How did you begin selling Tribal Art?
graduating from college in 1975 I took a few months off to
travel in Europe. Deciding to continue my travels without returning
home, I began leading camping tours through Europe and North African,
which ended in the overland trip to Asia. Two months had turned into
four years later! After extensive adventures in Europe, North
Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Japan I returned to the
states in November of 1979 with a cache of collected merchandise such as
Tibetan rugs, Nepalese and Indonesian jewelry, Japanese Kimono and Obi, Chinese Silver and artifacts.
Did you want to return to the States?
learned that my grandmother was dying, so I was just going to come back
for a visit and sell some of my things. I had a real life in Tokyo.
I was modeling, doing television, commercials, teaching English, and
playing three cord country music in the subways of Shinjuku. I
was called "The Shinjuku Kid" and was making between $50-$300 a
night playing for 45 minutes.
I came back my father arranged an exhibition in a small boutique gallery
in Little Rock Arkansas. That opening night we had a fun party and
everybody oohed and aahed and thought the stuff was great. Of course
nobody bought anything but they all thought it was pretty
incredible. Later that night I got a phone call at three o'clock in
the morning saying that the gallery had been robbed and burned to the
ground! Everything was gone which was kind of... (pause) just okay
for an "Asia-phile" who had just been traveling through India,
Nepal, Afghanistan and Indonesia.
just sort of took it as a new direction in life. All the tragedies
in my life have been open windows for a better future. Every time
something has happened to me that was shocking or jarring where I lost
everything it always opened a new door and I've grown to trust that.
So whenever I find myself in a setback situation I stop and think about
where I am and where my opportunities are. When everything is going
great and your system is working that's the time to look for a change,
that's the time to "shake it up" and look for new options and
directions because anything that works after a while gets stale. It
is better to be planning your next move while you're on top than when
you're all of a sudden in a hole.
C. Japanese Shinto Shrine Figure Depicting Chief Magistrate of the
Afterlife "Emma-O". Recently sold to the Dallas Fine Art
my first road trip to find customers I met Dan Cook in Dallas who
convinced me to come work as his assistant. We later became partners
in "Rudi South Inc". and to this day remain close friends. It was
through Dan's tutelage that I made the transition from traveler/
adventurer to merchant. I also learned from Dan to never be content
with a successful status quo but to continue to keep things
refreshed. He referred to this as the great "shake it up".
the late 1980's Dan and I dissolved our partnership. I dealt
privately for a few years from my home until the birth of my son which
prompted me to purchase my first gallery on Dragon Street. The
Chinese say that "a child is born with a loaf of bread under each
arm". It was this added responsibility that ushered the
realization that owning your gallery is a dealers best long term security
and retirement vehicle.
You've been in the business how many years now?
just started yesterday (smiling). Its funny how I used to feel like
I was the youngest guy in this business and then all of a sudden people
started opening doors for me and calling me "sir" and I realized
a long time has past. You go from being a young buck in this
business to being an "old fart" real quick. I still feel
like a new comer since there's no end to the information, there's no end
to the knowledge and this is what keeps us going until we die.
Nobody has the perfect eye or all the information, and that's exciting; you
get these little mini-enlightenments and all of a sudden you get it!
There will be something new that you didn't really pay attention to and
all of a sudden "bing" you get it and then you're off on a new
tangent for a while until you've mastered it and had some fun then you
move onto something else.
earlier years, Joel
featured in an Art Magazine in the 1980's
In 2006 you purchased and remodeled this massive gallery right next to
your first one. Why did you need one so HUGE?
I can! At this point the rent from the first gallery pays the
mortgage on the second one. I have an eclectic collection selling
sculpture, furniture, textiles, jewelry, etc. I enjoy developing
complete rooms in my gallery which helps the client to visualize the art
work in their homes. I believe it is easy to mix different cultures
and styles. The trick is to simply keep the quality consistent.
My gallery is twice the size of my home. I spent most of my waking
hours at work therefore I like to be comfortable. The gallery has a
full kitchen and dining area and is prefect for entertaining. I
believe it is important for the client to not only be purchasing a nice
piece but retain an enjoyable memory of the event.
Do you find being in the Dallas design district among other art galleries
gives you access to customers most dealers don't have?
clients range from museums, dealers to collectors to interior
designers. A collector will normally purchase one object at a
time. A designer can fill a whole room. My favorite
clients are dealers since they know quality and values and never run out
of room for that next piece.
