Part II: INTERVIEW With LANCE ENTWISTLE

 PREMIER EUROPEAN ART DEALER

(Galleries in London and Paris)

 

See the Entwistle Gallery exhibiting at the prestigious 25th Bienalle, Sept. 15th-22nd at the Grand Palais in Paris

 

Lega ivory figure (iginga), 16.5 cm 18th century

 

TM: You and Bobbie have turned up some fresh discovers apparently by searching out the relatives and family members from famous voyages and expeditions?  Has that type of genealogical research paid dividends for you?

The first genealogical research we did was related to the Benin Expedition.   This was something I used to do before I was with Bobbie.   At the time I really knew nothing about running a business and this was born out of my incredible naivety.   I was really an academic and what interested me was reading books, so I naturally thought I could do everything through analysis and research.  So I would go to a library, but that was not a very dynamic business plan.  We had some successes and traced some surviving descendants of the exhibition participants and bought some material from them.  We also located some material that was not available.  It was successful relative to our career levels at the time which were the early days. But it was certainly not a viable business model and I would never dream of doing it today.  If I had gone to African with a few empty sacks and gone into Nigeria the way Jacques Kercache did or Philippe Guimoit did, that would have been a more viable plan.  That said, I enjoyed the treasure hunt aspect of it.  I enjoyed crunching the data as it were, and the sleuthing aspect of it.  This still occasionally comes into play but it tends to be more now with tracking down provenances and finding out early histories of things.

 

TM: Can you recall an especially interesting story which involved a great find?

I can tell you a modestly amusing one which involved Bobbie and my in-laws on a trip to Scotland.  Bobbie said look, "this is the deal, no antique shops.  We're not going to ruin my father and mothers experience by stopping at every antique shop we pass".  So I reluctantly agreed to that deal.  We were looking for a traditional Scottish Tea Shop with scones.  I dropped everyone off and went to park the car.  I passed an antique shop and saw a spear in the window.  After the Tea Shop I said more or less on bended knee, please I saw a spear in that shop can I go ask them if they have anything else?  The shop owner was having a long conversation with someone.  This was awkward because I needed to get back and didn't want to screw things up with the in-laws.   I eventually interrupted him and said, I see you have a spear in the window.  Do you have any other African things?  He said "What, you mean like Benin Bronzes for example?"  I said, "yeah right like Benin Bronzes."  He said, "Yes, Just wait while I finish with this customer".  At that point I would have waited all night to see it!  He had a Benin Bronze figure but it was in the bank vault, so I later made an appointment to see it.  He flew to London to show me and it turned out it was a rather fabulous piece.  To cut a long story short we bought the piece from him and it ended up in The Met.  That was the one and only antique shop we went into during the whole trip.  That was kind of serendipity.

I have another story but I can't talk about it because we have not gotten to the end of it.  This story which I give a fifty-fifty chance has been going on for 25 years.  It involved some genealogical research and other research with some amazing coincidences and funny twists and turns. Right now I can't discuss it because it is in play.

 

 

TM: I understand you have a massive library of books at your London gallery spanning floor to ceiling? 

Yes, the books are under the eves of a rooftop and the shelves run about 15 feet high.  The building was built in 1890-1910 as an art dealing concern.  It was obviously a very grand affair at the time.  I don't actually know who the original occupants were, I should find that out.  The showroom is setup as a library where we show art but we actually focus our inventory in Paris.  The environment of books is a very good environment for selling because it is knowledge.  Knowledge in our business is security.  Buyers, with good reason in my opinion are cautious since this field is fraught with authenticity problems.  Buyers are reassured by knowledge.

By the way going back to your question about reputation and mystique, one of the things we always provided, particularly in the early days, was very extensive write ups and documentation to our clients.  One of my colleagues Alain de Monbrison, bitterly reproached me.  He said "It is just terrible what you've done; now we all have to do it".  We did become a little bit lazy about it but now we have a fulltime researcher and archivist which serve us well.

 

TM: You knew many of the great collectors like George Ortiz, Douglas Newton and others.  How much knowledge has been lost and can it ever be recovered? 

I think I can say to collectors without being unfair to them, that many are not fulltime collectors but dealers are fulltime dealers.  The greatest repository of knowledge, generally speaking, is held by the dealers.  Sadly very few dealers are also scholars.  It is in the nature of it, they don't have the time, and you can't be a businessman and a scholar at the same time.  You can be a "well informed" dealer, a professional with good connoisseurship, a great eye and great knowledge but not be a great scholar and recorder of the information you have.  Consequently, I think the greatest loss to the business is the loss of dealer knowledge.  The one saving grace is that particularly like in a city like Paris, where there is a certain "milieu" where these events take place, knowledge is shared.  There is a passage of knowledge from older to younger. 

I think one of the great benefits that any beginning dealer has in Paris is that they can very quickly acquire knowledge.  Whereas, I think in the states it is much more dispersed.  I think in California you do have some good people and some people who share knowledge but it is not as intense; they don't sit around the cafe sharing information the way you have in Paris.  They don't meet on the doorstep of Drouot and discuss the finer points of Fiji Clubs.  So you have a culture of connoisseurship in France where there is some transmission of this information but a huge amount gets lost.  I think another point is that, whereas we once sold the Rubinstein Fang Head and are unlikely to ever sell it again; many younger dealers will not have the opportunity.  That's just for purely logistical reasons, not because they are not talented or dynamic but the material is just not there to be handled.  That is a disadvantage.

