Exclusive Interview with:

"HEINRICH SCHWEIZER" 

Sotheby's Senior Vice President, Department Head African & Oceanic Art New York

(page 1 of 2)

 

Heinrich Schweizer after coming to Sotheby's in 2006 quickly made himself an indispensable and key figure at the number one auction company.  A prodigy at an early age, through his deep curiosity and thirst for knowledge, is today one of the preeminent experts in African and Oceanic Art.   He has studied individual workshops, physically handled more great objects and seen more private collections than most of us will in a lifetime.  Sitting at the helm in New York as "Department Head", he is uniquely qualified to bring us deep insights into every aspect of the marketplace like how it has changed, where it is going and how Sotheby's serves its buyers and consignors.  In this rare interview he lifts the veil of the corporate firm's mystique, answering all questions thoroughly and honestly for our visitors.  The core of this interview occurred "live" on the 5th floor of a private viewing room in May 2012 of the Sotheby's offices in New York and was amended later.

 

 

 

 

Auliso:  Can you tell me about your career path which led you to eventually becoming a specialist at Sotheby's?

Heinrich Schweizer:  My parents were both artists: my father a sculptor and my mother a painter and school teacher.  My father, like many artists, had a collection of non-Western artworks that served as a source of inspiration.  He collected Antiquities, Pre-Columbian, Indian and Southeast Asian, Japanese, and Chinese art, as well as owned a few works of African Art.  As a child, for reasons unknown to me, I reacted to African art most strongly. Growing up in this kind of family, I also perceived that collecting was something natural to do.  So I bought my first African sculpture when I was 10 years old, a small Ashanti gold weight I found in an antique store in my hometown of Munich.  The owner of the store didn't really know what it was and I was very proud because I could identify it.  The price was 50 German Marks (the equivalent of about 25 dollars), which was much more than I had as a ten-year-old. I always enjoyed negotiating – the store owner was open to helping me – and eventually we agreed on payment terms that allowed me to make the acquisition. This little figure became the first piece in my collection and I still own it today.  Much later I became interested in Oceanic art and bought my first piece in my early twenties. 

I always had a strong interest in art in general.  Growing up, I especially appreciated modern art, first paintings by the artists of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) and Bruecke (Bridge) groups, later on the Cubists.  However, I never thought I would do anything professionally with my interests.  My family was entirely artistic, everybody was a visual artist, performing artist or writer, and a great many collected art.  In a way I was the black sheep of the family because I had more analytical interests.  I had a couple of friends at school whose parents were lawyers, whom I greatly admired for their command of language and their structured and logical approach.  So I wanted to study law and did so.  After my graduation I went into legal academia and specialized in Foundation and Trust law and "Art Law" in a broader sense.  It was with that background that I came to America.

 

Auliso:  Early on, as a personal hobby, you were interviewing important people in our business?

Schweizer:  Yes, I still do this for my own curiosity.  I always greatly enjoyed meeting people and learning from them, especially those with much life experience.  In turn, I have a preference for curious people.  Curiosity and experience make for an interesting life.  In terms of African and Oceanic art I had a catalyst moment when I was around 20.  At the time there was a big annual art fair in Munich where one of the dealers exhibiting was the legendary Philippe Guimiot.  I met him as a novice to the world of international art fairs and not knowing that much about that world, and asked him whether I could meet with him outside the context of the fair to ask him some questions on aesthetics and African Art.  He was maybe a bit amused at this request by a very young man who obviously would not qualify as one of his customers, since I made it clear I didn't have the funds to buy from him.  He agreed to the meeting, which was supposed to be about 30 minutes, but one word led to the other and it lasted for five hours.  We would be talking about aesthetics and quality, and I would say something pretty naive and uniformed.  He would then go into a separate room in his hotel and pull out a few sculptures at a time, figures and masks, and explain not just every aspect of the actual works but also elucidate the cultural and stylistic relationships between them, and place the whole into the larger context of world art.  His mind was operating on a much broader bandwidth than what I had ever encountered before in this field in Munich.  At the end of our conversation there were 50 or 60 African sculptures laid out in his large hotel suite.  The whole experience was quite shocking to me – shocking in the most positive sense of the word.  I had just met a man who dedicated his entire life to art and questions of aesthetic appreciation, and I realized how much there was for me to learn.  After this meeting I was determined to make African and Oceanic art an integral part of my life, a second pillar alongside my interest in law.  Although subsequently I did not see Philippe for many years it goes without saying that I owe a lot to this man.  He was as important to me as an inspiration as my parents.  He gave me a magic moment that changed my life.

