Collecting Tribal art: an interview with Stanislas Gokelaere

By Artkhade with Art Media Agency

Luxembourg, 17 May 2015


Stanislas Gokelaere is a Luxembourg-based collector who started out in the world of capital-investment, and the co-founder of Art Collection Fund, an investment fund whose objective is to assemble a collection of high quality modern and contemporary art, in addition to African and Oceanic arts. The son of art dealers, and with a passion for art and 20th-century design, over the last 15 years Gokelaere has built a strong reputation in the art world. AMA had the opportunity to meet with him.

  • You’ve spoken about a growing divide between public sales, which dominate the high-end market, and gallery sales, which focus on the middle market. What, in your opinion, is the cause of this?

S. G.: These days, I would say the divide is a slightly different one. Galleries are also aiming at the higher end of the market in addition to the middle market. In the auction market we are, however, seeing many excellent collections up for sale, and plenty of very important sales. The auction houses are also attracting an increasingly wealthy and international client base, for example the Qataris. It is true that an auction house like Sotheby’s is less interested in the middle market, but that is not the case for the other houses like Artcurial or Christie’s.

  • Coming back to galleries, would you say that fairs are becoming increasingly important for them, or do they remain simply an added bonus?

S. G.: As in all the markets, I would say that we are seeing a rarefaction of what is on offer. It’s more difficult to find high-quality pieces, so naturally today’s dealers want to capitalise on this type of event, and to present their best pieces there. That’s why there’s such a concentration of sales taking place at the fairs.

  • How large is the market in terms of collectors, and what is the geographical spread of the collectors?

S. G.: It is difficult to be sure, but it is certainly large. There have never been precise statistics, but I believe there are thousands of collectors. In Europe they are concentrated in France, Belgium, and Germany. There are also the American collectors, who collect a little of everything. America has plenty of old and well-established collectors but fewer dealers and new collectors. Unlike in other markets, however, there are still museum-quality works in private collections.

  • As a collector of Tribal Art, what would you say are the most sought-after areas for this type of art?

S. G.: There are trends, of course, but for high-quality works I would say that demand is relatively steady. However, it’s true that the current interest in African and Oceanic art is in part due to collectors’ interest in 20th-century art and the ways in which it was influenced by Tribal art.

  • There have been a number of cases of forgeries in the Tribal art market. How do dealers give their clients confidence regarding works that are difficult to trace?

S. G.: Firstly, forgeries are quite rare. Also, we have documentation for around 90% of the objects that are sold, often going back to the 1930s. There is definitely a lower risk when it comes to more major works.

  • Does the fact that most of the works are documented limit the chance of discovering unknown works in the market?

S. G.: Yes, it does. An undiscovered work of high-quality is extremely rare. There are still some important works in the collections of old colonial families. With these types of objects we don’t have documentation but we rely on the family history.

  • Would you say this makes the Tribal art market a less exciting one?

S. G.: No, African and Oceanic arts are so broad, and there are so many different tribes and different styles that you could spend a lifetime discovering more. Also, there are certain items that haven’t been seen for 40 years. At the end of the day, if the excitement around a particular style begins to wane we simply move on to another. Some collectors have moved from African to Oceanic art, or from wooden to bronze sculptures.

  • Are we seeing a new generation of collectors emerging in the Tribal Art market?

S. G.: Yes, though if you listen to dealers there are never enough. In general, the collectors are at least 40 years old. But there is still a constant renewal, thanks to the auction houses and galleries; if there is a lot of work on offer it makes for a more dynamic market, and attracts new collectors. That is what we’re seeing in Europe; in the United States, however, the market is a lot more restricted in terms of what is on offer.

  • How did you begin collecting Tribal Art?

S. G.: It began with a particular exhibition that really moved me. After the show, I met a dealer and had the opportunity to speak with him. This kind of meeting is important in the Tribal art market because it’s a very physical one, still very much linked to the object. These are objects that were created with the aim of transmitting a culture, beliefs, a common ancestral memory. The pieces are rarely signed and we seldom know the identity of the artist, which allows us to invest in them more. The relationship between the object and the collector is a more sincere one, in a sense.

  • Do exhibitions and museums play an important role in generating interest and attracting a client base for Tribal Art?

S. G.: Yes, absolutely, however the museums themselves are lacking in funds. They rarely have the money to invest, so they don’t typically represent major buyers. The museums depend on patrons. Having said that, their collections are often very rich, and are made up of objects acquired during anthropological exploration trips or evangelical missions. They don’t necessarily need to buy new works.

  • Finally, what would you say to convince a prospective collector of Tribal Art?

S. G.: What matters is your emotional reaction to the works. The most important thing would be to show them the works in person, and to help them to appreciate them in a sensitive way. To collect art of any kind you need a certain artistic sensibility.

Tags: Oceanic Art, African Art, Art Market, Interviews