AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTONIO CASANOVAS
TRIBALMANIA: Just about every dealer in this business dreams about having the kind of special clients you do. What would you say to them?
CASANOVAS: First I would say that the garden next door always looks greener than yours. This is true. People think I have thousands of clients and this is not true. I have my few people that I connect with and share the same passions. They trust me and I trust them and we go along together and they happen to be people that are able to afford rare things. I really don't think I'm doing anything different than other dealers, but I don't follow them anyway. The way I run my business is not the way to make a lot of money. I will have enough money to play with what I want and what I like-- I hope. My recommendation in this business for somebody who really wants to become a dealer is to move as much objects as you can everyday and to sell to every level and to every client. The thing is that I don't get excited about buying certain pieces. I never buy a piece because it is a good piece to make money on. I never do this--I only buy when I love something. If I arrive at the point of buying for profit only, that is when I will stop being a dealer. Of course I'm happy if I can make a good profit but this is never my first concern. My aim is to enjoy want I'm doing.
TRIBALMANIA: What percentage of your sales are to Europeans verses Americans?
CASANOVAS: I would say half and half more or less. It depends on what types of piece and the client. I work with a limited clientele, but they are all over the world.
TRIBALMANIA: Do you find it easy to maintain good relations with other dealers?
CASANOVAS: More or less yes. You know, there are moments of friction and natural jealousy that happen sometimes... some natural and some less natural. In fact I have good relations with most of them I would say, as long as they are serious and not a crook or somebody that is trying to do some nasty things to you... slowly I would probably not see this person so much. But I must say that I have very few dealers who I can say that about. But of course in the battlefield of the market (laughing) there are a lot of things going on, it is a very small world and sometimes the friction makes people criticize some pieces or whatever. This is something I try to avoid honestly and I think energetically this saves me from a lot of trouble. If there is somebody I don't like, and they have a beautiful piece I will never say different... I will say yes it is a wonderful piece. I think it comes back to you if you try to kill an object which is great, because you are not respecting the art. Above anything you must respect the art that we are dealing with. So if it is good and is in the hands of anybody else I'm happy for them.
TRIBALMANIA: What criteria must an object have for you to buy it. Do you have a philosophy on buying?
CASANOVAS: My only philosophy is that I must like the piece for myself. Of course the judgment of an object involves other things too. You have to judge the sculpture within the corpus of other pieces around the world. Once you like it then you have to see what level the piece is. Imagine a Fang figure... You're in front of it and you ask what is the corpus of other works? If it is not available maybe I'll buy something else but I'm not going to buy a mediocre piece if the good ones are not available; I'll look for another venture. There are many areas of the world which are not yet as famous and they created some wonderful art. These are some of the areas I like to concentrate on because you can still discover and I like that-- the discovery of something that is a little bit neglected by the market is great.
The value of tribal art is a difficult subject. There is not a written price list of what things should be worth and when. Many times in my case if there is a top piece and I want to buy it, there is a tendency to maybe over pay a little bit of the "so called" market price. But I mean it is just a "so called" market price. Sometimes it is a once in a lifetime piece, you have a chance to buy it and if you don't somebody else will and then it is gone. I have paid prices that are way above the market but if it is a masterpiece I will just hang onto it or if one of my clients recognizes it, maybe he will follow me if they see the piece in the same way as I do. My clients follow me and I follow my clients. Sometimes I have to show them what I'm seeing because maybe they won't see it the same way. So I'll have to do my job also and say look here and look at other examples in the world and compare. This is the job of a dealer to educate your client. The more you educate your client the more they will understand what you offer them.
TRIBALMANIA: What inspires you to keep finding and offering great pieces for sale?
CASANOVAS: I enjoy finding pieces. I'm a temporary collector-- we are all temporary collectors, but I spend less time than others you know. I enjoy the art and take it home with me like my own baby, and look at it and WOW I have a wonderful time. Sometimes I'll have it a few weeks, a few months or a few years but at some moment it is offered to my client then it goes or it doesn't go. I absorb and learn what I can from a piece then look for the next adventure. It is the treasure hunt and finding that new thing-- that excites me.
TRIBALMANIA: What would you say the most important object was that you've sold?
CASANOVAS: The most important or expensive which you're asking me, I prefer not to say exactly. It was an Oceanic piece. There is an African piece that is about the same also. They were both "world class" masterpieces and the best of their type. Classical pieces like this make a lot of money today... what is known, what is studied becomes a classic. From time to time they come through my hands and those are the ones that are more expensive. This will happen to some pieces which we are buying today for 2000 Euros. In the future people will recognize them as the best and their prices will go Zoom!