 

Philippe Guimiot

 

Auliso:  What were the circumstances leading to your hiring as a specialist at Sotheby's?

Schweizer:  In a way this also had to do with my early meeting with Philippe Guimiot.  I had bought a Nok terracotta head in the mid 1990's when a lot of the Nigerian terracottas came onto the market.  At the time you could buy very good quality for relatively little money.  I studied the piece and developed a certain familiarity with this material but after a while found myself more drawn to wood sculpture.  There I felt age and authenticity much harder to judge than in terracottas, and in fact I had been fooled a couple of times already.  Being quite systematic in my approach to such issues I asked Philippe what advice he would give to a fledgling collector as to how best to learn about the age and authenticity of wood sculpture.  His advice was simple: "Touch as many pieces as you possibly can, look at their collecting history and compare".  He said approximately: "You could go to a museum but you can't handle the works in the way you need to in order to learn about them, or you can go to a commercial gallery, but the largest volume of objects you'll see will be at an auction house.”  He said: "You are so young that at some point you could interrupt your law studies for a few months and go to a big international auction house like Sotheby's."  That made a lot of sense to me and we just left it there.

A couple of years later, when I was just about to finish my law degree, I remembered what Philippe had told me and contacted Sotheby's and made a strong case that I wanted to come to New York to the African and Oceanic Art department.  To get my visa, I had to justify my application with my legal background.  So I started working as an unpaid intern one day a week in Sotheby's legal department, where I worked on some quite interesting cultural property protection law cases.  The rest of each week I was able to work in the African and Oceanic art department.  This was in 2000 during the Egon Guenther single owner auction so there was much material for me to look at.  I vividly remember the fantastic time I had.  I was a fanatical worker. Every day I would come in before 9:00 am and often would stay until 9:00 or 10:00 pm.  I would come in on weekends, too, and as often as I could I went to the local museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum.  I was taking everything in like a dry sponge.

After this apprenticeship was over, I went back to Germany, finished my law degree and then went on to academia.   I enrolled in a PhD program in Art Law and came to realize that I had to finance this somehow.  There was a distinguished newspaper in Germany called the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ)” which I subscribed to for many years.  It is one of the few newspapers in Germany that has a dedicated section on the art market.  One day I just called them up, curious whether they would ever run stories on the African Art market.  I said to them that is something I would like to read.  They said: "Well, is this an important field?  It is a bit esoteric and we don't really know much about it.  Is this a relevant market?"  I said: "Yes, there are big auctions in Paris and New York and top prices can be a million dollars."  They said: "That sounds interesting but we don't have someone who can cover that, but it seems you know this field quite well, maybe you would want to try that?"  They initially didn't promise that what I wrote would be published.  However, they liked my style and indeed published the very first article I submitted as a small column.  This happened in the spring of 2001.  A few weeks later I was in Paris to attend the sale of the Hubert Goldet collection of African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art.  The newspaper didn’t ask me to go but I went anyway as it was a highly anticipated event and I just wanted to see it.  It turned out to be this historic success of a two-day auction making some 88 million francs, at the time an unprecedented amount for a collection of this material.  Reuters had it among the top ten news stories of the day and all the other newspapers got the Reuters news ticker.  Not knowing this I shyly checked in with the newspaper and said I had just attended another African Art auction in Paris.  They said: "Was this the Goldet auction that broke all those records?"  I said yes, and they said: "You get a quarter page."  I wrote the article and it appeared on the front page of the art market section.  From then I had my foot in the door with that newspaper.  I published many articles thereafter and this, in turn, opened many doors and allowed me to meet lots of collectors.  In the following years, if I wanted to visit a collector I just called them and explained my affiliation with the newspaper; people were generous and accepting of me.

