Iagalagana, Halos, and Price Points

African Tribal art pricing is not intuitive and is very subjective. Premiums can be based on provenance, age, patina, originality, rarity, and any number of other less material factors.

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Mumuye Tribe: Iagalagana (Claiborne Mumuye)

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Mumuye location : Northeast Nigeria, below the Benue river.

The Mumuye have an interesting statuary tradition in the Iagalagana. These were used as abstractions of incarnate tutelary spirits. The recently acquired ‘Claiborne Mumuye’ from the Liz Claiborne and Arthur Ortenberg collection was purchased at auction. It’s one of the ‘providential’ cases where a piece with a Sotheby’s provenance was not advertised as such, however this did not materially detract from the bidding. In the piece shown above some of the interesting factors include the slight tilting of the head, the cubist forms, and the sculptor’s longitudinal development of the chest area.

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Mumuye Buddies – AplusAfricanArt collection.

One of my pet theories in developing relationships with customers is having comfortable price points, not just from the customer’s end but also from the dealer’s end. Invariably this requires acquiring, and keeping a couple Stars, and developing the concept of the Halo effect. This allows customers to understand much of the pricing dynamics inherent in investable African Tribal art. While I am not a huge fan of provenance the fact is that it has become a major pillar in an entire industry,  and once understood enables customers to more comfortably purchase affordable pieces of African Tribal Art.

Currently one of the amazing (read as disappointing) aspects of Collecting African Tribal Art is that the African American community for the most part remains largely uneducated about the beauty of their ancestral art forms, and have pretty much been priced out from serious collecting, (see interesting ends to the collections of Bayard Rustin and Merton Simpson).

 

 

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Okenekene Restoration

Restoring African Tribal Art is always a tricky business. The interesting part is that more is not necessarily better with respect to older pieces but while there are varied perspectives, the final analysis comes down to the deterioration of the ‘authentic’ piece, and the addition of aesthetic features.

The Okenekene headdress lends itself to restoration for the following reasons:

  1. There are several removable component pieces (chameleon, python),
  2. The piece itself portrays an Okenekene narrative,
  3. The headdress showed signs of repeated use.
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Front section of Okenekene showing existing wave abstraction but missing the ‘Fishing Dragon’.

The frontal area of the purchased piece shows the feet of the broken ‘fishing dragon’ and the missing ‘wave’.

I was fortunate to come across this piece at a Merton Simpson estate auction. I suspect the only reason I was able to acquire the piece was as a result of a rare computer glitch which left me as the only bidder on the floor. With some verbal prompting from my Mum the auctioneer acquiesced and closed the deal.

click photo for video link: OKENEKENE RESTORATION

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In another of many related providential occurrences I had been gifted a book titled ‘Ways of the Rivers’ after purchasing pieces from the Alfred Prince collection. This book provided a lot of research on Okenekene headdresses, and my favorite Delta tribes (Urhobo, Ogoni, Ijo).

My luck had not run out since I was also able to have the restoration done (molding, carving, finishing) by the talented family Miller. It was a fantastic learning experience since the existing surface finish showed wonderful signs of ageing (crackling, alligatoring) and changed my perception on analyzing the quality of pieces forever.

Tapping out…

The first of several Merton Simpson’s African Tribal art estate auctions took place at Quinn’s Auctions in Falls Church Virginnia (10/01/16). With approximately 400 of the high-end pieces of his collection on sale it proved to be an arduous task, but once the audience was walked through the challenges from the Nigerian government, consignment claims, and catalog mishaps it was pretty smooth sailing.

The prices though…. were a true testament to the reputation and cachet of the ‘Merton Simpson’ brand in the African Tribal art world.

My tap out moment came on a three item stretch (#168 to #170). These items were an Oron sculpture, a female Tiv figure, and a Urhobo mask respectively.

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The way it worked was the opening bid (before absentee bids) would be one-half the lower catalog estimate. This worked out to be $150, $400, and $50 … (I know right, too good to be true, and well worth the drive to Virginna from NY). Honestly though, by the time we reached to item #168 I had already drawn a ‘sad’ smiley face next to item #169. The final sale prices came in at $850, $12,500, and $900 respectively. Then you add 20% buyer’s premium, and a 6% sales tax for your effort, and this is without taking the shipping costs into consideration, or the 4% credit card penalty (keep those checkbooks handy) should you choose that option!

So let’s circle back to your basic auction strategy, 1. prior to your must-have items you should always buy a great piece – that way you ALWAYS walk away with something, 2. after your tap out moment don your best kamikaze/guerrilla persona, open up that wallet, and come out focused and swinging!!

 

Photocredit : Screenshot from Liveauctioneers.com

Dan & Me.

I struggle with the Dan mask. It feels like every carver has made one, and every African Tribal art collector has one (at least). It is a common mask type. It is “Ground Zero” of the African masking genre as far as collecting is concerned. It can be argued that it influenced artistic direction from Munch’s “The Scream”, to “Faceless Men” in Game of Thrones. At it’s core it has the simplest lines, and easily recognizable attributes, yet with all this I still find myself slugging it out with avid collectors at obscure African Tribal Art auctions.

