The Buying and Selling Of African Art in Paris

Three dealers seek classical, ritually made objects to fulfill collectors' aims

PIERRE AMROUCHE, who deals in African art, shares a small gallery on the Rue Visconti with two partners who sell modern art. The primitive and the modern: it seems a felicitous combination.

But Mr. Amrouche is a little skeptical. His experience tells him that collectors of modern paintings and collectors of primitive art are quite different breeds.

"Most of the collectors of primitive art are ... really even close to being scholars. Very cultural people," he says. "I must say that sometimes they know better than I do. Yes, it is a very special field." By contrast he feels that collectors of modern paintings are often in search of "signatures." This gives them confidence. They know what they are buying.

"In primitive art, most of the time, we don't know who did the piece, and we don't know when exactly," he says.

Pierre Robin, whose gallery Arts Primitifs is only a few paces away, on Rue Jacques Callot, the other side of Rue de Seine, is clear about one basic criterion of quality in primitive African art. A piece must have been made "by Africans for Africans."

He adds: "The most essential thing is not the age." While many pieces finding their way onto the market are around 100 years old, "some younger things can be beautiful."

Amrouche agrees. A piece can be good even if it is recent, around 30 or 50 years old. What it must be is "genuine and strong. We want something that is not decadent, that is classical."

One sign of decadence setting in is when a classical type of mask or statue becomes bigger and bigger, Amrouche says. The thing that spells the end in every field, not only in primitive art, he claims, is "gigantism."

A shape change made for the wrong reasons may indicate decadence. This is because authentic primitive art is not intended to be art in the Western or European sense. "It is made to be used in a ritual ceremony. Very little is made only for decoration - maybe now as a kind of decadence," Amrouche says. When an African artist keeps his eye on the marketplace, he may well adopt a change in shape, presumably to make a piece more saleable.

"Today a man may make a mask for his tribe's [genuine] use - and then 100 copies for the trade. It's true. Which makes the concept of authenticity very complicated.... But most of the time there are giveaway details that are not included if a piece is not meant for ritual use."

This can be spotted by experts, but "sometimes people will disagree." There are also fakers at work, both in Africa and Europe: they will take a piece and finish it, disguising it, supplying missing details.

Amrouche points out that "people would always like to be sure of what they would buy, but that's impossible."

This may be one reason why the market for African art remains comparatively small. Amrouche says that the 3,000 subscribers to the French magazine Arts d'Afrique Noire and the 5,000 names on the mailing list for the University of California at Los Angeles's African Arts publication are figures that give a fair indication of the number of people in the world interested in the subject.

Is it possible to collect African art objects without being rich? Mr. Robin says individuals can collect primitive art at low prices and points out objects in his gallery that are in hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.

Amrouche says, "You can collect iron weights, weapons, textiles.... But people dream of other things, you know," he gestures and smiles. "But there are not many young collectors coming along. It's very expensive for a young collector. Most of the groups of American collectors we know, for example, are now between 60 and 80 - more ready to sell their collections."

Some of the specialist dealers in primitive art take part each year in the Salon de Mars at the Champ de Mars here. Alain de Monbrison is one.

His decidedly upscale gallery dealing in antiquities and primitive art (African and Oceanic) is on the Rue des Beaux Arts, also just off the Rue de Seine. Clearly this dealer is operating at the top end of the market, selling to museums as well as longstanding clients. He doesn't often descend to the street level in his gallery: The serious cognoscenti climb the stairs, and he shows them what he has to offer in exclusive and comfortable privacy.

But, Mr. de Monbrison does go personally to the annual art fair at the Salon de Mars because, he says, he believes "it is important for people who don't know African art to look at it. It is a little difficult for them to enter a gallery." At the fair, he is "trying to show them very beautiful objects - so they can see what African art can be."

When asked if the Western aesthetic is inappropriate to apply to African art, de Monbrison pointed out that the Western taste for African art has been long established. "And there is so much influence on all aspects of 20th-century art - furniture and sculpture and painting and architecture." Although African artists were not thinking in exclusively aesthetic terms, "nevertheless a beautiful object was also very efficace. The beauty was part of its power."

While most collectors of African art are interested in every aspect of the field - comprising an extraordinary number of tribal styles, customs, and cultural practices - Amrouche points out that over the years tastes change. "There are things we look at now that before we were not looking at."

Amrouche says that after World War II, the interest of such artists as Jean Dubuffet and his friends in "Art Brut - something rather rough, strong, and powerful" meant a new interest in collecting rough and strong carvings. He points to one such work from North Togo. Similar pieces had only been of brief anthropological interest to a few German museum collectors at the end of the 19th century.

This newer taste, still being stimulated today by an artist like George Baselitz, is quite different from what Amrouche calls the old taste for "quite sophisticated sculpture, like this little couple - twin figures from the Yoruba in Benin, you know - with its shiny patina."

One thing all three dealers agreed on: They do not believe it would be legitimate to accuse collectors and dealers outside Africa of exploiting African culture or invading its heritage.

Mr. Robin says it comes down to what Africans are willing to sell. If belief systems change, it means that objects once venerated are no longer valued. In this respect, he points to a similarity between today and the beginning of the century. Then, the Christian missionaries challenged and changed traditional African beliefs. Now, it is Islamic culture that is spreading. Also, political turmoil in some African countries has brought to light buyable works of art. "Some of the most beautiful objects," says

Robin, "have come out over the last 20 years."

De Monbrison, who doesn't buy directly from Africa but either purchases from African agents or buys from European or American collectors, is definite that "when the object isn't any more sacred, it's finished, no good." It is then "just left, or destroyed."

If African museums were interested, they could easily obtain African art for their collections. "The price of a Mercedes will keep a museum running in Africa for two or three years," de Monbrison says. But, "they don't care."

Does this mean that Western interest in collecting primitive African art is actually saving it for posterity?

De Monbrison is definite: "I'm sure it is."

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