Interview with Didier Claes: the new Director of Bruneaf in Brussels

By Artkhade with Art Media Agency

Brussels, 15 January 2014,

Interview with Didier Claes: the new Director of Bruneaf in Brussels

Winter Bruneaf (Brussels Non-European Art Fair), which takes place between 22 and 26 January, is to mark this edition with a new committee, elected on 10 October 2013, which includes Didier Claes as President, Marc Leo Felix as Secretary and Patrick Mestdagh as Vice-President and Treasurer. The first African art fair in Brussels, this is the sister edition of June’s original Bruneaf event. AMA with Artkhade met with the new president to discuss his ambitions for the fair.

  • For this new edition of Bruneaf, there has been a certain element of renewal in the event’s management – why was this necessary?

D. C.: Bruneaf has existed for 24 years, and has always been directed by its founder, Pierre Loos. For 2014 we needed to renew the team and to breathe a bit of new life into the fair. To coincide with the event’s progression, certain things had to be changed, for example at senior level, and I think that any self-respecting fair deserves to have a committee of experts.

  • What was the first thing you did?

D. C.: There was this creation of a committee of experts to go and visit galleries, and I created a ethics board with five dealers who kind of survey what the committee does.

  • Why did you feel the need to create this ethics board?

D. C.: Because we had been criticised on what was happening. Bruneaf, as well as being a a nonprofit organisation, is a small team. Some people were questioning interior matters such as gallery rental and the subscription of new members, because to become one you normally have to appear before a committee, and members were joining without having been approved by the board… Every decision is made by the ethics board. It’s been very successful and has returned people’s trust. The first real test will be the Winter Bruneaf, which has only been going since 2011. To give a little context, Winter Bruneaf was created to dissociate itself from the late-night shopping in Brussels’ Sablon district, which African art galleries were participating in at that time along with all the other shops, at the end of December. The visiting audience was very varied and didn’t correspond to us at all. We decided to push back a bit to correspond with the timing of BRAFA (Brusse ls Antiques and Fine Arts). It’s important to stress that, because we are usually against most other events which take place. Paris and Brussels are fighting for the market’s top spot, and I want to make it clear that I’m not looking to get into any of that – each capital has its own identity.

  • How would you define this difference between Paris and Brussels?

D. C.: We have our own personality and our own identity. We are going to change our logo, with a new baseline underlining that we were the first African art fair. We are pioneers, and this fair has since been followed, just in Brussels, with Baaf (Brussels Ancient Art Fair), AAB (Asian Art in Brussels), the archaeology fairs, and even with Parcours des Mondes (the international primitive art fair) in Paris! We are precursors in what we do, and we were the first to show themed exhibitions during the fairs.

  • Do you know what motivates a collector to choose Brussels?

D. C.: I think that it could have something to do with our historical links with the Congo. Lovers of objets d’art from the Congo would choose to go to Brussels of course! Here, they are going to meet specialists in the region and in these types of pieces, and they will be more likely to find what they are looking for in Brussels. They have to position themselves in line with their tastes/go where their taste takes them.

  • So they would find things in Brussels more easily because there are historical collections?

D. C.: Yes, there is certainly a colonial past here. We have been the destination for the big dealers since the 1960s. The Americans as well as the French have always been accustomed to buying in Brussels. When I started, there was an African art fair at the Hôtel Dassault, but it didn’t last very long – the French were jealous of our system, and didn’t understand how we would manage to get ourselves heard and get people from all over the world to come. We took for granted the fact that we were unmissable. Some French dealers bought things that they then immediately sold again back in Paris. Collectors picked up on this, and started to come themselves.

As far as these travelling collectors are concerned, there is also our personality and another important thing to consider: public sales are held during June in Paris. People make the most of being able to pop over to Brussels, and this timing is an important asset to us, unlike September when there are no sales. These auctions attract an important target audience for us, who come for the sales but then want to go back to galleries. A lot of collectors come over to Brussels at the weekend.

