3 questions for… Didier Claes

Brussels, 4 September 2017

  • How do you explain the growing interest in African art?

D.C.: The market has evolved considerably in the last decade. With the first major public sales of African art, for example the sale of the Hubert Goldet collection in 2001, works reached heights sometimes going over the million-euro mark, which was something completely new. Next, let’s not forget that the major auction houses would traditionally organise their sales in Amsterdam, London or New York. Now, Sotheby’s and Christie’s each hold two African-art sales per year in Paris. Fairs such as the Parcours des Mondes or the BRUNEAG, its Brussels twin, have also expanded. But the main triggering phenomenon was the inauguration of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, a great step for the acceptance of this art. For dealers, the role of these institutions is primordial as they enable offering a less ethnographic view of these collections; the public would now see an African-art object as it would see a painting. And we hope to obtain the same impact in Belgium with the reopening of Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, scheduled for June 2017.

  • What role does BRAFA play in this context?

D.C.: BRAFA is uncontestably now the generalist fair with the highest number of African-art dealers in the world. This year, there are around ten of us. In comparison, there were only five of us at the last edition. The only thing we need is a gallery to gather the world’s best in African-art dealers at BRAFA! Big names are present, such as Monbrison, Bernard Dulon and Schoffel de Fabry. Bernard de Grunne, who is no longer just taking part in Maastricht, is making a comeback. We intentionally work with a European clientele. This is a choice that we make wilfully, and my view is that 70 % of this market’s collectors and main players come to BRAFA to meet high-level dealers. It’s a great success. Personally, BRAFA is my best fair of the year, the one at which I work the best and also the one at which I meet the most people.

  • Traditional art, tribal art, early art… How would you define the vast field of African arts today?

D.C.: This is always a bothersome question. We’ve also spoken about Negro art, primitive art… Behind each denomination, there is an era, a political vision. Personally, I speak about classic African art, a simple notion on which all agree. This issue is related to the history of the arrival of objects in Europe. The first were souvenirs brought back by explorers. Next, from 1870 to 1920, the colonial administration and the army confiscated them to put an end to rites. The Jesuits in particular wanted to eradicate beliefs by collecting most of the pieces, which went into museums or were sold. Starting from the 1950s, against the backdrop of independence and wars, as in Nigeria and Congo, a whole wave of dealers and enthusiasts ventured to Africa. This was the era of traveling dealers whose techniques were not always, it should be said, very above board, and who were ready to do anything to organise the massive exit of the last great pieces up to the 1970s. Ever since, the market has been organised around objects already in collections. Today, dealers are no longer really familiar with the field. Thanks to my father, I had the chance to experience the emotion of the bush and these discoveries, but I stopped because I realised that there were no longer any ancient pieces on the spot. 98 % of African cultural heritage is no longer in Africa. A certain elite originating from the continent is interested in its heritage but it will take years to build up collections. This is goes for Europe as much it goes for Africa.