May 1 through July 31, 1999
Welcome to our new exhibition. As I began to plan this show, I tried my usual approach, i.e. choosing items that shared a common theme. I have used this approach for about twenty years, both for on-line and on-site exhibitions. The approach has served us well, and we have received very positive feedback about the exhibits resulting from this approach. However, there is a major flaw in this sort of methodology. Some excellent pieces get left out because they just don't fit the current theme. As I struggled with my intellectual exercise, my attention was drawn to other African-art related issues. A friend suggested that I look at some of the new sites featuring African art. He felt that some less than honest practices were evident on some of the sites, including some auctions.
I did as was suggested, and the results of my search were interesting. Some of the sites featured excellent art at fair prices. Some were a mixed bag of good and poor items. A few were absolutely terrible. These latter sites were a personal and professional embarrassment. They misrepresented everything from age, to usage, to tribe. The most glaring example was a person who was offering a "Voodoo Doll" that turned out to be an East African carving that can be found in nearly every airport gift shop in Africa. I'm sure that some of the misrepresentation was innocent. I'm sure that some was deliberate. Objects were offered as old, when the style had existed only a few years. In fact, the most common misrepresentation had to do with age. In a way, I can understand the temptation to exaggerate the age of an item, because so many consumers equate age with quality. Europeans demand old pieces, as if they are the most authentic. They seem unaware of the fact that many authentic pieces are being created every day for use by Africans. Many of these consumers demand old, used pieces, but wish to pay only a few dollars for such items. This creates the climate for faking. One gentleman who was interested in an item I was offering for forty dollars, wanted to know about AGE and PROVENANCE. Get real. Anyone who is unfamiliar with the price of good quality, used items should attend a Sotheby auction or visit The Merton Simpson Gallery, both located in New York.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing new items, as long as they fit into the accepted stylistic norm for the genre, and you do not pay "old" prices for new items. Be careful though, and make certain that you know what a particular style group looks like. There is a current crop of masks making the rounds, that are offered as genuine Guro artifacts. First, they are strictly tourist items. Second, a close examination of the masks strongly suggest that they are being carved by a Senufo carver, at worst, or a Guro carver who is borrowing heavily from equally odd Senufo tourist masks. If such items appeal to you, then, by all means buy them, as long as you understand what they really are. I would suggest that you visit as many museum exhibitions as possible, visit galleries that offer high-quality items, and read, read, read. As in any other market, "Let the buyer beware."
While I was still contemplating what to put in the next exhibit, a friend who is also an African who imports African art visited. Once again he cautioned that I needed to review my pricing practices, because I would be unable to replace many of the items that were being offered at what he considered to be very cheap prices. After he left, I pulled out some photos of items that I had sold a long time ago. He was right. It is obvious that some objects are no longer being produced. Some will never be seen again, except in museums, or the private holdings of very rich collectors. The time to buy is now. If you can't afford to buy the piece of your dreams outright, ask if the Gallery will hold the item for you, while you make payments.
With all that in mind, I hit upon the theme for the new show. It is called "Eclectic Elegance". The only requirement for an item to be included in the show was that it be elegantly executed. Some of the items chosen for the exhibition are new, some are old. Regardless of age, provenance, kinship group, or usage, all are excellent examples of the genre, and fit the established stylistic norms for the societies that produced them. Study them, and compare them to others you see. While it certainly is true that we sometimes find bargains, it is also true that we usually get what we pay for. Arm yourself with knowledge. Be careful, and enjoy our latest show.