Can you describe your aesthetic? What qualities must and object have
for you to buy it?
probably best known for my love of form. If you fall in love with a
pure form in the beginning you will rarely get tired of it. I like
my Oreo's plain without the creamy center. I'm most influenced by
the Japanese aesthetic. I like simple and restrained elegance but
then again I never say never.
Guinea May River Shield
You sell a a broad multi-cultural mix of material ranging from contemporary sculpture
to Japanese and Northwest Coast. Why do you think you've had such
success being diverse when other dealers struggle to branch out from one
culture or genre?
every field has its down time and we're all out there looking for good
pieces. So there are times when African Art becomes too expensive,
good Japanese might be scarce, so I can always jump from one area to
another. I never lock myself into only buying tribal or only buying
Asian. I buy contemporary art and photography and I love selling
them. I really find I'm looking for what turns myself on.
If I find something beautiful it will mix with anything else I have and
that opens up a whole clientele to me. I find that if you have a
house or gallery full of material from one area it becomes overwhelming,
its dull, its boring. I really like an eclectic mix in my life,
in my home and in my gallery. I like to have something for
I really feel for these people who for example sell
only American Indian and they are all out there wrestling for the same
pieces. It is smart to be eclectic and I think one thing feeds
another. In tribal art I'm known as a form dealer but it is really
through a love of Contemporary Art that I try and find the commonality
between the primitive art like Primitivism in 20th Century Art. I
favor that contemporary painting collector or contemporary sculpture
collector who ends up in my gallery and sees they can soften the hard edge
of their collection with some historic piece from the tribal or Asian
world. Aesthetically it blends perfectly because actually one
influenced the other. Of course to the contemporary collector, they
are used to spending much more money than the tribal collector is.
Usually the price of Tribal Art only amounts to the tax on a great Picasso or
19th C. Maori Marionette, New Zealand
Your booth at the shows often is the best designed. Where do you feel
your sensitively to art comes from? Has your facility for design
always come natural to you?
it really doesn't. It is just doing the work
over and over again. I've always had a large gallery so I've had a
lot of experience placing material. I've made all the mistakes twice
and I'm stupid sometimes but I won't make them three times. After
a while you just sort of learn that there are certain mathematical
equations and systems and elements of balance in symmetry and asymmetry
that you can play with. In certain circumstances symmetry is a must
and in others, if you can get away from it, asymmetry is the best. If
you put a lot of material into a small space you have to start with
symmetry. Basically you build a room like you would paint a painting
with color. Its truly about balancing.
Shuro Palm Screen Scene
What are your thoughts about art as an investment? Is there anything you
recommend buying right now which is undervalued?
still find that antiques and antiquities value for value are so
grossly undervalued compared to contemporary art that I see nothing but
upside. If you buy quality and best of types, if you can't afford
Picasso or Rembrandt then look at Folk Art. It
doesn't matter what you're buying, it could be Barbie Dolls. If you buy "quality",
in the long run you're going to have a collection that people will be interested in seeing no matter what it is. Quality (pieces)
appreciate at a much faster rate than "stuff". Mid line
material does appreciate but it takes a lot longer. High quality
material is always in demand, people are always looking for the best and
if you can find best of types in any field, and you pay fair prices, then
you can't loose.
What advise do you give to new collectors just starting out?
very high quality! When
they come into my gallery what I like to get them thinking about is, try
this, don't try to immediately fill your house with art and
antiques. Instead, as a couple buy one "great" piece a
year that is just a little bit more than you can afford. I say this
to young dealers also who are buying and selling inventory. Do this
for fifteen years and in that time you're going to have fifteen
great pieces and that is a collection. You can decorate a house with
fifteen great things and if you buy good pieces from good dealers
at fair prices you will be successful.
Do not shop for
bargains, shop for quality and be comfortable paying a fair price for a
great object. Now, if you start making a lot of money and can buy
more than one piece a year-- great. This is for young couples who are
just starting out. Invest in a light and put it in the
ceiling. In between making the next purchase fill in the gaps with
fresh flowers. For $7-$15 you can do individual flowers in single
stem vases around your house with low voltage lights on them. I've
never sold a piece of art that can compete with a fresh flower under a low
Mask, Dem. Rep. of Congo
You seem to be at the zenith of your career. What do you attribute
your incredible success to?
don't honestly feel that successful. I'm happy that life is
good. I'm at a point where the business is feeding me as opposed to
me feeding the business. A lot of that has to do with the fact that
I've killed the overhead monster. My galleries are paid for.
