Tribal art and Archaeology: transactions under pressure

By Artkhade with Art Media Agency

Paris, 4 September 2017


Stratospheric-level auctions, overheated prices… The market for archaeological and tribal pieces is booming! We retrace the phenomenon of star status for these highly coveted objects. An issue that we examine by seeing what dealers, collectors and members of the scientific community have to say…

Ever since the start of the 2000s, the tribal-art market has literally exploded, with its turnover jumping up from €13.7 million in 2001 to €92.1 in 2014. Despite this strong growth, tribal art remains a marginal market, which represents only 0.68 % of the global turnover of art auction sales, in other words, 40 times less than the proportion occupied by modern art, according to a report published by Artkhade and Art Analytics in December 2015.

Largely in front, Africa and Oceania leave other geographical zones behind in the shadows. Between 2000 and 2014, these two continents represented 64.8 % of lots offered at auctions and 81 % of the sector’s total sales proceeds. Above all, the market’s growth has been accompanied by a multiplication of auctions raising millions of euros in sales rooms. In 2014 alone, fourteen lots went over the million-euro mark, yielding a total of €39 million, in other words 42 % of the yearly turnover of the tribal market at auctions.

“The market turned around when the first major public sales were held, first the sale of the Hubert Goldet collection in 2001, then above all the Vérité sale in Paris in 2006 [editorial note: which totalled €44 million at Drouot]. A spectacular sale, on the media and marketing front as well,” explains Didier Claes, African arts specialist. “This was the first time that African objects reached such records, including a Fang mask which went for €5 million. This was an important milestone for the acceptance of this art.”

Turning their backs on intermediary pieces, sometimes suspected of being fakes, buyers have focused on museum or exceptional pieces. The rarity of available pieces, and concern about fraud and counterfeiting, have therefore remodelled this market which, since the mid 2000s, has started to notch up record after record. Take the famous Senufo statue from Côte d’Ivoire which sold for €9.66 million at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014 – an indisputable pedigree piece whose former owners included businessman Myron Kunin and the sculptor Arman. More recently, a Luba-Shankadi headrest from Congo, listed as one of the top ten auctions in 2016 by Le Figaro, fetched €2.2 million at the sale of the Meunier collection on 15 and 16 December in Paris.

The war against fakes

The glorification of archaeological or tribal pieces has been criticised by a segment of the scientific community, namely by André Delpuech, a conservateur général du patrimoine (State-approved general heritage curator in France) and head of the Americas collections at the Musée du Quai Branly, who cites the example of Le Canard à l’envol, a Tarascan ceramic piece from Mexico which found a buyer at €1.6 million in 2013 during the sale of the Barbier-Mueller collection at Sotheby’s in Paris. “An object which bears a name stops being an anonymous archaeological artefact, and in the absence of an author, a denomination and an affiliation allow it to be compared with a painting or creation by a Western artist,” he argues in his study “Un marché de l’art précolombien en plein questionnement”, published in Les Nouvelles de l’archéologie in 2016. “We only need to mention Kerchache’s Le Cri, Rivera and Breton’s Teotihuacan Mask, Barbier-Mueller’s Le Canard à l’envol… It’s a bit like talking about François I’s Mona Lisa! Forget the original artist who produced it, forget his era, the culture from which it comes and its function!”

Underground digs, looting, trafficking, an abundance of fakes and copies, the political interventions of Latin American countries to thwart auctions or demand the restoration of works… Controversy surrounds the sale of Pre-Columbian archaeological pieces, resulting in the cooling off of some collectors. One textbook case comes to mind: the Drouot sale organised on 21 March 2011 by Binoche & Giquello, gathering over 200 lots, including a Mayan statue in polychrome stucco dating from the classical period (550-950 A.D.), which sold for €2.91 million, a world record at the time. But the next day, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History concluded that the piece was a fake, triggering a war between experts on a work that turned out to be “genuinely genuine”. But the proliferation of fakes is not a recent phenomenon. According to André Delpuech, “out of the 105,000 objects from the Americas at the Musée du Quai Branly, 1,085 have been identified as archaeological fakes, namely a famous crystal skull said to be Aztec” – this situation is in fact common to many public and private collections which were partially built up in the 19th century, a period when counterfeiting took place on a quasi-industrial scale.

Oriental antiquities in the firing line today

Christie’s, with its four yearly sales for antiquities, stands out as a leader in the archaeological auction sector. The auction house incidentally holds the world record for its sale of an Egyptian Sekhemka statue dating from around 2,300-2,400 B.C.: a piece that sold for nearly £16 million (€19.8 million) in July 2014, well over its estimate of £6 million (€7.5 million). A fantastic deal for its seller, the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, which was hoping to raise funds for extension works thanks to this lucrative operation. But this was without reckoning on the uproar which would ensue. Straight away, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) accused Northampton Museum of contravening the museum code of ethics as it is understood that museums should not sell a work unless proceeds go towards the conservation and maintenance of collections. Even worse, the ICOM expressed concern that the sale would participate in the illegal trafficking of Egyptian antiquities, a real plague in a country traumatised by the looting of Cairo Museum in 2011 as part of the wave of revolutions in the Arabic world. In addition, the work, sold to a private American collector, apparently left British territory despite an export ban issued by the government and despite the indignation of Egyptian authorities who described the sale as a “moral crime against world heritage”, in the words of the Egyptian minister of antiquities Mamdouh Mohamed Eldamaty.

