INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN CONRU
Conru is very well known in the Tribal Art community as an
internationally acclaimed dealer and collector. His consistently fine quality
tribal material, his life achievements, and extensive knowledge of Tribal and
Ethnographic Art has earned him recognition from his fellow
dealers, trust from institutions, and private collectors.
recently met with Kevin at the charming "Water Street Inn" in
Santa Fe New Mexico, during the run of the Tribal Art shows. We
chatted on the outdoor terrace over a cup of morning coffee. The following
is a transcript of his thoughts on a variety of topics.
you find this an interesting and valuable new feature to the website. We
are honored to present views on Tribal Art from "KEVIN
Holding a Tami Island Neckrest at a Private Viewing of Tribalmania Objects
I studied classical music at the university, in particular double bass.
Performance is what I did for a number of years and played professionally
in symphony orchestras in Chicago. I moved to South Africa
when the Orchestra started in Durban, then off to
when I met my first wife who was S. African.
We had the choice of going to Memphis
or staying in
, we thought
was more interesting.
Because of the claustrophobic
nature of Hong Kong and my small salary and small apartment, I had a longing for
African (South Africa) in a sense, the space, the sunset, the romance… and you
know having lived year round we had a few African things, you know gourds; stuff
you would buy at curio shops in Durban. I
remember I had a pair of modern Ci Waras
I bought at “Ivys” in
. This was about 20 years ago in
1985. So that was just my interest
in the culture.
and the Orchestra in the end and went to
. I wanted to change careers
because I got a little bit tired of the symphony life although I loved the
music. I did my masters degree in
. It was an MBA on Arts Policy
Administration for museums. I used
for some of my research the ethnographic museums because I sort of carried a
little bit of the African thing through, not really knowing about the art per
se; but just buying books and looking at pictures, going to the British Museum
(Pitt Rivers Museum) and attending a few auctions.
I sort of became interested in African Art.
After a year of study I got my degree…be that as such, I wanted to stay
. In 1987 I convinced
Bonham’s which was a small auction house then, now of course they are
enormously big, to start a department of African Art, Tribal Art and
I don’t’ know if that was a
good thing or bad thing, but we started it in
. My African Art experience
initially was a disaster. The first
sale was terrible, a “crime against humanity” auction.
Fortunately, they had the courage to back me for another auction.
I learned very quickly. I
had five people in the audience the first auction.
One of them was Pierre Loos who took me aside afterwards and said, “you
had some nice things (which was of course he bought for no money) and the
rest was crap". Come to
for you next auction and I’ll give you stuff that will at least be real”.
were tapering down at this time in the late 1980s.
Sotheby’s had just hired Jean-Baptiste Bacquart to run the few small
sales. Then in the early 90’s both Sotheby’s and Christie’s basically
packed up and went to New York and Amsterdam because the market was just drying
up; at that stage I went privately
as a dealer in 1992. I was leaving
the auction house behind (Bonham’s) after 5 years there.
The antiquities, the Asian art and the other departments remained strong.
Their Antiquities department had a sale about a month ago where they made
11 million dollars in 25 lots from a very important collection, so there is
still great strength. I’m
very pleased to see from the small beginnings how these things went.
Tribal Art in
has stayed on a very small level, and that’s why I left
I did my first black and white
catalog in 1995 in London and also exhibited at the Royal Academy show of the
continent. This was I think
probably the last year Christies was there, maybe 1996, Sotheby’s was gone by
then. I did consulting for a few
years. There was always a bit of
In June the international tribal art community would come to Christies
and because London was always a magical place to find things. This was
true whether it was Polynesian treasures, or American Indian or African, mainly
ethnography of course but odd sculpture would turn up, because the English
collected a lot of things.
England and the UK, even with the
channel is still an Island cut off from the continent; you just can’t get in
your car and “willy-nilly” drive to Paris, Holland, or Germany.
It is a little bit of an extra effort to get there.
