INTERVIEW With JOHN FRIEDE
NEW GUINEA ART
standing in a corner of his vast living room next to a Ramu River
figure acquired from Verite prior to the sale
TM: What was it like going to New Guinea for the first time?
there in 1981, my two daughters Marsha and myself. One of
our daughters had been
working there, as a Marine
Biology Researcher on the North Coast for about
three months. I had been collecting the art
of New Guinea since 1965 or 1966, so it was not that the collection was
inspired by the trip, in fact it was kind of the other way around.
unbelievable that so many cultures, so many languages, so many styles
could be so close to each other; and in a sense I had to see it on the ground.
What I learned in New Guinea was that not only is it absolutely true that
within shooting range you have essentially different countries even
though there may be only 300 to 600 people in any
one area speaking a different
dialect. There were many different fighting
tribes in what is now the town
of Brussels. There were thousands of
languages in North America,
when the Native Americans were the only people
here. New Guinea continued
that tradition up to less than 50, certainly less
than 100 years ago which
makes New Guinea for me a very interesting place as an example of the ancestry
images were taken from "New Guinea Art, Masterpieces from the
Jolika Collection of Marcia and John Friede", The Fine Arts Museum
of San Francisco, Copyright 2005
Painting of a Splayed Female, Lower Sepik, Keram River, Kambot People,
Sago Palm, Pigments and Binding, 39 3/4 inches
Another thing that I learned
in New Guinea is that the extreme activeness of the carvings and the
is completely consistent with the look of the place.
The old story is that
when Gauguin went from Brittany to Martinique, and to the south pacific his
eyes were opened by all the color. I have been to Hawaii, and Hawaii is black
and white by comparison to New Guinea. You're right on the equator, high
humidity, unbelievable active forms, the vegetation, colors of the
flowers, if you made modest quiet pieces, they would be invisible there.
If the Dogon material is
appropriate for a desert environment, then the expressionist material is
certainly appropriate for New Guinea.
I also met the people, who are lovely
people with the exception unfortunately of the early rascals who were there
in '81, who are now more prevalent, essentially urban kids who
were dispossessed by the west, so if anybody gets credit for the rascals it's
us, not them.
I love New Guinea, both my
daughters and my wife loved it. We didn't get sick, which is also nice,
because so many people have malaria. I haven't been back, and one of the
reasons I haven't been back is that it became much more dangerous quickly after
that, in terms of criminality, not in terms of savages boiling you and
serving you for dinner. I don't want any bad experiences with New Guinea, I
love the art, I love the people, and I show I love them by having them come
visit us in San Francisco, where we have an active program to bring New
Guinea people, artists, and so forth. Maybe I'll go back at some point.
Amulet, Upper Sepik River, Entry of The Wogamush River,
Wayne Heathcote was your guide in New Guinea?
Oh yes, Wayne was a superb
guide. I learned a lot about Wayne on
the trip. The local people loved him. His name was "master big dog" because he
had a huge German Shepherd. He towered over the people.
I mean two of them
together were his height, and they trusted and loved him which meant that he
was not exploiting them when he was there. Wayne is a very aggressive
dealer, but Wayne is a salt of the earth guy.
Traveling in New Guinea is
tough, it's hot except when you are on the river in an outboard, and it's
pouring rain, then it's freezing cold. Wayne was always cheerful, he would
stand in the back of the boat reading a cheap pulp novel, and tearing off one
page at a time, as he read it, so that theoretically one could find
us way up the Karawari River, by looking at little pages from a western,
although nobody did find us that way. Without Wayne it would have been
a terrible trip. We would simply have been buying bilums and shell
13. Wayne Heathcote on The Sepik River, 1981
you comment on the effect that your interest in New Guinea Art has had on the market in the US
When I complain about prices,
the people who are selling me the pieces, say
"yes but it is your
don't think that's completely true. But it is
certainly in part true,
because these things were not cared about by
virtually anyone, when we
started collecting in 65. In Europe I don't know
the scene in 65 because I
wasn't there, here when Nelson Rockefeller had
bought his things he stopped.
Raymond Wielgus, a very famous collector, who
has given his collection to
the Indiana university Museum, had bought his things,
but he sort of stopped too.
Great material was available, it was possible to
buy pieces for $100 which is
a good thing as a beginning collector, because
you make a lot of mistakes
and they're not tragic at $100. Today a beginning collector
might spend $10,000 for his first piece. That becomes a tragedy if he finds
out later it's not what he wanted. I think I pushed the price level,
not sure I push it up entirely by paying more.
One of the things that we have
done is that we have shown how great the art is.
It was not possible to
know that before. The museums that showed it were basically anthropology museums
that showed specimens, in bad light, they didn't necessarily show the
good ones anyway. The valuation in this art will
never be like the valuation in impressionist or post impressionist
art, because the market is much smaller. When I started collecting, after we
had 250 to 300 pieces, our collection was worth about as much as a pretty good
Cézanne watercolor. That's ridiculous. Today it's worth about as much as a
very good Picasso. Since a very good Picasso is
so ridiculously overpriced, I
won't say it is ridiculous anymore, because now we have to pay that price.
