by Antony JP Meyer
It all began with the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492 at the very end of the 15th century when he met with the Täino culture of Haiti and Santo Domingo, although by the middle of the 15th century the Portuguese were already trading with Africa and the first objects are arriving in Europe.
These are the famous salt-cellars and Oliphant’s (war & hunting horns) made for the European market and carved with European-style images in an African manner. These precious ivory objects were prestige and presentation items meant as trophies, gifts and offerings to nobles, and royals. The early Curiosity Cabinets and Royal cabinets begin at the same time. These collections of oddities, curiosities of natural history and those made by man will later become the first museums. The first truly tribal pieces, sculptures, weapons and masks appear in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Pre-Columbian art is known in Europe from the early years of the 16th century – first through the pieces brought back by Columbus and secondly, and most importantly, by the Art Works in gold brought back by the returning conquistadors from Mexico and Peru.
The magnificent gold treasures brought back by Cortes in 1519 created a tremendous surprise and a real appreciation was born for the arts of South America. The artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) saw the treasures in Brussels in August 1520/21 and wrote in his diary:
… Also, I have seen the things which they have brought to the King out of the new land of gold: a sun all of gold a whole fathom broad, and a moon, too, of silver, of the same size, also two rooms full of armour, and the people there with all manner of wondrous weapons, harness, darts, wonderful shields, extraordinary clothing, beds, and all kinds of wonderful things for human use, much finer to look at than prodigies. These things are all so precious that they are valued at 100,000 gulden, and all the days of my life I have seen nothing that reaches my heart so much as these, for among them I have seen wonderfully artistic things and have admired the subtle ingenuity of men in foreign lands; indeed, I don’t know how to express what I there found.”
Thus Dürer is de facto the very first Tribal Art “Critic” and what he saw was again, de facto the very first acknowledged Tribal Art Exhibition!
Then there are the magnificent pieces of pre-Columbian art used in Renaissance art-Works such as those to be found in the collections of the famous Medici family, and the remarkably rare feathers of the quetzal belonging to Montezuma, the last emperor of the Aztecs vanquished by the Spanish conquest.
The marvel and appreciation for pre- Columbian art quickly disappears with the intensification of Christianization and the destruction of the Central and South American traditional cultures through disease and European greed.
The art of the North American Indians, colonized in the 17th century is immediately recognized as something of artistic merit. The magnificent painted buffalo skins and wampum (shell money) which are presented to the Kings of France and England are highly appreciated. Spain having conquered South America explored the West Coast of the America all the way up to Alaska collecting wonderful early examples of the local cultures.
Then, as always in the footsteps of evangelization, comes the appropriation of land, the destruction of the local societies followed by the installation of racism. The appreciation for the art of the tribal groups disappears and is replaced with a cultural superiority complex lording over the “naked illiterate savages huddled in the bush with their primitive stone tools scratching away at their grotesque carvings “.
Organized slavery in Africa at the end of the 17th century has a strong negative influence on the appreciation of African Art which will last until the early 20th century.
The first voyage by Captain Cook in 1768 to the South Pacific opens the European eye and mind to the art of the Polynesians, Melanesians, Micronesians, and Australians. But here again the early appreciation gives way to commerce, evangelization and the colonial invasion destroys not only most of the great Polynesian art but also the image of the Noble Savage and the Garden of Eden – Paradise is Lost Again.
Towards the end of the 18th century a market is created with the massive arrival of art from Africa but mostly the Pacific in the ports of England – France, Germany and Holland as well – and the United States too. The collectors and dealers are learned men or merchants looking for a way to a higher social status by showing off their Curiosity Cabinets. These collections will form the foundations of the world famous museums of today : Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, London, Paris, Boston, Berlin, etc. The most famous of all the early museums was the Leverian Museum in England with was the largest private collection in the world formed by Sir Ashton Lever and who later went bankrupt. The collection took 6 days at auction in 1806 to be liquidated; an annotated catalogue of the sale still exists.
The first true Tribal Art market seems to be English and offered mostly Oceanic Art bought in the ports from which sailed the expeditions and whalers. African art began to be marketed only in the second half of the 19th century especially following the punitive expedition to take the court of Benin in Africa. The appearance of the superb early bronze art works from the court of Benin had a major influence on the appreciation of Tribal Art through its comparison with the finest renaissance bronzes which it equals in quality and refinement.
Returning soldiers, administrators, doctors, farmers, missionaries, and whalers all brought back souvenirs that were sought after by the dealers and collectors.
Throughout Europe the art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas was known and sought after amongst a select group of erudite collectors. However, Tribal art finally meets Modern Art when the Fauvist artist Maurice de Vlaminck in 1904/5 shows the first African piece to Derain and Picasso thus creating the Primitive Art Market…
The first name for this art of other cultures was in French Art Négre (Negro Art), then towards the middle of the 20th century it was transformed to Art Primitif (Primitive Art) which while sounding racist and derogatory was not used in that connotation but with the notion of a less refined art like the Dutch “Primitives” of the Northern European schools in the 16th century. In the 1970’s political correctness brings on the literally incorrect title “Tribal Art”. This new name is not satisfying as many of the cultures it encompasses are not tribal in function but are extremely well organized social structures often empires and kingdoms of incredible breadth and power.
