Alex Arthur, Tribal Art and its market

Paris, 13 September 2017

What are the evolutions and limitations of the tribal-art market? How is it nurtured by the contributions of research and ethnology? Alex Arthur offers us a few indications…

Alexander Arthur is a well-informed collector and a fine connoisseur of tribal arts. For over twenty years, he has been the publishing director of Tribal Art Magazine. In 2009, he also became involved, with Pierre Moos, in the management of Parcours des Mondes.

-You are one of the key protagonists of Parcours des Mondes. How have you seen the fair evolve?

A.A.: I actually participated in the very first Parcours so I remember well how it consisted of only a handful of galleries. But the concept was a good one and it grew rapidly into the world’s premier event. The event grew in quality as has the market overall and Parcours des Mondes has become the annual focal point for many galleries today, a situation that is reflected in the quality of many artworks on show and the number of thematic exhibitions.

-Tell us about vetting at the fair.

A.A.: Like other fields of art, forgeries will always be an issue, but as the market has evolved, so has the level of expertise. Most of the problem is solved by the fair’s selection of exhibitors. The exhibitors at Parcours are all professional and almost exclusively seasoned veterans who go to great lengths to avoid mistakes. The initial selection for the catalogue is open to all exhibitors and we collect and compare comments on these artworks. If a piece raises doubt, we replace it, whilst others may be replaced because they are deemed to be of insufficient quality. For the event itself, we have a knowledgeable committee that strolls around the galleries during setup and will let us know if they see a problem. Of course it is impossible to see everything, but this is a field with enormous peer pressure, so forgeries are generally weeded out.

-The market has recently shown tangible signs of growth. Specialised events are multiplying… Are these fairs a new gallery strategy or do they demonstrate a rising interest in tribal art?

A.A.: I think it’s a bit of both. In any case, art collectors today are coming from all over the world so the dealers also need to spread out. Many of the largest deals in the history of tribal art have been made over the last few years and I get the feeling that this is a continuing trend as more and more serious art collectors and investors become familiar with this huge and interesting subject.

-More globally, how do you see the tribal-art market?

A.A.: I think it’s at a critical point in its evolution and I’m pleased to see so many dealers who continued to raise the level and find creative ways of reaching out to collectors. On the one hand there are the relatively high prices paid for “established” masterpieces, but on the other, there’s a plethora of opportunities. I believe that we are a crucial moment in the evolution of tribal art where we are defining fresh parameters. Books and catalogues continue to be published in increasing numbers and they are often very specific, and with this wealth of information our knowledge continues to improve. Technology is crucial to this process, since it allows us to compare artworks. As older collections are being dispersed and objects that have never been seen continue to emerge, this allows us to build a better critical picture of each area. So today I think that it’s much easier to assess and judge quality in classic tribal art than it is in, say, modern painting or sculpture.

-Do you note any evolutions in the public’s tastes?

A.A.: The wealthiest collectors and speculators will continue to seek out the “classics” and most dealers and auctions follow the same well-trodden path. But luckily, as you say and as I mentioned above, the publications, exhibitions, and thematic gallery shows continue to broaden the spectrum as new collections are formed or established ones shift in focus. In Paris, we are blessed to have the Musée de Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, which is very dynamic and continues to educate and influence the broader public about non-European art and culture.

-This year, Parcours des Mondes is showing tribal art with more contemporary creations, under the supervision of Javier Peres. How do you view this curatorial approach?

A.A.: I think the key point is that it’s all art, and the juxtaposition of different expressions and energies can be complimentary—or not. People who are truly attracted to art and not a signature will react to a work of art instinctively. One might be attracted to the colour, the composition, the quality of the work… and the same goes for a work of tribal art. After that it comes down to personal choice and many other factors. Javier Peres will present his particular vision, and it will shape the way we look at the objects in that context. But, of course, others might prefer their tribal art surrounded by gothic furniture or Persian rugs. I’ve seen it all, and many juxtapositions work because the scope is so large. To this day, many artists continue to collect tribal art, so it makes perfect sense that people who appreciate contemporary art will find some form of tribal art attractive once they are exposed to it. I love painting as much as I do tribal art, but I am amongst those that are bemused by a splash of paint on a canvas fetching hundreds of times the price of an historic masterpiece of world art… It’s rather crazy!

-You are the publishing director of Tribal Art Magazine, a quarterly publication primarily dedicated to ethnology. Is our understanding about ethnicities evolving? Does the market benefit from these discoveries?

A.A.: I would rather say that Tribal Art magazine is a journal dedicated to art and art history, but of course there is a large dose of other information, often serious and quite academic but which we try to present in a readable manner. We try to find thematic articles that make permanent contributions to the field, and luckily there are still so many areas that are under published or poorly known. I am sure that every time we publish an article about specific object types or ethnicities, it somehow filters down to the actual market, because collectors and dealers become more aware with each issue.

-African culture comes up against the issue of orality. How do scientists work when they are deprived of traditional study resources?

A.A.: As you say, an enormous amount has been lost because it wasn’t written down. As a result, many researchers and authors are basically doing archaeology in museums and libraries: digging up references, photos, old documents, and piecing it all together in an attempt to understand the corpus of material better. It’s continual since we are still in the process of writing the history of art. Art historians have lots to work with already, although, lamentably, some areas were never studied and now it is too late. I might add that some of the older collectors and dealers also have incredible knowledge and experiences that should be recorded. I wish more of them would write memoirs.

-This year, you are placing a focus on Polynesian tapas, to mark the publication of the book L’Evénement tapa, de l’écorce à l’étoffe. Art millénaire d’Océanie.

A.A.: It will be welcome and refreshing to see some graphic textile arts displayed at Parcours, and the book will be stunning. But it would be unfair to say that this is our focus. Tapa is one of many themes shows, book launches, and events at this year’s Parcours. Our “Espace Tribal” will be hosting talks on a variety of topics and announcing other new projects. It promises to be an exciting and busy Parcours des Mondes!