TRIBALMANIA: I heard that you are the one who bought that master carved Luba Shankadi Neckrest which set a record price at Sotheby's Paris?
CASANOVAS: Yes, it is true. It is a classic piece and this one I think was a once in a lifetime. The quality level is one of the best in the world and probably the only one in the world available. I didn't know the price was going to go that high. I was hoping it didn't go that high but I was expecting around a Million. It went a bit over...
TRIBALMANIA: What advice would you give to new collectors just starting out?
CASANOVAS: Well I would advise that they should buy what they like first. They are going to have to live it for better or for worse. Everybody doesn't start buying masterpieces, you know you have to go through a process to arrive at a certain level. My advice is that they enjoy it and buy from a dealer that is serious and who they have trust in. The most important thing is that you have the passion--go out there and learn. See as much as you can, go to shows, go to museums, buy books and train your eye. Somebody can have a great eye but if he doesn't train it he is only at half of his potential. If you have the passion for art and you work to train your eye your potential is vast. Ana and I have been more or less all around the world visiting the museums and storages and exhibitions. The last time we were in Germany we spent one month visiting all of the museums and their storage. We spent three days in Berlin.
If you want to do something bad enough, ninety five percent of the time you will get it-- no? Sometimes I have arrangements with my government's museums so I get letters from my own museums to allow me to do personal research. It is incredible how good this is for your eye. So when a piece comes in front of you that you have to acquire, all of that information starts coming at one moment and you see that this one is shining from all that information that you have. Or you may say no, I've seen a better one.
TRIBALMANIA: Do you think the market for Tribal Art is expanding or contracting? Do you see new collectors becoming interested?
CASANOVAS: I think it is expanding. The only problem is that we will see is that some of the very good things are becoming much more expensive. I have a total belief that we will see the pieces of primitive art, the top pieces, at the price level of any other form of art. This is already happening, but for me I have the feeling that this is only the beginning. In the interview you did with Saul Stanoff who had a very good eye and judgment of the pieces, I agree with him that this is only the beginning of the explosion. So some classic pieces will only be accessible for museums and those people with means. But that doesn't have to discourage new collectors because there is a lot-- a lot of new possibilities of cultures that are known in African, Tanzania, Indonesia etc. There are many new areas in the market which have not been discovered yet. I mean in the market not in situ.
You can still buy wonderful things for a 1000 Euros. I enjoy to buy a piece for 1000 Euros than to buy one for a million. I bought one piece recently in a Christies Auction that was in a bundle of little Spatulas. It was a hair pin from New Guinea. I paid nothing for it, $1800 dollars or whatever it is a masterpiece! It is just a cute little thing but it is incredible. I mean it comes form a very old English collection and has the feeling of the pieces that are in the great museums. It gives me as much pleasure as a major piece. So there are always pieces to be found which don't have to be a million. I still buy ethnographic things that are not sculpture which are beautifully done that have a master behind them. It is that quality that gives me great pleasure as well, so you have to not get carried away and only buy expensive things. I buy whatever is good.
TRIBALMANIA: You've been known to offer collectors some very high prices for pieces you're interested in. Do you ever feel bad about separating a collector from a piece they love?
CASANOVAS: I know what you're saying. Maybe I do feel a little bit bad about it because the person who is selling it to me is suffering somewhat. My egocentric side feels happy because I'm receiving the piece. But I've never done this in a way that it was a forced situation. It has always been to show them my appreciation for the piece. Sometimes I pay over the "market price" and this says that I really love and appreciate that object. A person will let it go out of total necessity sometimes but many times it is because they say 'Wow, he is crazy for my piece'. So in fact they have some sort of sorry feelings to let it go, but at the same time they know it is going to someone who is passionate for that object. This same thing has happened to me. When I sell a great piece, don't believe that the check makes me so happy. At that moment I feel sorry that my baby is going away, but the person buying it loves it so much that some of the pain goes away.
Great pieces also happen to come back to you. It is not the first time that I've had to re-buy back things for much more than I sold them for. In a way it is a bit sad because I usually don't have an attachment to the pieces I've previously sold to clients. I'm happy when I go to them and offer them double or more than what they paid for it and they still don't sell it. In a way I feel honored that they don't sell it to me at whatever price since they really love the piece. It is sometimes a surprise to me but it is nice to see.