Others preferred the catch all title of “Non-Western Art” but Western? As of where? And of West of what? “Non- Literate Art” was also suggested but that then excluded the pre-Columbian cultures and Easter Island both of whom had invented a form of writing.
Faced with our global incapacity to contrive an acceptable label for the art the French dealer Jacques Kerchache offered up his famous “Art Premiers” (First Art). But with this title arises other complications: first in relation to what and to whom – and of course who and
The ultimate answer is still inadequate but at least it covers all the bases even though it’s a mouthful: The Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, or AAOA. This is now commonly used all over even though it leaves out many of the worlds tribal cultures such as those of
At the end of the 19th century the names of the first major dealers and collectors become famous and lead to the process known as PROVENANCE which extends unto today. In Germany it is Parkinson, Godeffroy, Umlaff, Konietzko, Fleckheim and Speyer, along with the expressionist artists such as Nolde, Schmidt-Rottluff, and Kirchner. In Great Britain its Webster, Oldman, and Beasley, and among the artists one finds Epstein, Moore, & Lipchitz. In France it is, Brummer, Bela Heim, Ratton, Vérité, and Pierre Loeb who are the great dealers. And the artistes are Vlaminck, Picasso, Derain, Gauguin, Apollinaire, Lhote, Giacometti, Tzara,
Breton, Max Ernst, etc. In Holland one hears of Lemaire and the two Van Lier; in Prague its Hloucha, in Switzerland it is Josef Mueller. In the United States Steiglitz and Zayas are actively offering African Tribal Art in New York.
The end of WWII is the beginning of the North American infatuation with Tribal Art through the interest shown by artists having visited Europe as soldiers or on Fulbright’s (post-war educational program) and their dealers notably in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The defining moment of the tribal art market in the later part of the 20th century is the auction sale in New York of the Helena Rubinstein collection in 1966. A Fang sculpture from Gabon sells for 25,000 dollars – a true fortune at the time. In the same sale a sculpture from Cameroun known as the “Bangwa Queen” goes for $29,000 and creates the first world record price for primitive art. The “Queen” later sold for $3.4 million in 2000.
From 1950 to 1980 the market was based in London and New York – Paris was and still is the source for the pieces but in those days the highest prices were obtained in the UK and the States. Some of the main collectors of that period are Ortiz, Hooper, Sainsbury, Barbier- Müller, Rockefeller, the De Mesnil, Brill, Friede and Goldet
And don’t forget the Hollywood actors: Eddy G. Robinson, William Holden, Vincent Price, and Martha Hyer to name but a few who collected seriously. Tribal art appears in films like “Rear Window” from Hitchcock, The Goodfellas, and “Le Président” a famous French film with Jean Gabin.
The dealers of the mid 20th century are Klejman, Carlebach, Bonnefoy, Kamer, Kerchache, LeVeel, all dealing in African and Oceanic with Stolper, Stavenhagen, Stendal, Merin and my father Oscar Meyer offering pre-Columbian Art.
As of 1980 Sotheby’s and Christie’s have taken over the markets of London and New York – Paris is the only city where the dealers are stronger than the auction houses and continue to control the market for the moment.
The Paris market place is responsible for the exponential increase in price starting with the sale of the Hubert Goldet collection in 2001 with several pieces going for more then 1.000.000 French francs – then follow the sales both in Paris and New York of the collections of Gaffé, Monzino, Vérité, Lebel, Stanoff, Dinhoffer, etc. Until recently the top price at auction for tribal art was the Fang mask from the Verité sale which was hammered down at 5.000.000 euros however, today multi-million dollar or Euro prices are becoming sufficiently common that only the very upper echelons of price are now mentioned such as the Senufo rhythm pounder from the Kunin collection sold for 12,000,000.
The opening by French President Jacques Chirac and the collector/dealer Jacques Kerchache of the tribal wing at the Louvre, known as the “Pavillon des Sessions” on April 3rd, 2000, followed by the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly in 2006 has contributed to the appreciation of tribal art in a major way.
Tribal art is now completely accepted as a major component of the History of Art. Its contribution to Modern art has been recognized for many decades but more importantly tribal art now stands alone as a representative art form equal to all others of all civilizations and periods in the world. It is mixed with and used in conjunction with modern and contemporary art. It works with classical antiquities, early European and Asian art and – it works by itself too !
This text is but a reminder of the ideas and facts developed during my presentation at the OAS Forum in Melbourne 2017. I wish to thank the OAS in toto and especially those who worked so hard to organize the Forum at the Savage Club. I thank as well, the members of the Savage Club who allowed us to access and enjoy their wondrous abode.
With the exception of Jacques Chirac (former French President) no living person is mentioned in this presentation. No use or publication of this text partially or whole is allowed without formal written approval of author.