AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTONIO CASANOVAS
PART ONE OF TWO
Antonio and Ana Casanovas own the gallery "Arte Y Ritual" in Madrid Spain. Antonio is considered by many to be the preeminent dealer in the field of tribal art today. He earned his reputation by selling significant pieces of the highest quality possible. He is also known for buying and selling fine objects at extraordinary prices.
On Saturday morning September 17th I met with Antonio during the Parcours des mondes tribal fair in Paris at his gallery at 11 rue Visconti. We are honored to present views on Tribal Art from "ANTONIO CASANOVAS"...
How did I get started? Well, I am very bad with these kinds of dates, but I would have to say that the art world was really my start. Art in general is universal and either you are into art or you are not. If you are, you will find your own area of interest in art. Thanks to my parents who were collecting contemporary & Asiatic art, as a kid I saw a lot of art around my house. I suppose this was my real start.
I was lucky to be born close to the only great collection that was in Spain, and my sister was a good friend of the daughter of these people who had a kind of private museum. So we kids would go and play around the New Guinea objects or African masks. At five years old not only were these things a curiosity for me, but they stayed in my mind as well.
At a later date, of course much later, I was working at something else, traveling in Indonesia. Wherever I traveled I used to buy antiques. The first Indonesian sculpture of tribal art I bought in 1982.
TRIBALMANIA: Were you field collecting there?CASANOVAS: I was not looking for art at that time, I was actually traveling around that beautiful country. I went to some of the far islands, and there was a small dealer, a Chinese man who had ten sculptures from some village. I saw them when I was with my girlfriend, and we both flashed on those things, which we started to relate to Picasso, how they looked like Picasso. I still have one of the pieces; it looks like a Picasso painting.
I didn’t have the money to buy them, so we decided to convince the guy to come to Bali with us, and then to wire the money to his bank, so we kept him suffering for 15 days, but the money arrived (laughs) and that was the beginning of our collection.
I got started as a collector, and a few years later, I kept taking those trips, in the field, and I started going to museums, got interested in books and so forth. My Dealing career started when a big collector in Barcelona found out that I had a collection of these, and wanted to visit me. He came to see me, from then he started to bug me to sell him some pieces. At one point I said “look I don’t know what they are worth, I know what I paid for them, how much can I ask?” He said “well, I’ll make you an offer” And he offered me…..well it was a nice surprise, so I said on the next trip, I will buy for me and I’ll buy for him. So that’s how I started dealing.
Then of course I realized what the reality of the market was, you know Bali, and the fakes, and I decided I needed to learn more. I started working with another much more experienced dealer, we started to buy together, and sell to his clients. So I could really go deeply into study. He was really the person who taught me the business. Then we started to go to the Paris & Brussels, auctions.
TRIBALMANIA: Is this the only business you are involved in?CASANOVAS: Yes, it is full time. I was really excited that I found something I love and can make a living from. It was always my dream to work at something I love. The first time I saw those tribal sculptures, it was immediate love. I had contemporary art all through my life, and I still collect it, but I didn’t get the…as you say in America…the “kick” that I get from tribal art. It is like “Wow!” you know? It is something else, it connects with my spirit.
Northwest Coast Tlingit Shaman's Mask Circa 1780-1840
TRIBALMANIA: Do you maintain a personal collection?
CASANOVAS: You see, I buy what I like. I think all my stock is my personal collection. If I sell they go, they find another home, and if not they come back home and they are very happy too. So that’s why I like to buy things that I like, because in our business things may not immediately sell for whatever reason, not because they are not good but because the buyer is not there, they need some time to see it, to learn about it, so things stay around. I like to surround myself with beautiful things, so that’s why I say my stock is my collection.
There are some things I hold onto until the right time comes to sell course. Things that are undervalued and are masterpieces and I’m not ready to let them go at the value of the market so I wait until the right moment. More or less that happens in every culture, people are conditioned to the idea of that the culture should be that much or this much and so I have a different view of this. You know there’s always been Picasso born in every culture. It can be a very important culture and be a piece wood, or it can be a lesser culture and be a masterpiece.
I have tried to price things at the level of their art, not so much only history, provenance, importance of the culture... of course that’s the market and we are more or less applied to this market but that doesn’t mean I’m always going to decide to follow them.
TRIBALMANIA: It’s been said that behind every great man there is a great woman, to what degree do you attribute your success to your wife?
CASANOVAS: In my life this is totally true. Not so much because Anna discovered primitive art through me, even though she had seen some exhibitions. She was living in California for awhile actually, she saw some exhibitions there and she had already fallen in love with it before she met me. I was already in the business when I met her so she discovered more through me. But my wife of course is more important than any art work in the world. At the same time she’s been my good luck, my pillar. First she has always said yes to every crazy adventure I went on, and to every expense for a few months. She never said “no, this is not a prudent thing to do”, but this is the great thing ~“I believe in your eye, and go for it.” She’s very supportive.
And through the years she has acquired a very good eye herself. It’s always a great help to have another opinion on things. You know I believe that couples, the more they live together, they become one entity. This is the same with us, so now we really have the same taste, 95 percent of the time we like the same objects, so we agree quite easily.
Sometimes I still like things that go a little bit further on the wild side, and she says “I don’t know about this” but I still buy it. After a week she says “well” but those times are very seldom, most times we agree and she helps me in everything, she works with me all the time.
So I’m much more stable as a person in a way, I’m a bit more of an artist and she’s more steady. So in moments of ups and downs, she’s there, and I just have her force, she’s much stronger than I am.
Modang Sculpture, Borneo (Carbon dated to the 14th C.)
TRIBALMANIA: What else do you attribute your amazing success to? You must be a really motivated person as well. Did you set out to be number one?
