It is a curious thing.
You might say that the British school as it then was a rather
paradoxical place. Because on the one hand you might say it was
outside of the mainstream. It wasn't Paris, it wasn't New York but
there were some players there who had sophisticated taste and were
demanding of the level of quality. In a sense they had to be
because working out of London you had to be better than the other guys
since you weren't the first port of call for collectors.
Paris even then was the touchdown place for many people.
London did sometimes have the role of being a bridge particularly
for Americans who would land there, feel comfortable and then head off
for Paris. I would say, generally speaking, people from North
America thought of Paris as a place to go and hunt down tribal art.
In terms of people who
influenced us I would say John Hewitt, Ralph Nash, and in the field
of Oceanic and Polynesian Art, Hooper, Ken Webster, Oldman, and W.D.
Webster. There was a whole tradition there which favored
connoisseurship in the field of Polynesian Art which has always
been a significant component of what we do.
New Caledonian Kanak
TM: You have a
wide range of institutional clients. Can you discuss a few of the
major high profile pieces you've sold?
I would think we've worked
with nearly all of the Tribal Art acquiring museum of North America of
consequence. To a greater extent we've worked with the Dallas
Museum of Art, a little bit with Houston, we've sold major pieces to
Kimble Art Museum in Fort Worth, Chicago and a lot to the Metropolitan. I guess
when you have a museum quality object you also have to consider what
your best museum option is. We have a relationship with the
Metropolitan going back more than 20 years. For example when
Bobbie sold that unbelievable Congo Nail Fetish to the Met it had more
kudos associated with it than it would have selling it to a much lesser
institution. That very much is in line with reputation building as
you've mentioned, to have a track record with the major institutions.
We've always made a point
of that. But there is a cost assigned to selling to museums; it's
that you don't get to sell the object again. It is gone forever
more or less. Another museum we sold significantly to was Kansas
where again Bobbie developed a very good relationship with Mark Wilson
the director who proved to be more active with their acquisitions policy
than the successive curators. They bought from us a great
Benalulua female figure of the large scale type formally in the Tervuren, traded out of the Tervuren several years ago. They also
bought a great Benin Royal collar head from the 16th century. Back
to the Met, I had previously sold them a major double Madagascar post
from the Epstein Collection.
TM: Was that
Congo Nail Fetish the most expensive piece of the Tribal Art you've
I think as far
as I know that Congo Nail Fetish was the most expensive tribal art
transaction in North America to date. It was over 6 million
dollars. There will be other sales to come but for now I don't
think anything has been transacted for more. Many
people came to us and said it wasn't expensive, "You sold it too cheap",
but people will always tell you that.
Kongo Power Figure, Nkiski Nkondi (Mangaaka)
TM: Can you
talk a little about the modern and contemporary paintings you've
Well, let's say the work we
historically did in Tribal Art was always some form of trade. You
could say that although I always thought of Tribal Art as "Art", it was
nevertheless and extension of antique dealing rather than art. I
think things have changed a little bit; the way that younger dealers are
presenting Tribal Art with thematic exhibitions, art fairs, catalogs,
and websites is changing the way it is being dealt with and bringing it
more in line with the way people deal with fine art as opposed to
Certainly that is something I find congenial. I much
prefer this association. So when we began dealing with pictures we
began in the same way as we were dealing Tribal Art. As
traders we were either doing it opportunistically when we came across
things when they were in collections associated with Tribal Art.
In France we would go into a collection where somebody had been a
collector of paintings and added some Tribal. We went to look at
the Tribal, we then looked around and said there are some great
paintings here lets have a go at those too. It was a way of
extending our trading activities. I think I am a naturally
curious person and I've had some art historical background in addition
Oriental language studies.
So when I got involved in something I always
wanted to research it and get to bottom of it. Consequently, when
we started dealing in paintings in the 1980's we started asking questions about them.
I guess we're dealing in classic modernism because that is what had the
closest relationship for historic reasons, but what came before it? What happened in the 19th century and then in the 18th century?
Bobbie put on a fantastic historic show with an American Scholar named
Ann Lowenthal of 16th and 17th century Northern Mannerism Paintings.
