An INTERVIEW With JOHN FRIEDE

 COLLECTOR of NEW GUINEA ART

 

John 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?

 

We went 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.  It seemed 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 of everyone.  

The following 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

Plate 116. 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 color 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.  

 

Plate 5. Amulet, Upper Sepik River, Entry of The Wogamush River, 

Steatite, 4 3/4" inches

 

TM: 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 jewelry.

Fig. 13.  Wayne Heathcote on The Sepik River, 1981

 

TM:  Can you comment on the effect that your interest in New Guinea Art has had on the market in the US and overseas?

 

When I complain about prices, the people who are selling me the pieces, say "yes but it is your fault".  I 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, but I'm 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.

Plate 287.  Mask, Upper Sepik River, Hunstein Mountains, 

Bahinemo People, 22 5/8 inches

 

TM: Would 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. 

 

Plate 458. Spirit Board, Gope, Gulf Province, Era River, 53 3/4 inches

 

TM:  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.  Exquisite 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 money.  

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.  

 

Plate 333. Pottery Trumpet, Taul, Upper Sepik River, Washkuk Hills, 

Probably Kwoma People, 12 inches

Plate 582.  Bamboo Container, Eastern Highlands, Lamari River Area, 11 inches

 

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 $25,000 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.  That's a big problem.

 

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.

 

Plate 201.  Pigment Dish, Middle Sepik River, Iatmul People, 8 7/8 inches

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