I returned to America in 2004/2005 as a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School and a fellow of the German National Merit Foundation.  Through the years since my Sotheby’s internship I stayed in touch with Jean Fritts who had been my mentor then.  Jean, who is not only very knowledgeable in African and Oceanic art but also a great communicator with a fine sense for timing, informed me of a vacancy in the New York African and Oceanic art department just a few weeks before my term at Harvard was about to end.  In a way, this shook me up as it was not part of my life plan and my feelings were mixed.  On the one hand, my legal career was shaping up nicely and promised to be successful.  On the other hand, very few people ever get an opportunity to do something that was their earliest childhood passion.  Remember that I bought my first piece when I was ten years old.  The question was whether I wanted to throw this secure legal field overboard to take a risk for my passion.

What made the difference in the end was a great interview process at Sotheby's.  I asked my interviewer, a Sotheby’s Vice-Chairman: "Why would you be interested in hiring someone like me who doesn't really have any credentials in the art market?"  While I knew a decent amount about African and Oceanic art I had not done anything in business.  My interviewer was very blunt which I appreciated.  She said: "We'll know soon enough, when you jump into the water you'll either sink or swim.  If you swim you stay, if you sink you'll go back to law!"  I decided to take the chance.  My first contract had a two week notice for both parties without cause.  When I started the job I knew the first day that this experience could be very meaningful for my life.  I quickly realized that there was a key part of my personality that I could never fully "live out" in academia: my competitive side.  Today, competition is what I like best about my job.

 

Auliso: Did success seem to come easy for you at Sotheby's?

Schweizer:  Since 2006, Sotheby’s African and Oceanic Art department in New York, the department for which I am responsible, has sold more than 150 million dollars of African and Oceanic art through auctions and private sales.  We placed circa 100 million dollars through auction and about 50 million dollars through private sales.  By contrast, in 2005, the year before I started, the department’s annual auction total was about 3.4 million dollars, and private sales were entirely negligible.  In hindsight, if you have made the right decisions, it always looks easy.  In my very first year I was presented with a great opportunity which some might call a lucky circumstance: the collection of the New Yorker William Brill about to come onto the market.  This opportunity fell into my lap and I did not have much to do with winning this business.  I basically entered the stage when the collection had already been consigned to Sotheby's.  Having been assembled primarily in the 1960s, the Brill collection was absolutely fresh to the market.  The potential was obvious and I was extremely excited and motivated.  However, seizing it was long and hard work. 

As always with large projects, a great team of people supported me and helped put it all together.  As this was nothing I had ever done before, however, everything took a huge amount of time.  With 175 lots this was the largest collection of African art sold in New York since the Harry Franklin Collection in 1991.  When working on the catalog, for about six weeks I got an average of 3 hours of sleep per night.  There were a few nights when I napped for only 30 minutes on top of my office desk.  I would keep working into the night and then had to meet clients the next morning in the same suit, shirt and tie I had been wearing the previous day.  It was a very intense experience, but also an immensely rewarding one.  I felt like that sponge again.

 

 

This was a time when the market was also ready for a jump in America.  In June 2006, the Vérité auction in Paris had brought a number of new records; the sale of the Brill Collection followed suit in New York in November.  The Vérité sale had been very successful. It was favored by a combination of factors, including a distinguished and specifically French provenance, the newly opened French auction market with Paris at its center, the opening of the Quai Branly Museum the same week as the sale, and very strong French media interest surrounding these events. Many people thought that the Vérité auction would mark the all-time-high in the market for many years to come and that such a success would only be possible in Paris with its rich tradition of collecting in these fields. New York was perceived as a market in decline which would never be able to resurrect to its past glory as the most important auction venue in the world. Little did they know.