This rivalry between Paris and Brussels will take centre stage during a new fair that is to take place in April, Paris Tribal, which declares that Paris is the primitive art capital of the world. On what basis are they making this claim? The best don’t need to say that they’re the best. Paris is Paris, nobody can compete with its history of the avant-garde, and there is no place quite like it. We aren’t trying to vie for one place or another. There are certain attractions/resources that we don’t have, if just on a museum level: the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly has proved a real asset. In Belgium, we have the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, which is currently undergoing a 5-year renovation. This historic museum, which was still very much centred around colonialism, has to be turned into a museum for the future, which is taking time! In Paris, a whole new group of collectors established themselves after the opening of the Quai Branly, which is set to happen again with the Tervuren museum.

Secondly, Paris has a much larger number of dealers than Brussels. For us, it is important that the two capitals complement each other. We have to be careful not to reproduce events and risk saturating the market. The number of visitors to galleries is decreasing, and compared with the crowds at the Parcours des Mondes, some galleries are trying to resurrect the “by appointment only” tradition in order to bring people back to the galleries. But during the year, the more events there are, the more ridiculous things will become. We created Winter Bruneaf as a supplementary fair, but really to dissociate ourselves from the late-night shopping in the Sablon.

Bruneaf is really an event aimed at art dealers. We are the least expensive fair in the world, €2,500 compared with €7,500 at Parcours des Mondes, which opens it up to young dealers too. In January, several dealers wanted to cash in on BRAFA’s presence, and put on vernissages… Instead of acting like pirates, we have tried to work in a collaborative way, which has been successful as I am the Vice-President of BRAFA and now President of Bruneaf. I work on the principle that if lots of people come to Brussels for BRAFA, they will go to Bruneaf, and vice versa. Since we started working in this way, the number of visitors to both events has increased.

  • On a technical level, what terminology do you use? “Primitive art”? “Tribal art”?

D. C.: “Classical African art”. Recently, I met a collector of Angolan origin who told me that he was very offended by the current terminology, “primitive art”, “tribal art”, and after a long discussion we decided on “classical African art”, which is so much simpler and clearer.

  • And fairer, too?

D. C.: The other terminology all carry quite strong connotations, and as there is contemporary African art, there also must be classical African art!

It’s a question that I don’t get asked very often but it is very important. I did a visit with collectors at the Tervuren museum, and lots of them were shocked by this old colonial museum of African natural history. We live in a constantly-evolving world, and we have to change certain things.

  • What is the classical African art market like today? Is there a demand for certain cultures or countries?

D. C.: Buyers today aren’t really interested in one culture in particular, or in a piece’s rarity – they are interested in quality. A masterpiece will achieve record prices, no matter where it comes from. For a long time at public auction, high-quality works from Nigeria or Cameroon weren’t achieving prices that matched, but nowadays, no matter where the object comes from, if it is of high quality, it will achieve a record price.

  • What is the record price?

D. C.: The record is still that achieved by a Fang mask from the Vérité collection in 2006: €6 million. Other objects have achieved high prices, but nothing of this quality has since been seen on the market.

  • How do you define a masterpiece?

D. C.: The first thing is its physical artistic quality, when its creator has managed to do what there already is, but better, we enter highest sphere of art. With ethnic objects, age is of the utmost importance, as well as the object’s usage, as these are traditional works of art: the objects have to hold some kind of spiritual or religious significance. These are the three things. The fourth I would call its “source”. An object of lesser quality with a good source could well achieve a higher price than a pristine object with an unknown source.

  • When you talk about source, do you mean the pedigree of its collection of origin?

D. C.: Yes, as well as publications. We saw an example recently at Christie’s during its Krugier sale (New York, 4 November 2013), with a Baoulé mask which sold for $1.445 million – and without a source it would probably have made $150,000. The fact that it had belonged to Picasso was crucial. When something concerns a source of this calibre, we are no longer talking about just anyone.

It’s a completely different story. Yes, in essence, people view the art world through these famous and very avant-garde personalities. The person who buys a mask like that one isn’t buying a mask from the Ivory Coast, but a mask from Picasso. It’s a game that we play along with because the source is extraordinary. However, you shouldn’t buy something thinking that its source is an authentification, which is what lots of people do. This world has a long problem of fake and inaccurately dated objects, and people cling onto the pedigree as a piece’s authenticating feature. What appears to be credible might not be; we have seen fake objects appearing in African art throughout the last century.

  • Are there a lot of them?

D. C.: No, I would say that the problem of fakes is a fake problem. Firstly, fakes are not specific to African art, we see them everywhere, even in contemporary art.