Antonio's Website ARTE Y RITUAL (www.arteyritual.com)
TRIBALMANIA: I've heard that you're a skilled salesman. Do you have any special technique for closing a sale?
CASANOVAS: Hmm... People say I'm a good salesman and I suppose I am because I do sell things. I think my passion helps me with eighty percent of the sale. I think the information and really knowing what I'm talking about helps another ten percent and then maybe I do have ten percent of a general salesman too somewhere which does the rest. When you love your pieces, clients feel good about buying from you and I vibrate this.
TRIBALMANIA: What are your thoughts on restoration?
CASANOVAS: I must say I really don't like to restore pieces myself, unless it is something that I'm not even going to see. I'm not sure if I express myself well. Imagine if something has the hand and the rest of them and you only have to fill in half a centimeter and it would make you lose a hole which was never intended to be there, and you're not going to see that. You're not trying to hide it. For me a restoration even if it is great, many times disturbs my eye. I just keep seeing it and seeing it all over again.
It really depends on the piece. Some pieces may need a restoration to be complete and others don't. I've seen too many pieces that were over restored that didn't need it. I've bought many pieces that were restored and took out the restoration because it kept disturbing me. I bought a nice piece last year that had a new thing put on the head and I took it off immediately. You could see it right away and it didn't need it. I prefer to see all the way through the object at the master hands, and whatever is missing is missing. It is an old object so what can you do about it because the restorer has his own hand which is nowhere near that of the original artist who made it. Of course you have to be very careful nowadays because there are some very good "artist restorers" who are quite skilled.
So I buy pieces and know they are restored and I accept that because I know it is the best of its type and what can you do about it. Restoration is in demand too because if you restore a little area on a piece you can get it sold.
TRIBALMANIA: I think some people may perceive you as mysterious and enigmatic. Is there anything in particular you would like people to know about you?
CASANOVAS: I think I'm quite open, not so much mysterious. We'll, maybe I do protect myself a little bit in the sense that I know there are all these things happening and energies going on. It is a small world where there are conflicts of interest. So I try to be professional at this and not to "over show" things and not leave myself completely open. I do protect my intimacy a little bit but without closing the door because I'm open to many people. As I've said, with most of the dealers I have good relations with even though we may have conflicts in the market at some point. I'm a good loser. If I lose a client because somebody has talked something bad about one of my pieces, I'll say well it was not for him. I will defend my piece, but I'll also just accept things. There are some disastrous people who are doing some very bad work, but most people are doing the best they can in this job. I must say this is probably the part I like the least because it doesn't help anything.
TRIBALMANIA: What do you do to relax when you're not selling tribal art?
CASANOVAS: That's a good question. Well my children which are my family... we have a little country house. I have a few objects there to keep my love around, but I try not to be so accumulative there and to enjoy nature and other things. I love, like everybody else, to be with friends. In my spare time I play music with friends. I'm a percussionist also. Drumming is my passion. It is very good and I recommend it to many people. It liberates excess energy and gets you out of your head for a moment. It is an active meditation. I think anything you do with a real love is a kind of meditation. I really love music, and it takes me away into another space you know.
"Origenes Artes Primeras" Exhibit at the Conde Duque Centro Cultural, Madrid Spain
TRIBALMANIA: What are your plans going forward?
CASANOVAS: W (Origenes Artes Primeras). We are the curators and have selected the "best" pieces in our judgment for the government. The scope includes 140 objects from North America, Oceania, Indonesia and Africa. It was fun visiting and selecting pieces from the museums of these countries. There will be some discoveries to the tribal art world which have never been seen. Other pieces are famous of course, Chokwe and Congo pieces from Portugal. That is our next goal. They are a lot of work and economically they don't pay but we enjoy it. The hardest part is dealing with certain Museums and the problems of loans and this and that. Without being nationalistic, my country owes a lot to these tribes for many years and sadly we have not done much with their art. So this is a tribute to these artists. I would like this project to crystallize into something similar which has happened here in France. I hope to one day see major museums have tribal art sitting next to any other world masters. I want to encourage the politicians of Madrid to open up their minds about this a little bit. Hopefully this will do the job.
Tribalmania extends its sincere gratitude and appreciate to Antonio Casanovas for sharing his time and candid views of the tribal art scene.
Cultural Conde Duque