It was a highly rated scholarly exhibition in our London Gallery.
So, when we went into that business, I have to say we somewhat neglected tribal
art in favor or fine art. I must say that we became a bit
dissipated and overextended in our range. Looking back I think it
was a mistake in strategy of being very eclectic and thinking the
application of good taste and commercial good sense we could establish
ourselves as dealers in a very broad range of paintings. I think
that is a very problematical position in the incredibly competitive
world we live in today. Within any given field there is too much
competition for you to be a significant player unless you have
specialist knowledge. We did it partly by getting partners in the
fields where we didn't have the knowledge but had the access, but even
so it was a flawed policy. Certainly when we got in
we found that dealing conditions by the early 1990's were very tough indeed.
What we had been doing was secondary market dealing, as I say analogous
to the kind of dealing we were doing in tribal art. It was extremely tough,
we were overextended, we were financed and our inventory wasn't moving
because nothing was moving.
So we had a space and we
thought what should we do? So we said lets look at doing
exhibitions of contemporary art which brought me into another phase
which I found much more satisfactory. When I got seriously
involved in contemporary art I was very stimulated by it. I was at
that time somewhat bored by tribal art because I was kind of retreading
old ground. The curious thing is that when you deal with
contemporary art, even though you may not be dealing with a genius or
somebody ever going to amount to anything, there is a certain excitement
in discovering something in the studio that is completely new, is
fresh, is alive and is part of your cultural ethos. You can
talk to the artist asking what the intent is, what does he feel?
There is a certain vibrancy there.
We get excited about the tribal
objects but it is more about
connoisseurship. The problem often is
getting the same "high" that you got 10 or 20 years ago from something
that may have been less good. You know we had the Rubenstein Fang
head around 1983. That is probably one of the top two or three Fang
Heads in the world. I've never had a Fang head as good since
then. I've had some good ones but never one as good as that.
I know realistically I'm not likely to get one either. So a fang head is
out of the picture as far as a peak experience is concerned.
You're going to have nice experiences but you're not going to be able to
repeat that. Not because it is just not within anybody's gift to
do it, but the pieces are not there. That is an historic evolution
in the marketplace where these things have increasing gone to very strong hands.
Maybe it will reappear one day, we'll see?
Fang Reliquary Head, Helena Rubenstein
Collection, Lot 213 Park Bernet Galleries 1966
TM: How would
you compare selling tribal art to selling paintings? What do you
To be honest you can't compare
because the contemporary art world or the fine art world, it's not
monolithic. It is spectrum of markets and one
of the paradoxes is that when we became seriously involved in contemporary
art we actually became beginners again. So we went down to the
bottom of the totem pole and started to work with new artists.
There was a huge disparity in what we were selling in tribal art
which may have been $100,000 or $500,000 to selling things at unit value
which may have been $5000, $10,000 and $15,000. In the early and
mid 1990's selling in the high-end was tough. It took awhile
before the market really picked up and it didn't really get going until
the late 90's and early 2000 when the market got really hot. Just
now we're going to see contemporary art being a bust. We don't know
how it is going to work but probably that low end market will be good;
not to be good but viable. It is the nature of contemporary art
that people like to buy, they like to discover, and it is very
speculative. So you can buy an artist for $10,000 you think is
good and might be worth a $100,000 in 5 years or million dollars in 10
years. That's a fun game for people to play and also you can just
take it out of your income, you're not parking a lot of capital.
So people continue to have an interest.
TM: Rumor has
it that some Paris dealers were not initially happy so to see you open a
gallery on 5 rue des Beaux-Arts?
It is certainly true that when we first went public
with our presence on the rue des Beaux-Arts, going on five years now, we got
some negative response. The dealers in question were honest enough
to talk directly to us. It was a little bit ironic since one of
these had always urged me to open a gallery in Paris
on the basis that the more the merrier and that I would bring more
clients to Paris. He said he was a little surprised it was on the
same street as him! But I explained myself and I have always done
a lot of business with this dealer and he recovered his
composure and said very quickly "I think we'll do a lot more
business in the future." And I think that Bobbie and I have
benefited and been good to the Paris art scene because we have a very
strategic approach. I think that is very often lacking as many
Paris dealers operate on a hand-to-mouth basis, they're shopkeepers.