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Dan (Zakpai mask)

 

 

The Fox, Zakpai & Gagon

This weekend was ultra-solid as empty-nested and broken bracketed Easter weekends go. Sadly though it did begin on a low note since I was throughly priced out of a couple decent African tribal art offerings. Like any good fox however I found myself surprisingly amenable to spurning the ‘grapes’ and moving right along to more affordable fare.

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Zakpai Mask – Dan Tribe

Zakpai‘ is the fire prevention mask. Its function is to insure
that women have put out their cooking fires every day during
the dry season, before the afternoon winds begin to blow.
Zakpai is aggressive, sometimes throws things, and is
meant to inspire fear. Tall green leaves cover the head. In
addition, the masker wears pants with a ruff of raffia around
the waist and neck. It carries a branch as a weapon (Fischer
1978, 21). [1]

In keeping with the Dan trend my favorite dealer parted ways with this small treasure.

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Dan Tribe – Gagon

Masks with a large beak-like form and beard of monkey fur, often with a moveable lower jaw, are Gagon masks. Originally an educational mask instructing people on the importance of the hornbill bird to their culture, they are now used mostly for entertainment.[2]

These pieces were part of an African Art collection from the estate of Alfred M. Prince, both the scholar, philanthropist, and the avid collector.

The following photographs were recommended for addition (thanks Ed), and are sourced (as indicated) from the topic essay titled “MASQUERADES AMONG THE DAN PEOPLE” and the PinInterest site.

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Africa | People wear a “Dan” mask at the agricultural Festival of Ignames of the Yacouba tribe in Cote d’Ivoire. | Image and caption © Charles & Josette Lenars

 

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Two kagle masks and deangle, Dan peoples, Liberia. February 1986. Photo by William Siegmann.

 

[1] http://www.randtribal.com/Dan_Zakpai_mask.html

[2] http://www.hamillgallery.com/DAN/DanGagonMasks/DanGagonMasks.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tortoise and the Snake.

While visiting the Yale University Art gallery (03/20/16) I came across a Yoruba door with four panels. The third panel showed four characters, a tortoise, a man, and a small antelope.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #3).

I disagreed with the following description,

“… a coiled snake seizes an antelope while a small kneeling figure strikes the snake with an axe, thus representing the Yoruba proverb ‘We are all struggling’.”

With no mention of the tortoise (Ijapa – the animal trickster hero or villain who plays the role of Anansi the spider among the Ashanti, and that of the hare (Brer Rabbit in the USA) in other parts of West Africa[1]), I came up with another description,

The combination of ‘small and innocent’ will better survive ‘size and treachery’, through the combination of ‘prowess and cunning’…. or to make a long story short “idealism can only get you so far”. This panel resonates with me from a very real life perspective since while guile can easily morph into treachery there is no mistaking who lies at the bottom of the economic food chain.

This is the door in its entirety followed by the exhibit description. It shows detail, imagination, and simplicity of design combined to produce a really wonderful artistic result.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Yale Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr.)

For Panel #1.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #1).

“The relief on the top panel depicts a woman holding an upside-down child on her back – a reference to the unpredictable earth mother, Iya Ile. The child holds the head and tail of a snake, symbolizing Ogun, the god of Iron, who is worshipped by hunters, warriors, and blacksmiths. The woman faces a drummer, a kneeling man, and a hunting dog”.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #2).

“In the second panel a hunter on horseback holds a pistol and a spear”.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #4).

“In the bottom panel, two triumphant hunters smoke pipes while being honored by two flute players”.

This piece demonstrates the multifaceted nature of African Tribal Art, which transforms the practical door into a carrier of norms, ritual thought, and value systems.

 

 

[1] Harold Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore, 1996 pg 221.

Bayard Rustin, Nok and Sokoto.

Collecting African Tribal Art, through the inherent nature of its complexity was always going to lead me to a rabbit hole or two. On the Richter scale my rabbit holes are ranked from a sojourn through wikipedia to a midnight conference with my pals Malibu and Piney… and this one turned into a real doozy.

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Bayard Rustin – LIFE magazine cover.

Connecting the dots was simple enough,

  • The main character, Bayard Rustin put together what is clearly a special collection of African Terracotta, primarily Nok, and Sokoto. Rustin received a posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 for his work in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.[1]
  • The collection ultimately found a home at Yale University  via sale to Joel and SusAnna Grae of New Haven, CT.

Bayard Rustin is buried in the Civil Rights movement lore. The first I heard of him was when I viewed the Yale University video (link above). While he led a very interesting political life his commitment to nonviolence, and the civil rights cause is an amazing testament to the strength of human resilience.

One of my favorite parts of the video showed SusAnna Grae commenting –“the very judgmental Sokoto would look at you and say ‘well, what did you do today’…”.

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Sokoto Bust – (Source: The Birth of Art in Black Africa, pg. 105)

Invariably these collections end up in private hands. The fact that this collection is now available to the public for free viewing, and research is a good thing. My preference would have been to view the collection at a Historically Black College or University (insert Howard University plug here), but most of these institutions have neither the depth of networks nor finances to put this effort together.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.nhregister.com/general-news/20131122/civil-rights-activist-rustins-african-art-collection-makes-its-way-to-yale-gallery

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