“Antiquities are a tool for financing terrorism,” reminded Edouard Planche, a specialist in the trafficking of cultural goods at UNESCO during a debate organised by AMA in February 2015. In his opinion, the illegal trade of antiquities, which is extremely difficult to put into figures, may well amount to several billion dollars. A figure corroborated by the CIA, which estimates that the contraband of antiquities has already raised 6 to 8 billion dollars for Daesh, thus becoming the Islamic organisation’s second source of income. “The trafficking of drugs, weapons and antiquities calls on the same money-laundering networks. […] If you buy a Syrian or Iraqi antiquity today, you are taking part in organised crime,” adds Edouard Planche. Six billion, 8 billion, or even 15 billion dollars’ worth according to certain media sources. In the absence of tangible elements, the very estimation of the black market’s value is a matter of debate. Indeed, the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) denounces an over-estimation of the value of illegal trade in antiquities, questioning the unverifiable figures diffused by the press. Vincent Geerling of the IADAA has thus stated that the legal market can be estimated at a “reliable figure of €150-200 million. So where do the billions come from? No one can say.”

It is nonetheless undeniable that the black market is considerable. For example, Edouard Planche explains that pieces from Bagdad Museum, looted in 2003, are still somewhere out there, thirteen years after the incident: “15,000 pieces were stolen, 9,000 were recuperated. There are still over 5,000 roaming around. Some have even turned up in Peru.”

“Historically, there has been a lag between the time objects are illegally looted, covered with fake provenance documents, and sold in major art markets such as Paris, London, and New York,” explains Laura Patten, an analyst for art and antiquities crime for the FBI in the Deloitte Art & Finance 2016 report. “We expect the same will happen with objects being trafficked out of warring regions today […] Dealers and collectors need to scrutinize with greater attention any object that could have come from regions under terrorist control.” On 15 December 2016, the US Department of Justice also announced that the United States was filing a civil complaint to seek the forfeiture of antiquities associated with the financing of ISIL’s terrorist operations, backing up the FBI’s call to vigilance amongst art dealers dating from 26 August 2015: “The FBI is alerting art collectors and dealers to be particularly careful trading Near Eastern antiquities, warning that artefacts plundered by terrorist organizations such as ISIL are entering the marketplace.”

Arsenal of regulations and battalions of experts

“At the world-wide level, the worst problems at the moment are theft and illegal excavations in war zones. In the case of stolen pieces, it’s absolutely impossible to infiltrate them onto the legal market, because these pieces are known, have been published, or appear in the records of international organisations such as the Art Loss Register. They are, therefore, very easy to trace and identify,” explains Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, president of BRAFA. “Illegally excavated pieces are a different problem, however, because by definition, they are not known to the market. In both cases the buyers are as much to blame as the criminals, and we wholeheartedly condemn such actions.” While the market’s players have their own regulatory bodies, such as the Syndicat National des Antiquaires and the Comité des Galeries d’Art in France, or the British Art Market Federation in Great Britain, international organisations such as ICOM, NESCO, INTERPOL, TRACEFIN – the French intelligence agency in charge of tracking clandestine financial circuits, or the Office Central de Lutte contre le Trafic de Biens Culturels (OCBC), also organise wider-scale monitoring. To assist customs and police services, the ICOM also published, on 16 December 2016, its Red List of West African cultural objects from conflict zones likely to be the target of illegal sales, namely those looted in Mali following the country’s terrorist attacks in 2012.

Recently, international cooperation has been reinforced by the adoption of Resolution 2199 (2015) by the UN Security Council, whose Paragraph 17 stipulates that “all Member States shall take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural […] importance illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990 and from Syria since 15 March 2011”. But the question remains unresolved for works said to have joined collections in the 1960s for it was only from the 1970s onwards that international regulations required indications on provenance.

High-tech labs used by experts, X-rays, thermoluminescence tests… To ward off doubts on provenances, fairs and expos have massively invested in vetting, this preliminary authentication phase for giving the green light to the display of objects. “As organisers, and being dealers ourselves, we are extremely careful and uncompromising when it comes to the probity and professionalism of our exhibitors,” points out Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke. “The same goes for our vetting procedure, for which we call on more than a hundred independent experts, to whom we offer the state-of-the-art services of a specialist scientific laboratory during the pre-show inspection period. If a piece gives rise to doubts, the unanimity rule prevails within the admission committee in question. Everything is set up to protect both exhibitors and buyers from any possibility of error.”

Tags: African Art, Oceanic Art, Asian Art, Pre-Columbian Art, Native American Art, Aboriginal Art, Art Market