But if you think about it, the body of creation, by what is certainly
one of the most creative groups in the world, the infinite variety of 1200
languages, and therefore 1200 different art styles at the very least, for
the price of one expensive painting from the west, is still ridiculous.
287. Mask, Upper Sepik River, Hunstein Mountains,
22 5/8 inches
you say the prices for great pieces are reasonable or unrealistically inflated?
The sellers are running ahead
of the market, at this point, so I would say
they are unrealistically
inflated. Some sellers see prices like the Verite
prices, actually they are African prices, not New Guinea prices. A seller
whose looking for evidence can
choose it very selectively and doesn't care
about that. Also the sellers
tend to overestimate the quality of their
pieces, relative to some other
piece that may have commanded a high price,
but isn't really as good.
But you can buy great things
still. It's certainly way past the point where you can consider this to be a
good speculative investment. Anyone who buys art that way, except
maybe the contemporary art players, who are really more players than collectors in my
opinion. Anyone else is kidding themselves, the spread between the
purchase price and the sale price is at least 100%. So if you buy something for
$10,000, it's doubled in value, you can still get $10,000.
Because you don't get
the rest, somebody else does. Now of course if you want to wait 30 years, you
can get $100,000 shall I say, but you can also get that with IBM.
Spirit Board, Gope, Gulf Province, Era River, 53 3/4 inches
Are there any areas of the market that
remain undervalued or undiscovered yet?
Oh definitely yes.
Wealthy collectors tend
to buy important pieces, that's because wealthy collectors are not necessarily
informed collectors. To be wealthy is to have made your money in some field
where you can...make money. Being a collector does not lead to money, being
a venture capitalist or hedge fund operator or something makes
an enormous amount of money.
The business mind and the collector's mind
are quite different. The
business mind always thinks of return on investment
also always thinks
about Iconic major pieces which have a premium. Fortunately I've lived long
enough to have known some of the old group of collectors, some of whom I met
just recently in Germany. They were never wealthy,
they bought exquisite,
shall I say in the mind of the ignorant, unimportant pieces.
unimportant pieces are still a screaming bargain.
But you have to be
specific, for example, a wooden carving is worth infinitely more than a bamboo
object. Clay... terracotta is an area that we have been collecting very
actively, because since we are building a museum collection, I want to have
representation of all the things they made not just the smaller group.
Actually the clay are mostly made by women which is also very important in a
museum collection. Similarly the fiber pieces, the bilum bags...
You can buy an
absolutely superb bilum bag for $600 handmade by a woman in that knotless
technique that they have there. 50 years ago you could also buy a piece of junk
for $600. So it's important that your learn before you start spending your
Collectors who are not trying
to build an encyclopedic collection like this, which I don’t advise, because
there are so many categories that are unavailable, but who simply
want to have some beautiful things in their home can find many a thing in New
Guinea, perhaps even more things in New Britain because nobody collects
New Britain. I don't know a single person in the
world who collects New Britain.
New Caledonia there's more collectors. Solomons...I know of only one
who's truly serious.
Pottery Trumpet, Taul, Upper Sepik River, Washkuk Hills,
Kwoma People, 12 inches
582. Bamboo Container, Eastern Highlands, Lamari River Area, 11
Unfortunately the minor things are hard to
find because the dealers don't mark them up much because they don't have a very high
base to start with. It's the same amount of trouble to sell you a
figure, as it is to sell you a $600 bilum. But I would advise people to do a
little traveling. In Europe they’re still available
which brings me to a point I
want to make whether or not you have a question.
The most important
thing in collecting is knowing the material. It's also useful the have the money to
pay for it.
Money if anything is a distraction because if you really have
lots of money, than you think it doesn't matter to know,
because after all
you're so smart, you made the money. That's not true.
You have to handle the
pieces, you have to see the pieces, you have to talk to the people in the
museums, and ask them to let you see the reserves. In some museums they are very
generous, I was with the curator in Berlin for two days, of course I'm famous,
so maybe he gave me a little bit more time. But I know he shows pieces to
people who are not so big a deal. Curators like pieces, and they want to
impart knowledge. They’re sort of professorial in their style.
The material that's going to
be in the study collection at the de Young is only called a study collection
because the gallery is too small. It's every bit as good as the stuff in
the gallery. All of that will become available although not for 10 or 15
years because that's a huge construction project. But for the future that will
be available. Also there's more and more material from museums on the
web. Really to see things in your hand, or in your glove as they now
require, is essential. Without that you don't know what you are doing.
TM: In your
quest to build a well rounded collection how many pieces have you acquired
since you began?
Oh well, I don't really know.
I would say we have probably 5000 or 6000
pieces now. I would say we
acquired another five or six hundred that we no
longer have. I would say, then
my wife Marsha would run into the room and
say "Oh no you
Don't!" I might acquire another thousand pieces. That could
include tiny little nose
ornaments, and one or two absolutely mind boggling
superb things. Although I must
say the mind boggling things are basically
all gone. There's a few
private people that have kept a small number of
those. Smart, because they are
selling at the very high market now. Not so
great for me, but that's life.
201. Pigment Dish, Middle Sepik River, Iatmul People, 8 7/8 inches
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