When there are problems with fakes in modern art, you’re suddenly dealing with the mafia network, or in furniture design, a scandal several years ago between Prouvé and Perriand. Why? Because in that area of art people are relying on just a signature and a certificate. For us with African art, there is no signature because there isn’t one! It is the eye that we rely on. A fake object could have any source or history, so if it’s fake, it’s undeniable. The problems with fakes are 10 times fewer than in other areas of art. When there are doubts about an object, you don’t touch it. I’ve never seen fakes in good-quality dealers, but I have seen fakes in public auctions, yes.

  • Beyond these masterpieces, do you know whether, during Bruneaf, there’s going to be big demand for a specific type of object?

D. C.: It’s rare to respond to this type of question, but yes, there is a real demand for work from the Songye people, a Bantu ethnic group from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Eight years ago, I organised an exhibition in Paris on the Songye, and people knew very little about them. I sold everything at the time, and some time after, a work was published on the subject, followed by several objects achieving records at sale, which completely changed the market’s view on these pieces. I would go so far as to say that when I find a Songye piece, I’ve sold it before I’ve even bought it – that’s how rare these objects are.

  • What characteristics do these objects have?

D. C.: They are quite recognisably rigid statues, often with a lot of magical forces surrounding them. These sculptures appeal to contemporary art collectors. At any moment, trends in interior design can change, and collectors who were previously always looking for certain objects can suddenly change their taste in African art. We realised that these pieces, which were suddenly incredibly under-valued, were actually a lot rarer than previously thought, and could certainly rival objects that were “in fashion”, like the Fangs in France, for example. Today, the Songye pieces achieve more consistently high prices than the Fangs. Ten years ago, a Fang would have been six to eight times more expensive than a Songye – today it is the opposite. So trends have a huge impact.

  • In what price range?

D. C.: Some small Songye pieces can range between €3,000 and €2 million! The record was broken two years ago, for a small, 18cm-high Songye, at €2 million. It all depends on physical quality. For Bruneaf, I’ll be offering a small one for around €4,500, which is also of a very high quality.

  • Are Songye objects essentially just found in Belgium?

D. C.: When a collector is researching this type of piece, he would turn to Belgian dealers, just as a collector looking for pieces from the Ivory Coast would turn to a French dealer. There is another demonstration of the partnership between the two capitals, linked by each country’s history.

  • What about the prices of the objects which are going to be sold?

D. C.: I think that, naturally, Paris has always been more expensive, just because dealers are more at ease in Brussels than they are in Paris. Paris is about 10% more expensive, and I think that it has been a victim of its public auctions. People ride on the bandwagon of prices realised in the sales.

The real problem is with the valuation of African art, which isn’t so bad in other domains. A Prouvé table from a certain year will fetch a certain price. For us, every object is a unique piece. We are organising conferences from June onwards to reassure collectors, whose greatest fear is not buying a fake, but buying something at the wrong price. The problem that I face is justifying a price to a new collector. When he sees one Songye piece for $2 million and another for €5,000, to him they’re the same and he can’t understand why!

  • How do you go about fixing and justifying a price?

D. C.: There are the public auctions, but people only look at the piece that broke a record, not the ones that didn’t sell. You have to really know your trade, and here you come back to the three factors: material, finish and usage, and then source, restoration and the state the object is in come into play to finally decide on a price. Something that has a good finish but isn’t sculpted well will have a different price. That is what we try to explain to people. We do use auction sales as a tool, but not because paintings achieve high prices that gallery prices are flying off the chart. If you want to keep clients in a gallery, you have to focus on the object, and bring in collectors. I don’t know of a single collection that has already appeared at auction. The objects which appear at auction are essentially those which have come from dealers. Every important collection that goes to auction has already appeared at Bruneaf, at BRAFA, at Parcours des Mondes… It is important to remember that the auctions are there to advise on a figure.

  • We’ve talked a lot about Africa. Are there other areas that will be represented at Bruneaf?

D. C.: Yes, there is a large part of it dedicated to Africa, but there are also dealers in archaeology (Ancient Egypt), in Asian art and even art from Indonesia and Oceania. But the main draw is Africa, constituting about 60-65% of the fair.

Tags: Asian Art, Aboriginal Art, Oceanic Art, African Art, Fairs & Shows, Interviews