I think being more strategic has been helpful. For example I
consult very closely with people like Pierre Moos who owns Tribal
Magazine and the Parcours. I've given him a lot of input and
in turn he has been very good about canvassing the opinions of dealers
and listening to what their input is. So I think ironically we've
been very beneficial to the Paris art scene. Actually there was
one other dealer who had a passing reaction. I think what they didn't like
was the surprise! The fact of the matter is that when you're
going to do something like this you have to surprise people because if
you telegraph your plans ahead of time you can be sure someone is going
to put a spoke in the wheel. We didn't want any competitive bidder
for the premises that we had in mind or anything like that. In the
beginning there was some surprise and alarm but its proved to be
New Ireland Malagan
TM: What kinds
of objects are most suited to the Parisian market as opposed to the
Pause... Well, the first thing I
would say is that the American Buyer is still a very very significant
component of the market, particularly when it comes to the high-end.
Even when the dollar has been weak, as it is now, the American buyers
have been very active and at least for us have been important.
There have been special situations in France like some of the star pieces
in the Verite collection were things of historic interest.
Like certain pieces the Quai Branly has acquired that have French
associations. You might say the French are possessive and
protective of these things, so they have outbid the competition of
certain buyers. People that otherwise would never be players
have come forward in the market. For example, in the Verite sale of
the great Fang Ngil mask to a French woman was a sale that wouldn't have
happened in my view if this had come from an American collection and
been sold in a New York auction. I wouldn't say it was
protectionism exactly but a certain interest in something that was
perceived to be "French". We've seen that with a Northwest
Coast Mask that we bought in a provincial auction that came from
Lady Straus. It was then pre-empted by the French state and is now
in the Quai Branly.
It is hard to say there is any
real taste differentiation possible. I think taste like everything
has have become more globalized. You might say more homogenized.
So that is a difficult question to answer.
Interior Entwistle Gallery,
Parcours des Mondes 2005
TM: What art
fairs do you currently participate in and which seem to be the most
Since we've participated in
the Parcours, business has been very good for us. It's a paradox
in a way because you might say participating in an art fair in your home
patch is a bit pointless but it gives you the ability to follow up leads
and be available and accessible to people. A lot of people come to
Paris for the Parcours. The same people will come to Paris for
other reasons. They may come for vacation or they may come to look
at tribal art at other times. So I think that if you were a
dealer from Rotterdam, if you don't make good sales during the life of
the Parcours, the knock on benefit is much less than if you're a Parisian
dealer who has the same results. We've never had a bad one,
we've sold well at every single Parcours but we've also had a
longer term benefit. But even for French people, there are people
we don't know that come into the gallery at the Parcours and come back
into the gallery later in the year. To give you an idea just how
insular it can be, there are many people in France, and it may sound a
bit conceited, that have never heard of us. So they say "well who
are these people, we don't know them." They live in a bubble and always
deal with the same Parisian dealer they know. They've never been
outside that don't know there is a wider world out there.
Paris Parcours 2008
We just did our 3rd Biennale.
We skipped one because it used to be held in a very depressing venue,
the Carousel de Louvre, which is subterranean and a terrible place to be
10 days 12 hours a day. But since they've gone back to the Grand
Palais we've felt very much like being part of it. Our most
important piece was a Cameroon Fang followed by some 18th century Maori
panels from Sarah Bernhardt. The price points on both of those
things were very high and certainly there was resistance at this fair.
Initially we had interest for some of the very expensive items.
Typically in an art fair context those expensive items don't walk out of
the booth; you have to develop those sales during the fair and beyond.