The Brill auction turned out to be hugely successful, with every single lot sold and the total result two times the presale high-estimate.  The following spring, we presented the Saul and Marcia Stanoff Collection together with a few masterpieces deaccessioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. This auction broke all records and generated $25 million – half the sum that the Vérité sale had totaled but with only one quarter of lots.  That sale of May 2007 was the true turning point in the market, marking the beginning of a new era.  The quality of the works on offer was so great that it attracted the interest of art collectors outside the African and Oceanic art field, who, for the first time, entered the market on a broad front.  Our cultivation and continuous expansion of this collector group led to the reassessment of the top of the market in our category that we have been witnessing in the last five years up through today. 

 

 

This trend became still more evident the following year, 2008, when we were entrusted with the sale of an iconic masterpiece of African art, the Dinhofer Baga Serpent.  For many people it was never conceivable that a Baga serpent figure, so abstract, could ever go for an important price.  This sculpture, however, was distinguished from many other African artworks by what I would call its universal appeal, which opened it up to the new group of buyers that had made its first appearance in the market the previous year in the Stanoff auction.  When it sold for 3.3 million dollars (New York, May 16, 2008, lot 58) it became the fifth most expensive work of African art of all time and today it still ranks among the top ten.  Here was confirmation that the auction market was moving into a very different direction from before.  Today we know that it was heading to a New World.

 

 

 

Auliso:  I noticed changes in the Sotheby's catalogs right around when you were hired.

Schweizer:  I believe that whenever one comes into a new position, one oughtn’t to carry baggage from the past.  This allows one to try new things.  All the changes we implemented were not radical but rather small.  However, many small tools together still added up to really changing the way we presented African and Oceanic art.  I'll mention a few things.  First, there was the terminology.  I always looked at African and Oceanic art from a universal perspective, which was how my parents brought me up.  I never “compartmentalized” between different categories of art or bought into how you must use different lingo when talking about Western art versus Indian art, say, or Antiquities or African and Oceanic art...  What amazed me when I entered this field was that most people were still calling it "tribal art".   Galleries and auction houses, big and small, even certain museum curators used that term.  I mean, what does it really say?  The emphasis is placed not on art but a somewhat vague concept of “tribalism” and “tribal culture”.  It evokes certain preconceived associations, almost like “sweet and sour sauce” on the menu of a Chinese restaurant.  There is no doubt that the term “tribal” is a historically contingent or quasi-imperialist remnant of the colonial era.  It is the result of a Western imperial perspective with condescending overtones and reveals a unilateral view on civilizational progress.  We don’t talk about the “Irish tribe” or the “English tribe” so why would we use this terminology when talking about African or Oceanic people?  The more antiquated term “Primitive Art” is by no means better.  What these terms basically suggest is that the most important common denominator of these artworks is their origin in tribal societies.  This logic is obviously very arbitrary and of little help if one compares the small surreal artworks created by the Lega, an isolated people of hunters and gatherers living in the eastern Congo, to the majestic Benin metal casts, an art form centered in the dynastic traditions of the ruling family of an empire that for several centuries was the dominant military force in Western Africa, and had trade relationships with the Portuguese since the 15th century.  To both examples, in my mind, it is problematic to apply terms such as “tribal” or “primitive”; rather, the very use appears as holdover from the colonial era.

By contrast, I have always thought more in terms of the "individual artist".  And if we have categories such as French Art, English Art, Chinese Art, Japanese Art, Indian Art, why wouldn’t one at least talk about African Art and Oceanic Art?  So it was important to me, first off, to apply the same art historical principles that were established in other disciplines also to African and Oceanic art.  We thus adopted this terminology consistently, and introduced art historical standards into our catalog presentations.  A direct consequence of this approach and one of my strong personal interests is the identification of individual artists, their workshops and regional styles in African Art.  I am sure you have also noted this in our sale catalogs.