So people didn’t just think of popping over and if they did, they were
the French and Belgian’s who were all of course looking for real bargains. The
younger dealers arriving would find simple ethnography which is all that was
left. There was not really any
money or professional standing left in it anymore.
The cost of doing business in
was just too expensive. It’s
outrageous, property; everything in
makes it an expensive city. That
is why over time I decided to move a part of my operations to
. I’m an English resident
and keep my residency there. So I
keep my main operations in
and I go back often because we have a house there.
once very couple weeks, and I still do find things there.
But for selling, it is an
international world as we know. That’s
why you see me everywhere doing all sorts of things; because the market place
for good pieces is global. You know
that as well Mike from your work on your website, which is very clever the way
you market your material. It's
fabulous, it’s like your gallery is all over the world.
I don’t do that. I
probably don’t know how to do that, but I seem to get by with what I do.
There are many people in their 50’s and 60’s who are the major buyers
but don’t use the internet to buy.
I think I have an affinity for
anything very very good! The real
crux of the biscuit, when I think about what I really like, is
very beautiful objects. Now, I
started my South African collection ten or twelve years ago when I was still in
, when I didn’t have a lot of money and the things were beautiful and a little
bit affordable and available. All
those ingredients conspired to create an interest; if you can find nice things
on a pretty regular basis through sources. That’s how my collection got
started. I’ve always liked South
Pacific material, coming from my surrealist sculptural interest.
you tend to find more South Pacific items.
For every quality African thing that came in, I had five South Pacific
things….now that maybe ethnography again, but there was an interest there.
Great African sculpture is also wonderful… hard to find, well
everything is hard to find obviously. Seventy
Five percent of my business is African Art, Pacific is less.
In one sense at home I have a few things that are Pacific, but quite
honestly it is only because the African Art comes and goes much more quickly.
So I have Pacific things I get noticed for.
I think I see people branching out as well.
There use to be a time when African Art Dealers were just “African
Art Dealers”. Those days are
changing, now one has to perhaps have a bit of American Indian occasionally…
something a bit interesting. I
would like to have more American Indian material, but I don’t really have the
clients for it and it is quite expensive. I
think the middle quality for American Indian is expensive.
An Eskimo mask for $35,000 is not always that wonderful to look at and
you can’t get it for much less than $32,500 so the margins are small too.
have any philosophy on buying whatsoever, other than I look at a piece
and evaluate its aesthetics, figure out if there is money it, quite honestly,
and perhaps what I think I can achieve.
I just tend to get the best piece I can buy.
I love buying pieces. If it
is a great piece I’ll try to buy it. I
tend not to buy medium quality pieces. I
noticed at Bruneaf (Tribal Show Brussels) this year there was more interest in
medium pieces and I didn’t have that many medium priced African Sculptures.
A friend of mine is Steve Alpert, who I admire very much as a dealer,
because he has a much focused eye. Perhaps
it is just the way he arranges things that makes it exciting, when in fact he is
just doing what we all do and buying beautiful things at the right price.
But coming from an auction background if I see something inexpensive
laying on the ground and there is money in it I’ll buy that and move it along
or give it to somebody else to sell.
I meet a lot of people, astute collectors, new collectors who ask what I think
they should be doing. Some people
are at the end of their collecting, some people are at their beginning.
I’ve often thought that the best thing any collector could do is to buy
the best that their budget can allow. It
is very simple. It is not often
followed because many collectors like to buy three things instead of one.
Even people with all the money like to buy smaller objects and may not be
comfortable with this idea. A lot
of it is subjective because what is a “masterpiece”?
Why is one thing worth more than others?
For instance, I have recently acquired an Arawe Shield from
with the three bands and the circles. I’ve
had many and there are many around of all ages.
As an object type it is quite interesting.
From the 19th century when the first ones were
collected, up until fairly recently in the 80’s and 90’s when the last ones
were collected. I’ve sold about
15, generally good ones. I try to
keep the level high where the pigments are all natural.
