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Chirac Museum Project Drives Paris Market for Primitive Art

The June 23 opening of the Quai Branly Museum, a pet project of President Jacques Chirac, is catapulting Paris to the center of the world's market for primitive art, edging past New York and Brussels.

By Celestine Bohlen

April 27 (found at Bloomberg) -- Three auctions are timed to coincide with the unveiling of France's newest state museum, which will display 3,500 works of tribal art from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas.

French collectors and artists long have had a fondness for primitive art, particularly from West Africa and the South Sea islands where colonialists sometimes traded artifacts for empire- building equipment.

``The Quai Branly is not a luxury but a necessity,'' said Chirac in 1995 when he first launched the project for the museum, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel.

Chirac will host a selective list of world leaders, including former South African leader Nelson Mandela, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Australian Prime Minister John Howard at the museum's official inauguration on June 20. Paris auctioneers are relishing the chance to attract primitive-art specialists, dealers and museum curators from around the world.

`Great Party'

``It is not just the wish of the president, everybody has been waiting for this,'' said Marguerite de Sabran, a specialist at Sotheby's Holdings Inc., which is holding a primitive-art auction on June 23. ``The idea was to take part in this great party.''

Nicole and John Dintenfass of New York have sent 60 objects from their collection to Paris to be sold at a Sotheby's auction, a trend welcomed by Philipp Duc de Wurttemberg, head of Sotheby's Paris branch.

``Before, in the '60s and '70s, Americans came to Paris to buy from individuals,'' he said. ``Now they are coming here to sell because they can get prices that are equal, maybe even better than New York.''

Dintenfass, whose wife is French, said the couple decided to sell in Paris for several reasons, including the opening of the museum. ``At this moment, Paris is the center of African art,'' he said in a telephone interview on April 12.

Grassy Fetish

Among the items on sale from the Dintenfass collection is a Mangbetu statue, valued at between 300,000 euros and 400,000 euros ($362,900-$483,860). A striking Luba fetish, outlined in copper-plated nails, with tufts of dried grass coming out of its ears, was once part of the Ernst Anspach collection. It is estimated at 150,000 euros to 180,000 euros.

``For us, the primary interest has always been the aesthetics,'' said Dintenfass, a psychiatrist who has been collecting African art for 40 years. ``Of course, age and rarity play a role but we have to relate to the work in all its dimensions, especially the quality.''

Christie's Paris International's also is holding a Paris auction, scheduled for June 20. 

The sale features a rare 19th-century drum from the islands of Detroit de Torres, located near New Guinea, that is estimated at between 80,000 euros and 120,000 euros. 

A Songye statue from the Democratic Republic of Congo also is valued at 80,000 euros to 120,000 euros.

June 17 and 18: Drouot . Vente Verite 

The season's most intriguing event will be on June 17 and 18, in five separate halls at the Hotel Drouot, with the sale of 520 items belonging to the Verite family, a father-son dynasty whose gallery Carrefour in Paris was once a favorite haunt of artists and collectors. The Verite collection is valued at between $15 million and $20 million, said Alain de Monbrison, an expert who is one of three consultants for the sale.

Benchmark Prices

Highlights of the Verite sale will be on display in New York at the Tambaran Gallery, at 5 East 82nd Street from May 4 to May 6. A selection of works from Sotheby's June 23 auction will be on view at Sotheby's New York galleries from May 1 to May 8.

The Verite sale is particularly important for dealers and gallery owners, who are looking to the sale to set benchmark prices for a whole range of objects, said Alexandre Berge, owner of the Galerie Natsara, 29 Rue Taitbout, Paris. The gallery specializes in tribal art and curiosities.

``It is definitely one of the biggest events of the year,'' he said. ``It will help take the temperature of the international market.''

Among the pieces are a Fang mask from Gabon, similar to one now in the Louvre, valued at between $2 million and $3 million. Other rare works include a Mukuye Punu mask from Gabon and a double Baoule mask from the Ivory Coast.

`Extremely Discreet'

Some of the items haven't been on display for years. ``The family was extremely discreet,'' said de Monbrison, who was a frequent guest at the Verite country house which once belonged to the French painter Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). ``I found some things that had been last seen in 1915. We are bringing these objects back to life.''

At a time when Sotheby's and Christie's are making inroads on the French market, the Verite auction is a comeback for a former star of the local art market, Guy Loudmer, 72, one of the consultants for the sale. 

Loudmer, known for his flamboyant style, was found guilty in 1997 of abusing the confidence of a client: he served six months in prison, and was suspended from his auctioneer's practice from 2004 until 2007. 

The Verite sale will be conducted by the auction company Rive Gauche.

`Personal Relations'

Sotheby's wasn't even in the running for the Verite sale, said de Wurttemberg, chief executive of Sotheby's Paris. ``Personal relations played a big role,'' he said.

London-based Christie's International, owned by French billionaire Francois Pinault, had sales worth 115 million euros ($138 million) in France last year, more than any other auction house and 2.6 times more than its top rival, Sotheby's Holdings Inc., which has its main auctions rooms in New York.

French auction houses reported combined sales of 422 million euros. The total French market last year equaled $846 million, according to figures supplied by Christie's. The two auction houses received permission to sell in France in 2001.

The story of the Verite collections reflects a French tradition of amassing art from Africa and the Pacific Islands. In 1920, Pierre Verite, then a young artist, bought his first object representing what was then called ``Negro Art.'' His collection grew, thanks in part to an uncle who lived and worked in France's African colonies.

His gallery was frequented by collectors such as Helena Rubinstein and Nancy Cunard and artists including Pablo Picasso and Andre Breton. His son Claude continued collecting and acquired a new clientele that included the actors Edward G. Robinson and Anthony Quinn.

Expert Eye

In the past 60 years, prices for tribal art from Africa and the Pacific region have risen steadily though not as steeply as contemporary art. ``It is a smaller market, and there is less security for the buyer,'' said Berge. ``It is less speculative.''

Distinguishing authentic objects from fakes, and avoiding artifacts that might have been illegally excavated or exported is a tricky business and requires an expert eye, said Berge. In recent years, questions have been raised about the provenance of terra cotta sculptures from Nigeria known as ``Nok,'' three of which were put on display at the Louvre's Pavillon des Sessions in April 2000 and challenged by the Nigerian government.

To counter doubts about their origins, dealers and collectors put a premium on works that have a history among Western collectors. The objects also must have been used or had some religious function in their society, said de Sabran.

``Their numbers are shrinking, and the number of good pieces is becoming more and more rare,'' she said.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Celestine Bohlen in Paris at and
Last Updated: April 26, 2006 22:14 EDT


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