In this case "Black Monday" intervened (September 29th 2008) and suddenly
the whole atmosphere changed and that derailed those very
expensive ongoing conversations. Even though, this year at
least, it was not the easiest place to sell, because it is local to the
gallery and because it has a tremendous prestige with the French
public, it is an absolutely must do fair for us.
dealers, we have to have the "prestige" associated with being there in
order to keep the prestige of the gallery up. It was a difficult
fair this year (September 2008) although we did quite a lot of referral
business where most people didn't want to pay the price point we were
offering at the fair. However, they went back to the gallery and made
purchases there. Also preemptively people bought things that we were
going to put at the fair before they went to the fair, so it cuts
The third fair we're doing for
the first time and we've been very anxious, is Maastricht.
We've been invited and now have an opportunity. It is a very thin
field there. Tribal Art has been well represented by Bernard DeGrunne who I think for strategic reasons
were keen to help increase the
tribal presence there. He has always said "please apply, please
try to get in". I think in a fair where there is a venue
having no natural public you need a certain momentum, some force or
gravity to bring people in. Anthony Meyer is also in this fair and
is an incredible presence in this field.
I hear the vetting is incredibly tough there, sometimes unreasonably so.
It still doesn't stop a few odd things from slipping through...
TM: If there
were no shortage of great material from one culture or region (African,
Oceania, N. America) what would you prefer to specialize in?
I would be reluctant and
saddened if I had to omit one of those areas, although there are some
exceptions. Overall I'm more excited by Polynesian Art than
Melanesian Art but there are some extraordinary pieces within that realm.
It is invidious to try to make preferences. Would I be more
excited to have a great Hawaiian figure, which is dreaming the
impossible dream, than to have a great Yuat figure like the one in the
Friede collection or the Beyeler foundation? I guess the Hawaiian
figure would carry the day for me. I suppose in terms of Native
American I could most easily give up the Northwest I guess, partly
because one doesn't get enough opportunities, so what would I be giving
up really? If there was an equal flow of material then it would be
a tougher call.
consignments work best with your business model which involves selling
very expensive pieces?
Yes, I would say that
consignment today has become an essential part of dealing at the
of the market because people, quite reasonably want to extract as
much of the full market value of what they are selling as possible.
I think there are two ways to do it. One is to give it to a dealer
who has the confidence of his clients and is able to command high
prices. Our business depends significantly on confidence.
The other is to do it on terms that are as favorable as possible.
I'm mean the dealer has to make a living, but the consignor also has to
look after his interests. Clearly if you insist on selling
to a dealer, because a dealer has to make a return on capitol, you're
going to get a much lower percentage of the retail value of you're
object than if you consign it. So we've found that, rather
ironically, a lot of owners prefer to consign rather than to sell because it
reassures them that they're getting a better "shake".
If a dealer
walks in and says "yeah I'll give you $100,000 for that", they know damn
well he's not going to sell it for $120,000. He'll have to sell it
for $150,000 or more. As every dealer knows there are no sure
bets. You can think that a thing will sell tomorrow but you can be
wrong. I've been there and frankly people who've spent a lot of
money on inventory in September can quickly find that in October it is a
very different picture. I think we're going to be seeing
significant discounts on estimating auction values and private sales
over the next 12 to 24 months. There is no question about it in my
I think for the dealers the
challenge is to continue to trade and to protect their margins.
Where you have a problem is with your old inventory. Even if you
can sell your old inventory and reinvest at lower levels, protecting your
margins on resale you can still have a viable business. The worst
scenario is that dealers will have to contend with is a "stuck market" which
can easily happen. Although you as a dealer maybe prepared to buy
at a lower level, or to take on consignment at a lower level,
private sellers are going to say, "Ah I don't need the money now, the
market is going to come back in two or three years, I'll wait and not
sell." That's what we're going to see, especially in paintings, big
to Part II
extends its sincere gratitude and appreciation to Lance for offering
his insightful views.
Entwistle France SARL
L & R Entwistle and Co Ltd
5 rue des Beaux
Arts 144 New Bond Street
Paris London W1S 2TR
T +33 (0)1
5310 0202 T +44 (0)20 7499 6969
F +33 (0)1
4326 3030 D +44 (0)20 7290 3682
Conservation, Purchase Advice, Selling Advice and Sales