For the New Collector
I have addressed in Q&A format many of the questions asked by new collectors. Many of these answers are applicable to collectors of traditional art from throughout Africa, not just Southeast African art.
What geographical region is Southeast Africa?
There is no fixed definition of Southeast Africa. I define it as art from present day Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
Why collect Southeast African art?
- Until fairly recently, art from Southeast Africa was largely ignored by collectors because of a number of factors:
- During the Apartheid era (1948-1994), the South African government had scant regard for material produced by cultures that they viewed as inferior.
- The migratory nature of the native peoples was little understood.
- There was no tradition of masking or of making large community objects such as Congo Nkisi figures that were familiar to European and American collectors. Additionally, there was not much figurative work. Thus, the art from this region was viewed as inferior and merely of ethnographic interest.
- There was a long history of contact between the native peoples of southern Africa and the Europeans, thus creating a uniquely different art style that was not viewed as “pure” enough by collectors.
While a prescient few had long recognized the artistic merits of this art, the broader collecting public only became more aware as Apartheid crumbled and scholars published more works on the region. The seminal Johannesburg Art Gallery show Art and Ambiguity in 1991 did much to bring the region into the spotlight. The show and illustrated catalogue did much to show the diversity and beauty of the artwork produced largely during the late 19th and early 20th century. Thus the collecting of art from this region is still in its infancy compared to that of the rest of Africa.
- For a collector, there is a very wide range of material to collect, including weapons, pipes, Zulu wars memorabilia, ceramics, beadwork and even old photographs and books on the peoples of the region.
- The material is still affordable. Unlike collectors of Fang material where entry-level pieces can start at $500,000, the collector can find very good material for a few thousand dollars (even lower for beadwork) and even the greatest works typically don’t exceed $100,000.
- Lastly, a trip to Southern Africa offers a great opportunity to go on a collecting trip, see the cultures that produced the art as well as enjoy a wonderful vacation.
Is Southeast African art a good investment?
As any investment advisor will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Having said that, Southeast African material has been an excellent investment. One need only look at auction catalogues from the 1980’s and 1990’s to see how this art has escalated in value. Figurative pipes costing a few hundred dollars twenty years ago now cost up to 100 times that amount.
Below are a few issues to consider when buying African art as an investment. The list is not intended to be comprehensive:
- African art tends to be less cyclical than many other art forms e.g. paintings by contemporary artists are sometimes the fashion du jour and may see large and unpredictable swings in values. African art is typically collected by a more serious and committed collector and is not as volatile.
- Unlike contemporary art, the supply of African art is limited and thus the collector is insulated from major downward fluctuations.
- There are tax benefits when artwork is donated. In the USA, a tax deduction is allowed for the appraised value of the art at date of donation (you should consult with your tax advisor to advise you on tax issues relating to art donations)
- You enjoy your asset every day. Unlike stocks or bonds, you get the pleasure of seeing and sharing your collection every day.
- Fakes in southeast African art were virtually unheard of until fairly recently although as values rise, fakes inevitable increase.
- African art is highly portable and is bought and sold worldwide and therefore can be an excellent currency hedge
- African art is an illiquid investment. By illiquid, it means that it cannot generally be quickly converted to cash unlike stocks, bonds or certificates of deposits. A sale should be carefully planned well in advance of the sale date.
- The number of African art collectors is small compared to the number of collectors of for example baseball card collectors, thus the pool of potential buyers is smaller.
- Like all art forms, fakes exist and fakers are getting ever more sophisticated in trying to deceiving collectors.
What tips would you give the new collector?
Knowledge is power for a collector and the more you know, the better you will become as a collector. See and read as much as possible. Attend shows, visit museums, browse the web, read books and auction catalogs, visit galleries and collectors (see our worldwide museum listings as well as our comprehensive list of book titles under Collector’s Resources)
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. As a new collector, you will undoubtedly make mistakes. Mistakes include buying too hastily, buying too much (something most of us do), overpaying and worst of all, buying a fake. You can mitigate against many of these mistakes by learning from past errors and buying from respected sources. Contrary to what you may hear, almost everyone I have dealt with has been honorable as the Tribal Art world is relatively small and a good reputation is necessary to prosper as a dealer and a collector.
Try and sell an object. By putting yourself in the sellers’ shoes, you will gain insight and experience and this will help you as you start to build your collection.
Buy the best you can afford. The price spread i.e. the gap between a mediocre object and a good object is large and growing. For example, a mediocre headrest may be had for $500 but a good one is $5,000. The good one may not be 10 times as good so why is it 10 times as expensive? The answer is that good items are much rarer and more desirable – you could argue 10 times more desirable. Those are also the ones that will increase most in value and be sold most easily.
What types of objects should I collect?
The size of the southern African region is small enough that a collector can become fairly expert across the range of material culture but diverse enough to allow focus on a specific type of object if you are so inclined. Collectors typically focus on neckrests, weapons, pipes, pots, beadwork and snuff containers.
As a new collector, consider also the nature of the objects e.g. beadwork may require special handling and a small apartment is not ideal for a large pot collection. Ultimately you will gravitate towards those objects you feel the greatest affinity towards.
Good luck and have fun!