This one I just got, I’ve only had one other as nice.
It is an old 19th century one but it has a "price".
Some people may find it hard to see the difference in this and one that
was made in the 1960s. Yes, they
all have the circles and all have the binding and painting on the back; so
what’s the difference? Well
there is a difference, subtle differences, that’s what I’m talking about
when I say: does
someone buy the best, or something which makes them feel comfortable on a
budget, where you get just as much bang for the buck.
I always say, try to buy the
very best, but I also recognize that very few collectors follow that rule
because they all have different modus
operandi for buying. In the end the collector is the winner, right?!
I find my philosophy is much better to be supportive of the collector,
and their ideas of what they are trying to do; rather than strictly impose my
own perspective. If I did this I
would very quickly be out of business.
To sit here and look at
, with all of the shows, events, and galleries, I would say the market for
tribal art is “exploding”. There
is an explosion not necessarily at the high end but for stuff
and interesting things—a lot more interest.
I see that also in
); the marketplace has truly expanded in the last ten years.
I’ve watched it across the board.
There are more collectors and much more interest.
there is a lot more going on exponentially than there was ten years ago.
Quality wise of course is another thing.
Masterpieces are harder to find, but they are out there.
With a reasonable amonut of money, one can still built a great collection
today. There are still in private
hands most of the great treasures, so there are many opportunities still there.
People say it is not like the old days.
Yes, I know the old days there was Webster, you could go there and he was
tripping over stuff. Now you have
to look a little bit harder… but it is
It is one thing to have Tribal Art
kept for the connoisseurs and esoterica. Exposure--
I’ve seen this in exhibiting fairs. They
are a fairly recently phenomenon. Fairs
are quite good for this field because the public can go and see a lot of
material under one roof in a fairly short amount of time.
What it comes down to is how the material is presented.
Thinking about how the material is displayed can quite honestly attract
new people. Is it pleasing to look
at? I find a lot of displays very
ethnographic and old. I’m not
saying it is bad, it is interesting, but a new person can be a bit more stymied
by seeing thousands and thousands of things all looking similar, stacked
up in groups. You tend to find that
in American Indian events, that sort of material does tend to run into each
other (baskets, blankets, etc.). It’s
difficult to give enough space to each object, so there is little chance for
someone possibly new to focus on them. It
is always ok for the connoisseurs; of course most of what we do is preach to the
converted. If there is a way to
find new people it is “presentation”
no matter whether you’re in a booth, a crowded fair, a hotel room, it always
comes down to presentation.
I’ve just finished the second
week of an exhibition of African Art with my friend Billy Siegal at his gallery
Santa Fe (135 Palace Ave. #101). He
came to me in
and said “would you like to do something”.
I had been coming to
every year, but not really doing anything with my material.
So I said, “okay this is great.”
Normally my material is in storage in
. He and I did some business, met
new clients and it was fun. Then, I’m back to
. I’ve worked on my Bernatzik
photographs, setting up an exhibition at the
Museum Stuttgart of South Pacific photographs.
I acquired the archive of the photos from the heirs through a connection
. It is a significant archive, the
only one left in the world in private hands, it is incredibly important.
The books we’ve published have had a lot of interest.
There is also the
“parcours des mondes” fair (starting on September 16th).
And then of course gosh knows what we’ll be doing… we’re doing
The most exciting thing I found was
the thing I bought yesterday, this is always the case isn’t it.
Quite honestly that’s the excitement.
I’m not saying this was my most important purchase.
As a dealer, to stay fresh the most exciting thing I bought was what I
bought last. That’s how I
think about it. I have in my own
inlaid shield, Mundugamors (Sacred New Guinea Flute Stoppers from the Biwat
); quite important material that was very exciting at the time they were bought.
The latest things I’ve bought
are the most exciting things. When that stops, I will stop.
Extend a warm thanks
gratitude to Kevin Conru!
Conru's Current Catalog & Contact Information