CASANOVAS: I must say I don’t see it that way, at least I don’t recognize it. I started out because I loved it, first as a collector, then as a business, and it became my life. Everything was Tribal Art. So the intension was to live from something that I love, and that from the beginning was clear.
I don’t even remember the first tribal show we did in New York; it was maybe ten years or so ago. That was the first International show that we did. And I thought we were just going to arrive there and we would all be like “wow!” what incredible pieces there are here... But actually I sold most of what was in my booth, and people were very excited about what we were bringing. Some collectors were there and one of them bought half of my booth!
So I realized that I could do the job internationally. Before I thought I was just a little Spaniard in Spain and I’m doing what I can but I thought that maybe people were appreciating what I was doing more than I did. But then there is another thing which is not a very good thing, but perhaps it is, that is being a perfectionist. It’s not because you are never satisfied as a human being it is not a very good recommendation, but in art the search for that kind of perfection, which is never there, but the search makes you push as far as you can go.
But I do only enjoy buying and dealing in the things that I really like. So I use the best of my ability to buy, then if it is recognized and the people follow me, that is after. Then I show it, and you are right, we were quite surprised, in these last years, how our career has developed very fast.
TRIBALMANIA: that leads me into my next question, many people in the tribal art community consider you to be the biggest dealer today.
CASANOVAS: I don’t know. You know I don’t like that term "the biggest dealer" to be honest because that puts me into a situation. To me the biggest dealer moves the most objects for the most money. This is not my aim. My aim is quality. I don’t think selling only great quality you make as much money as selling every type of object. So I will never become the biggest dealer in the world in this sense, but I hope to have a name and reputation for pristine quality. I’m serious about that. What I earn from this brings me enough to play with the pieces I like and to live well. I don’t need much more than I have in a way... I like to be surrounded by beautiful things and today beautiful things in certain areas are expensive and I just have to find a way to have access to them, and this has taken me quite a lot of work, but if you aim at something you usually get at least part of it. I don’t believe I’m the biggest or the best because there are always a few people in the world that are good at what they do and that makes them different. It is like saying what is the best Picasso in the world? There are several great Picasso’s so you can’t just choose one and this goes for dealers also.
TRIBALMANIA: I mean, you’re an important dealer, you sell important pieces...
CASANOVAS: You know the quality I like nowadays, many times not always, involves serious numbers if you want to have access to that kind of quality. If I started in Modern Art today and wanted to buy Picasso’s for 20 million dollars I could not with my means but I could probably get into that art community somehow and end up at that level someday. This is what has happened in tribal art. I search for a certain quality and then must find the means to buy it. Then of course you become important in this sense because you are selling important things.
TRIBALMANIA: Did you set out to become this successful or did this happen naturally?
CASANOVAS: A long time ago a very good friend from my youth told me that I said that I wanted to be one of the biggest dealers in the world. I promise you I don’t remember that subject and perhaps it was one night after a couple drinks. I’m not conscious of this but maybe I did say this? He is my good friend and I must trust him. I think somewhere in my mind is perfection and I want to do it the best I can whether it is being a dealer or whatever. The truth is what makes us a little different is that we choose art with a passion like the old time dealers. Years ago when there was a large choice of objects it was easier. You didn’t need to buy what was easy to sell; you could follow your heart and develop your eye. Ratton had his own distinct eye, Pierre Loeb had his own eye, and every dealer had his own eye then because more material was available for personal choices. Nowadays it is much more complicated because things are recognized, things are classics.
New Guinea Blackwater River Hook
TRIBALMANIA: You’re known for being very aggressive when you want a piece. Do you feel that is one of your strengths?
I think this has to do with astrology. I’m a Taurus which makes me very persistent, very stubborn and tenacious. People that have great objects, somehow they feel flattered that somebody is so passionate about their piece. I think that has brought me many times great pieces. Well they are people who love their things, you know. The collector may have lived with the piece for 30 years, and will consider to let it go, to let go of one of their best pieces, because that’s the one I want from their collection. I’m not saying they are going to sell it to me for less, but at the same level they would rather let it go to someone who is really in love with the piece, and that love brings you things.
TRIBALMANIA: One of your good friends told me he’s convinced you possess “shamanic powers".
CASANOVAS: There is a magical side of our business. If I do have something like that, I would not like to show it off. First as I said I am not conscious about this. I do believe that things have happened; I do know that things have happened in my search for pieces that you could call quite magical. I don’t believe in just accidents. Things that were supposed to go somewhere else came to me. That has happened many times. I’m not a fortune teller. I don’t have that power, at least not consciously.
You can not forget that we are dealing with pieces that are fully spiritual, and those pieces somehow “know” where they want to go. I’ve had sometimes a really strong desire to get something…not something that I knew about, but something that I thought in my dreams, I would like to have a great piece of this or that, which seemed practically impossible to get…. Suddenly out of the blue something comes out in that area that is even more than I could expect. So desire and Love are powerful energies, and I do have those.
TRIBALMANIA: How do you balance the ego with spirit?
CASANOVAS: Spirituality is a long journey. There is also probably a part of ego in my career maybe. A little bit of ego is necessary. We are on the Earth, not in Spirit; ego well taken care of is a powerful tool too. I cannot say I have no ego, no, but there is a moment when it can make you go forward searching for a goal. But it is not my main focus.
Michael Auliso and Antonio Casanovas
(Center) A rare and important Flores male ancestor figure
Antonio has been spending much of his time organizing and curatoring an important exhibit in Madrid at the Conde Duque Centro Cultural titled "Origenes Artes Primeras" which opened October 19th 2005. It focuses on Tribal Art treasures and masterpieces loaned from various museums of the Iberian Peninsula. If you're in Europe, don't miss it!
Cultural Conde Duque