciousness and aesthetic sensibility that has since changed or is long gone. And so, all other variables aside, my interest is piqued more by a pre-WW2 artifact than a post-WW2 one. It seems less familiar, less knowable – more "other."

asiaart said...

I wouldn't completely disagree with you and I understand the analogy, but time and culture in the "Western" world has changed much more rapidly in the last 100+ years than many areas in Asia, especially remote places like Borneo. Dayak culture has mostly stayed traditional well into the mid 20th century. Traditional artifacts made in Borneo in 1950 are not much different from ones made in 1920, 1880, or 1800, so viewing them over the same time period is not going to show the same radical changes as we see in the West.

Duncan Clarke said...

Thank you for posting this very interesting discussion which clearly also has many resonances in relation to African art collecting.