“Everyone was isolated. And everyone found themselves online!” In a few words, Belgian collector Christophe Evers sums up the mood during these strange Covid times. Deprived of fairs and galleries because of the confinement, tribal art lovers have massively turned to the Internet for their research and transactions. But have the restrictions linked to Covid-19 really changed their habits? “Not at all.
It is still very basic, if I see a work that interests me, I simply go for it,” explains Robert van der Heijden, art dealer and collector from Amsterdam. “There is also a desire to support the ecosystem,” adds the Dutchman, who usually buys at fairs and galleries as well as online and at auctions. The solidarity between the different types of players in the market is demonstrated by Stephan Kuhnert, a collector from Düsseldorf: “I bought a mask, one of my most beautiful pieces and one of the most expensive in my collection, during the confinement. The price was right, the gallery knew that I liked it very much and made an effort during this difficult period for everyone.” Christophe Evers admits: “I continued to buy, but only online and only for items of significantly lower market value. I also sold during the confinement, and quite well I must say. Rather small objects in rather large numbers.”
“We tend to only collect with dealers we trust.”
Against all odds, the crisis has not put a total halt to collectors activities. For some, this singular period has even been the occasion to conclude some successful transactions. “I did buy well during the Covid-19 period, but I also bought more, simply because I had more time,” explains an Australian collector who wishes to remain anonymous. Since the beginning of the year, he admits having bought five objects “of very good quality”, notably on Instagram. “I had spotted a piece that interested me, the photos were very beautiful, but without seeing it for real you never really know. A Parisian dealer I know went to see it for me and I was able to get a good deal. The art market is small, I always have a friend somewhere...”
Fady Kamar, an Amsterdam-based collector of tribal art, was also quite active during the crisis, even though he “bought a little less” than usual: “I already had in mind some of the objects I had identified in pictures. Being a bit opportunistic I must admit, I took advantage of Covid to contact the dealers to find out if they were still selling.” “I collect more than before, especially with online auctions,” admits German collector Stephan Kuhnert, who is used to online auctions organised by the major players. “I was in Brussels some time ago and I also bought from galleries there. With the market suffering with the Covid-19 crisis, there are more opportunities.”
Confinement also allowed amateurs to add some fascinating stories to their list of accomplishments, such as Robert van der Heijden, who encountered a familiar object some 25 years old: “At the time I was living in Deil in the Netherlands and I came across a mask that literally fascinated me. Unfortunately, it was far too expensive for me, in the order of 10 or 11,000 guilders, I simply couldn’t buy it. During the confinement, a friend brought it back to me by total chance and I was able to exchange it against an Oceanian piece. It is a quarter of a century long story that found a conclusion during this strange period… even if, quite frankly, it could have happened at any time!
This being said, this containment phase has consequences that are still very difficult to apprehend. In this uncertain context, some are being reasonable. “The confinement has dampened some of the enthusiasm,” observes Fady Kamar. “The chase is more focused. Before, there were a lot more opportunities, and people were sometimes likely to buy a little impulsively. Today, I’m back to my roots, mainly looking for essential objects that would feet comfortable at the heart of my collection, those are mainly African utilitarian objects and also some Oceanic pieces.” The general economic slowdown has indubitably reduced purchasing power, including that of collectors. Hence their need to think twice before giving in to impulse buying. “I clearly have less work, so I have less money to spend on my collection,” explains pragmatic African art collector Thomas Halling.
Encounters of the Third Kind
It was generally agreed that isolation, although compensated for by an increased online presence, was the most difficult hurdle to overcome, not to mention the impossibility of travelling to the international events that usually punctuate the tribal art market. “I especially miss meeting other collectors and dealers,” says van der Heijden. Thomas Halling also regrets this absence: “Every year, I visited BruNEAF and the Parcours des mondes, or at least one of them!” This year, he did not come to Paris. “I miss the relationship with the galleries as much as I miss seeing my friends, collectors or dealers.”
While any face-to-face meeting has become impossible by the closing of dealers’ venues and the cancellation of the fairs, live contacts were mostly maintained by appointment only, behind the closed curtain of galleries. Relationships between sellers and collectors also occurred on other grounds. “Some dealers developed their interactions with buyers by writing articles or developing content,” observes Fady Kamar. “This is quite interesting, as it improves the quality of the exchanges with them.” Another way to build trust between buyers and sellers. “Today, provenance is key, so all forms of research are relevant and appreciated,” explains Stephan Kuhnert. “We tend to only collect with dealers we trust. With the less renowned ones, you have to be extra careful and pay even more attention to the provenance.”
“In the medium term, the trends that have already begun will become stronger.”
“I spent a lot of time researching and talking with academics and curators. As their schedule became free, some of them became more accessible. It was important to keep in touch and discuss the works,” says Belgian Christophe Evers. But discussing the works is one thing. Having them in your hands is another. It is generally agreed that the main frustration encountered by these object lovers is indeed the absence of a direct relationship with the pieces.
“I need to have the objects physically in my hands”, “Not being able to study works in real life makes us lose several dimensions”, “I always prefer to see pieces in real life, to feel them”, “I need to have a sense of depth, size, weight.” All deplore this time spent away from the works. “We want to go back to the galleries and see the objects,” asserts Stephan Kuhnert, who nonetheless recognises that the quality of some pictures can encourage immediate purchase over the Internet. With a few setbacks: “I’ve had a bad experience with an online Sotheby’s sale when the item did not meet our expectations. It’s always better to experience the work in real life; you can judge the patina, feel its weight, etc; it is incomparable.”
The Rule of Social Media
While the market is moving online, collectors are avoiding generalist sales platforms such as eBay to focus on dematerialised purchases at auctions or with galleries. Above all, the confinement will have given them the opportunity to take a few baby steps towards social media, Instagram being the clear favourite. “I started buying on social media two or three years ago, just by following galleries that started to publish on it,” says Robert van der Heijden. “Social media are interesting tools to discover new objects offered by dealers.” “I had never used Instagram before, but a friend installed it for me through a VPN [a virtual private network that allows you to bypass certain censorship]. I’m going to continue using it, simply because you can find out a lot of things, see other people’s collections, where the objects are located, etc.” explains an Australian collector based in Shanghai, highlighting the use of Instagram by the younger generation of dealers and collectors. “This being said, it should not be forgotten that the online art market is not a new thing!” moderates Christophe Evers. “Important auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s were already organising online sales for a long time, especially for contemporary art. They just expanded on these foundations. They haven’t been pushing this so much for primitive art, they simply shift everything towards July.”
Looking ahead, this specialist on sub-Saharan African art, who is also president of the Association of Friends of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, analyses: “In the medium term, the trends that have already begun will become stronger. Galleries are dying – and this phenomenon started way before Covid-19 – because they tend to lack some form of realism. The fairs will probably also suffer a lot. I think that people will want to go out as soon as the confinement is lifted. The galleries will then have to make an effort in terms of marketing and presence. But not everyone is ready or has the energy and optimism to make it happen.”