 

 

Albright-Knox Benin Bronze Head on an Oba, ca. 1575-1650 (New York May 2007, lot 121)  Selling price $4,744,000.  Page to the left showing another Oba Head and a Horn Blower from the British Museum which were made at the same time for the same altar likely by the same artist.

 

Another change we introduced was the visual way we presented African art inside our catalogs.  For decades, auction catalogs as well as most scholarly and other publications photographed African and Oceanic sculpture on black backgrounds.  Why?  In talking to many photographers, I was always told that sculpture benefits from dramatic lighting, as opposed to painting where you want the lighting to be very flat and even.  Because of the shadows on the background that dramatic lighting can produce, it was common sense to use a dark background.  There is also a technical challenge if one photographs on a light background: the reflecting light from the background can lead to a loss of definition of the sculpture’s outline.  This was a technical issue, not quite easy to figure out but turned out to be solvable.

So for my entire first year, working with Sotheby’s photographers, we experimented a lot with different backgrounds.  In the end we found a way to shoot sculptures on white backgrounds without losing either definition or dramatic effect, and we have perfected our technique continuously in that regard.  We launched this new look for the first time in 2007 starting with the Stanoff sale.  It was quite interesting to hear the reactions.  The traditional collectors of African Art all said "hmm, this looks strange but not bad."  But when I talked to other colleagues at Sotheby's across other departments, they all said this looks really sexy.  Most importantly, the fine art collectors who entered the market in 2007 responded positively.  We used this look again in 2008, 2009, and 2010.  And then all of a sudden other auction houses started doing it, first Christies and then Bonham's.  Then you saw galleries using this look in their ads.  Then new scholarly publications also adopted this look.  Now it seems everybody is shooting on white, and it is of course gratifying to know we had come up with this idea.  It seems like such a minor thing but when you think of it: now, as you open a book or catalog for Old Master Paintings, Greek and Roman sculpture, Contemporary Art and African Art -- it all has the same look and you don't have the feeling anymore that you are walking into the "dark-forest-of-tribalism".  And if you are a collector new to this field, you want to be able to relate to it and not be repelled by a look you are not familiar with.

 

        

(Left) A Fang Byeri Figure (London, November 1993, lot 100) photographed on a black background vs. another example from the Stanoff sale photographed on white (NY May 2007, lot 26)

 

Auliso:  What are the most challenging and gratifying aspects of your job?

Schweizer:  The most challenging is to maintain a consistently high level of quality in whatever you do.  Most important in our profession is to protect our clients, be it the buyer or the seller.  In the art market there are large amounts of money involved.  First, you always have to be aware of the risks for a "buyer".  The worst that can happen is that an artwork one sold turns out not to be authentic or is discovered to be heavily restored or is for some other reason not worth the money that the buyer invested.  At the same time, one has to protect the "seller", which means avoiding selling his property below its market value, for example because one hasn’t researched it sufficiently and doesn’t recognize its rarity and value.  So there is a lot of responsibility on those two fronts, protecting clients on both sides.   The most gratifying experience is when it all works, making the seller and buyer happy and delivering a high-quality service and product. 

 

Auliso:  Do you see any broad trends emerging in the market?

Schweizer:  I think that the art market in general in the 21st century is becoming less compartmentalized by regions or categories of artworks.  There is one category that everybody wants: the universal masterpiece, the artwork that defies categorization and transcends regional styles and eras.  Once you are discussing such an artwork, it doesn't matter whether the work is African or Oceanic, 500 years old or 50 years old.  We've seen a number of such works in the past two years going for very strong prices at auction.  One great example would be our Hungana Ivory Pendant which we sold in Paris last year (December 14, 2011, lot 64).  It had an estimate of 30-50,000 Euros and was sought-after by a dozen of bidders, eventually selling for over one million dollars to a client who was bidding with me on the phone.  It didn't sell for that much because it was an "ivory" or a "miniature", or an "amulet" or “Congolese”.   Of course it could be categorized in all those terms, but it was much more than that.  In the end it sold for an outstanding price because the artist had created a sculpture that carried so much dignity and spirituality that it became accessible to a very broad audience reaching far beyond the limits of the traditional African Art market.

