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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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COLLECTING African art in England and London.

Hunt is on for revered relics, collecting in London and England

Virginia Blackburn on the exotic appeal of African masks and ethnic images

COLD winds may be blowing over Britain, but in southern Africa summer is on its way. And with the African summer come the tourists and, of course, the collectors.


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As countries such as South Africa become increasingly open to visitors, so the magpies of Europe find all the more to bring home to their nests.

African art, specifically tribal art, has become more desirable in recent years.

“There is no doubt that interest is on the increase, although it’s a two-track kind of interest,” says Fiona McKinnon, a specialist dealer in tribal art who is curating the Tribal Art exhibition at the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms in London from October 12 to 18. “On the one hand, interior designers have become very interested in tribal art for purely decorative reasons. On the other, interest is growing in one-off items that have an intrinsic value rather than merely decorative appeal. At the very top level, the two tracks overlap.”

Siobhan Quin, an expert on tribal art at Bonhams, agrees. “Tribal art fits in extremely well with minimalist interiors,” she says. “It also goes very well with a look that is almost Georgian. And 20th-century artists were also influenced by tribal art: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, for example, was very strongly influenced by masks from the Congo.”

With a few honourable exceptions, it is actually better and easier to invest in African art in Europe and the US, rather than in Africa itself. “This is because a lot of tribal art is made of wood and, left on the African continent, it tended to rot,” Ms Quin adds. “It’s difficult to find many good 19th-century pieces in Africa, as the best preserved will have been shipped out by merchant seamen at the time.”

This means that there is considerable interest from within Africa in buying back its art for museums and galleries. While attractive items are on sale throughout the more commercial lands of the continent, these items should be seen in decorative terms rather than as an investment.

“You need to have fantastic knowledge of the subject to pick up really good pieces in Africa,” Ms Quin points out. “Most items are craft industry goods.”

But there are exceptions. In Cape Town, African Image sells pieces that frequently end up in museums and you will find the prices slightly lower than in Europe.

Another gallery to look out for in Cape Town is Michael Stevenson, which sells both tribal art and fine art from Africa. But it is in Europe and the US that you will find the greatest variety, including tribal art from other locations, such as Indonesia and the US.

The major centres of interest in tribal art are New York and Paris, but there is plenty to look for in London, too. Most of the large auction houses hold auctions that contain some collectable items. One, the Interior Decorator sale to be held at Sotheby’s, Olympia, on December 2, includes the Anthony Forge Collection.

Anthony Forge was a Cambridge-educated anthropologist who worked extensively with the Abelam people of the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. He built up a collection for the Museum of Ethnography in Basle, Switzerland, as well as an extensive range of items of his own. More than 150 items are to be auctioned, including two Maprik basketry masks from Papua New Guinea, each estimated to exceed £1,000. Sotheby’s also holds specialist sales in Paris and New York.

Bonhams, in Knightsbridge, West London, has an auction called Tribal Art on December 10. Items include masks from the Congo which, if in good condition, tend to cost between £2,000 and £3,000. There will also be some 19th-century moccasins made by native Americans.

The sale at the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms is a selling exhibition rather than an auction. Pieces include a Bambara marionette from Mali, for £2,200; a Punu mask from the Gabon, for £2,400; a 19th-century Kuba skirt from the Congo, for £1,400; and a selection of Zulu beadwork, with individual pieces starting from £50.

There are also specific galleries and websites that cater to demand. Owen Hargreaves Gallery in Hoxton, London, is one of the country’s leading specialists in African tribal art, both antique and contemporary. The gallery owners travel to 20 different African countries every three weeks, selling furniture, textiles, ethnographic pieces, jewellery, statues and masks. It also has a stand at Saturday’s Portobello Road market in London.

Afribilia also sells a very wide selection from shops in London and Johannesburg, and a website from which to order items. Adire African Textiles has a website specialising in textiles and also runs a stall on Portobello Road.


Bonhams: 020-7393 3900, ;

Sotheby’s: 020-7293 5000, ;

Afribilia: 020-7404 7137, ;

Elms Lesters Painting Pooms: 020-7836 6747, ;

Adire African Textiles: ;

Owen Hargreaves Gallery: 020-7253 2669, ;

African Image: ;

Michael Stevenson:

The African and Asian Visual Artists Archive: 020-8223 3405, .

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The Tribal Arts of Africa

The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

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read also : Start ] British-market-primitive-art ] London african art ] African-Dazzle ] Horniman-UK ] British-Museum ] Cambrige-Museum ] [ Collecting-London ] Liverpool-Museum ] Manchester-Museum ] Sainsbury centre of visual arts ] Oxford-Pitt-Rivers ] Exeter-Museum-Devon ] Royal-Museum-Edinburgh ] Birmingham museum ] hunterian ]

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