 

 

TM: Do you see fewer generations of art dealers emerging?  As great material gets more scarce and costly, couldn't our business be in danger of dying off?

Well certainly some aspects or some fields of the art business have historically gone extinct, or relatively so, by virtue of the lack of material.  I mean if material all ends up in institutions it's no longer available to deal.  The possibility of creating excitement and interest among the collecting community diminishes.  It is not because there is not enough for the dealers to work with but it is because there is not enough for the collectors to buy.  If you have an active collecting community then there will be dealers to service it.  A field on the decline would be the case with medieval art.  It has been attenuated with very few dealers because there are so few pieces and overall the connoisseurship of collectors needed to support is diminished.  Certainly if there were more material the field it would be more viable. 

I don't presently see that as being a problem in Tribal Art.  I think what we're going to see, or what we are seeing is a higher rate of rotation.  We've seen that in the picture (painting) field.  It is going to slow down in the next two years as sellers become more skittish because of uncertain (sale) results.  They'll say, "let's get out- get out!"  It is proverbial that high prices bring material to the market, so material has been coming up particularly from discretionary sellers as opposed to estates. 

I think unfortunately we'll see a generational shift here where certain collectors and their collections are going to come to the market.  Its a bit sad since many of these people are my friends and have been my clients for years.  There is a whole generation of collectors who came on strong in the 70's and early 80's who are now quite elderly.  Some of their collections, like the Rosenthal sale at Sotheby's for example, will come up to stimulate interest and renew the market.  Even if prices are depressed, that can be good because it can result in greater distribution which isn't a bad thing. 

I used to be pessimistic about the future, but I've seen there are people like you who are enterprising and finding new ways to deal will always make it.  So I'm fairly sanguine on it.  I also know very well that there is nothing more replaceable than a dealer.  I could retire, disappear, whatever... and the market would not miss a heartbeat.  That is just the way it is.  Its "tough titty" but we are completely dispensable to the operation of the market.  I've seen the good and the great disappear progressively over the years.  It doesn't make a dime of difference.

 

 

TM: What advice would you give to new collectors entering the market? 

There is one bit of advice that nobody wants to hear which is do your homework.  I say that both to help encourage new collectors to look after their own interest and also from a self-interested point of view, because I think that responsible honest dealers benefit from having informed clients.  The old adage, "the best client is an educated client"; it's true if you're selling good stuff.  There is a MASSIVE kind of "hinterland" in dealing in the most appalling kind of fakery.  Even in France where we've said there is this level connoisseurship, there are auctions almost on a daily basis in different provincial centers.  You see the "La Gazette Drouot" they sell rafts of stuff and just churn it basically.  They take it to Reims, offer 200 lots, 20 of them sell then they take it down to Cannes, sell a bit and add 20 lots... It's an absolutely appalling system and the same thing is happening on eBay.  It's very unfortunate, but in a sense collectors get the collection they deserve.  So if they want to deceive themselves, well that's their choice.

 

TM: Although you sell at the top level, isn't it also important for there to be a healthy middle market for the longevity of this business?

I think where I always see a problem is the definition of the "middle market".  Does the middle market refer to a "price point" or to a level of "quality"?  Because you can have a minor piece, take a Bembe figurine where you could have a price spread of between $3,000 and $120,000.  Now, some people would say well what is the middle market?  Is it $60,000 or maybe $120,000 is the middle market; it might be the top of the market?   That would be the supreme example.  But if you took the spectrum represented by that particular category of objects and took the middle point, the mean, you're always going to have a problematical area.  What you're talking about is something that is in the middle range of quality for what it is and costing quite a lot of money. 

In my view you can not make it a price point.  You have to make it a quality spectrum.  The small collector can get their hands on the 2's, 3's and 4's because they are not expensive and easier to assess on a quality basis.  When you get to the middle range, the 5's and 6's in the quality spectrum then it becomes more difficult because people are being asked to pay plenty of money for something that isn't great.  At that point the small collector can't afford it and the big collector says, "Are you telling me this is a 6?  I only want an 8 plus so I would rather wait and pay $120,000 for my Bembe than get a so-so example."  So if the middle market is defined as a price point the question is a little meaningless, but if it is defined in quality terms then the middle market is always a problem.  The middle market always gets hurt and would be hurt now.

 

 

TM: After steady appreciation over the past years, what do you see happening to the market for tribal art in the next 3 to 5 years? 

I'm pretty optimistic.  I do think there are grounds for caution because the American market, which has always been an engine in the art market, has not developed so much in terms of younger collectors.  I'm starting to see some now, but in a slightly different pattern than emerged in the 70's and 80's where you had a very broad base.  Today you have a got certain number of strong players.   Some at the top of the market and some near the top that is active and able to support a significant part of the market.  I think you have a different kind of player now. The professional class like Doctors, Psychiatrists, etc, has a tough time competing on prices anymore.  So you're looking to people who have much more significant means but consequently become bigger players since they can buy more and more often. 

It is not a secret I worked with Bill Ziff.  He had an appetite to buy not only some terrific things but to buy them in depth.  He bought many things in a way most collectors were not able to do, so we had a major player.  In Klejman's early days you had a similar phenomenon.  In the 1960's there were fewer players but there were meaningful ones like Jay Leff, Rockefeller, and the De Menil who could spend a great deal of money and buy frequently.  After that it became more democratized and broader based.  I think it has shrunk again where you have many smaller players.  I think the middle market is probably weak today. 

 

Tribalmania extends its sincere gratitude and appreciation to Lance for offering his insightful and timely views!

 

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