 

 

Hungana Ivory Pendant (Paris December 14, 2011, lot 64)

 

Auliso:  Is there a specific piece you're especially proud of playing a key role in bringing to market?

Schweizer:  The first especially important work to me on a personal level was the Dinhofer Baga Serpent (May 16, 2008, lot 58).  At the time we put it up for sale, it was given the highest estimate ever placed on an African sculpture, 1.5-2 million dollars.  I think before the Dinhofer Baga Serpent only the Fang "ngil" mask in the Vérité sale ever had a similar estimate, after converting its price of 1-1.5 million euros into dollars (1.25-1.75 million dollars).  But there, you're talking about Fang, one of the most iconic genres of African Art - and it was not only just a Fang mask but a mask of the most iconic type (ngil) and arguably the best in the world.  For the Dinhofer Baga Serpent it was a much bolder move to go out there and say “this is a Baga sculpture from Guinea Bissau” - traditionally not one of the most popular and sought-after genres in African art - place it on the cover of the catalog and appraise it higher than any work of African sculpture at auction had ever been appraised.  The highest price a similar sculpture had ever sold for was a fraction of our estimate.  On the other hand, there was no work of comparable quality on the market in probably the last 40 years.  In absolute terms it was one of the best two or three in the world, and this count includes the Lazard Serpent at the Louvre which will never be for sale. 

 

         

 

I was talking before about "responsibility".  This was the most important artwork in the collection of Shelly and Norman Dinhofer, two very passionate collectors who never had a lot of money in their life, but shared a great eye.  They had been living with this masterpiece in a modest house in Brooklyn since 1967, having bought it then from Pierre Matisse in New York for $3,600.  The Dinhofers had three children who grew up together with that sculpture.  There was this kind of "family myth" that the serpent was watching out for them.  They believed that as long as the serpent was in the family, it offered protection and nothing could ever happen to them.  You meet people like this and have a chance to get to know them, and over time you become friends.  You talk to their children.  It was apparent how important this object was to them, and they never really wanted to sell.  Then, at one point in time they were in their 80s, their house with an old-fashioned staircase was becoming uncomfortable to move around in, and they were looking at how they could possibly move to a smaller space in Manhattan.  They needed a certain amount of money to do that and knew they wouldn’t have all that much space anymore, and this is why they heavy-heartedly decided to sell their collection.  So one day you find yourself in a position where you are entrusted with this magnificent work, and of course you want to do justice to this object, which I believe to be one of the great monumental sculptures of African Art.  Then, however, there is the personal component.   Back to "responsibility": you meet these wonderfully passionate people, you start to care about them, they become your friends and you know that their life plan depends on the success of the sale.  It is not just them, either, but also three children and a couple of grandchildren, all of whom look to you with their hopes and expectations.   And everything is public - the presentation in the catalog, the auction, and every step you take can be seen.  You must be made for the auction business, for what you sometimes need are very strong nerves.  As everybody knows, though, it all worked out well in the end.

 

 

What is fascinating about the Dinhofer Baga Serpent sale is that on the other side my story with the buyer was very special, too.  I was bidding on the phone with this collector who, while an ambitious man with a great eye, had never spent this amount of money for a work of African sculpture.  Before the auction he said to me: "you know what, this figure is for a museum, it’s too important for me... How could I justify owning something like this?"  We had a lot of discussion before the auction and he finally said to me "if it goes within the estimate, I'm ready to buy it, but if it goes above that I'm out."  So, we were bidding together and went in at 1.4 million and bid it up at 2 million – when he dropped out.  Two other collectors went on battling and it shot up to 2.5, 2.6, 2.7, and on to 2.8 million and then stopped.  With the auctioneer waiting a little I said to him: "Now you get a second chance.  Do you want to own this work?"  He said "I don't know...  what do you think?"  I said:  "The only thing I know is if you buy this work and live with it, it will take you, as a collector and as a person, to a whole new level in your life.  Living with such a masterpiece means you'll never look at art the same way you did before."  He said: "OKAY, I'm in", the auctioneer said “Welcome back!” and we managed to place the winning bid at 3.3 million dollars.  The room lit up with applause and I believe that everybody realized there was an inner struggle going on in this collector who corrected his previous decision and decided to fight to the end for his passion.  In this very moment a great collector was born and what I had said to him in the storm of the situation proved absolutely true.  This purchase changed his life, and what he has bought afterwards does not compare to what he bought before.  He has bought only great works afterwards and if he continues this way and stays disciplined he is sure to build one of the greatest collections in the world, with the Baga Serpent as the centerpiece.  So, from the seller to the buyer - it was a truly rewarding experience.

 

Auliso:  It is apparent that more and more collections are going straight to auction and bypassing dealers that helped build these collections.  From a dealer perspective this is a negative.  What are your views?

Schweizer:  I don't want to judge it in "positive" or "negative" terms but rather accept it as a fact.  The reality today is that the auction houses are sourcing the vast majority of top quality works coming to market.  Sotheby's holds an 80 percent market share over Christie's worldwide.  In New York our lead is even bigger and exceeds 90 percent.  The question is why and the answer has to do with globalization.  Think back to a time when every city had a large number of independent convenience stores.  A smaller convenience store might cater to one neighborhood, a large one to a quarter or at best to a small city. What these stores had in common was that they sold mainly local products to a local audience.  While the offer might have comprised high quality in certain categories, the selection was by nature limited, and often low quality could also be sold in the absence of competition between vendors, especially in more remote areas.  As economies and individual markets became increasingly global, some stores increased their reach and started selling not only European but also Asian, Australian or South American products.  Especially those consumers interested in top quality as well as diversity benefited from this development as they could buy anything they wanted at any time, as long as they paid the price.  Of course, the bigger and more international a business, the easier it was to source a diversified selection of products and place them with an international audience.  Sooner or later a few companies gained "critical mass" and became market leaders. 

I think this is what happened between the "traditional market" of African and Oceanic Art, which was first dominated by dealers and galleries, and today’s “auction market.”  What you could find in the old-style galleries on the Grand Sablon in Brussels or the Quartier Saint Germain in Paris was usually the material dealers found locally.  Of course it was great for buyers to go there because sometimes you could find something of masterpiece-quality in a style underappreciated in the local market.  But that was not good for the seller.  Today, in contrast, a business like Sotheby's with nearly 100 offices worldwide, and regional representatives in all the world’s major cities, has a network of potential sellers and buyers that (a) cannot be matched by a regular-sized gallery and (b) ensures that both buyer and seller are getting a fair deal.  The key question for us is getting the right product.  As long as we are able to find artworks which are of appeal to an international audience, we can place these very well with our clients.   The better our track record, the more incentive collectors have to sell through us, and the better the next auction will be.  It is therefore in our vital interest to understand in which quality segment our international clientele has the strongest interest.  The current market shows a clear, strong interest in top quality artworks from canonic African styles, especially those that are well-documented by virtue of their inclusion in important publications and exhibitions.  If you go back 30 years, auctions were much larger, often comprising between 300 and 400 works of mixed quality.  Back then, knowledgeable dealers would sometimes come to the auction to advise their clients, but mostly to pick out the best works for themselves.  Today the auction houses are selling directly to the world’s most important collectors.  It is a big change.

 

(then) 1993 Sotheby's New York sale with 327 lots

 

(now) 2010 Sotheby's Paris sale with only 83 lots

 

 

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