Again the income from my old gallery pays the mortgage on my new
gallery. I'm not having to struggle to make the monthly ends meet as
I used to. He who is without debt is successful. An old
antique dealer years ago in Mexico City told me, son "in this
business you'll never have money." There is always the next
piece, you'll always over invest, you'll always move up to the next
level. In the end it is not about having money and it is all about
the dance, the game and enjoying the material. But this is why it is
kind of nice to have something in your life which basically generates
income without you having to work for it. There are
those times like 911 and times when the business stops. You never
know, a major war can happen and who's going to buy art. In
that circumstance it is nice to have some security (real estate) that is paying
feel like I'm just beginning my career. I don't feel like I'm at the
zenith at all. I don't want to be the biggest and the best. I
just want to be comfortable, travel, see my friends, and enjoy the
game. I want to search out the material buy it sell it and move onto
the next piece. I think it keeps us alive. There are a lot of
old art dealers. It keeps their mind fresh always looking for the
next piece. You never retire from this business. There is
nothing more fun than this. And we come and do these tribal shows
and as much of a pain in the ass as they are all of our friends are
there. I mean, I see more people at these shows than I see old
friends that might live three or four blocks away from me. We are a community.
Why do you think people like to buy from you?
don't know. Well, I think that people enjoy that I enjoy the
material. I look for elegant pieces that are restrained without a
lot of gingerbread. I try to find pieces that will stand the test of
time. I try to sell pieces to people that they won't get tired of
and can easily upgrade. I think most people develop their clientele to follow their taste. The loyal clientele, when I get new material,
come in and basically fall into your look and into your
People like to feel comfortable doing business and need to
trust you knowing that you'll take care of them. It does surprise me
sometimes when clients will come to some show and there are a million
dealers they can choose from and they still spend all their money with
me. It is the highest compliment they can pay, but there is plenty
of great material in the room.
Scene Featuring a Group of Mossi Flutes below a David Gibson Photo
There is a saying that goes,
"choose your dealer before you choose your pieces." I like
this but I don't think anyone should ever just buy from one dealer.
I think they should have several dealers because everybody brings
a different aesthetic to the game. Everybody has a different take
and you have to trust your heart when it comes to the material. I
think the most successful dealers are the ones who stop following everyone
else but trust their own taste and develop clients that like their
particular taste. My clients that are my long-term devoted clients I
take really good care of them. They always get the special
price and the extra effort. In fact I will tell them not to buy
certain pieces if I don't think it is consistent with what they have been
buying already. If it is not consistent with what I think they are
looking for I will actually suggest that they not buy an object.
the long run you don't want a client who gets tired of the material.
After twenty years you want them to look back and say I like everything I
bought from you. When I hear from a client how much they have
enjoyed a piece I have sold them, that is the greatest compliment you can
give to a dealer. That makes me feel great. I like people who
are that sweet and sensitive to give you that information.
Guinea Stone-Carved Middle Sepik Drum Finial
How do you arrive at a price for one of those "Best of Type"
all moving throughout the international marketplace and looking at a lot
of material. This is where studying contemporary art and prices,
knowing the prices in American Indian, Asian and tribal and international
values on all these different types of things give you a "gut"
fair price. You come up with a feeling for a fair
price. If a piece fits into all these different categories you do
this summation and average. It is a hard question to answer. A
lot of it quite honestly and very simply, has to do with how much you had
to pay for it.
in my career when I was buying a container out of every country in Asia I
worked on 300 percent markups. But honestly in the last 10 to 15
years as the price points have become higher and the quality of material
has become higher I'm working on 30 percent markups. Then after you
give 10 percent to a good client your margin goes down more. I'm at
a point in my career where I don't buy and sell a markup. I see an
object that I love and I want to handle it and if I can only make
10 percent on that I'm just as happy. If can make 30 percent I'm
more than happy and if I can double my money I'm absolutely
thrilled. I'm at the stage really where I don't need the money like
I used to. I don't have to have the markup but I do enjoy purveying the
piece. There are certain pieces that I just want to be the next guy
that sells it. I just want to have the pleasure of offering
the piece. I'll see it and immediately envision it in my booth,
gallery or home or the house of a client of mine and it is really not
about what I'm going to make, its about can I get it and get it to them
and make everybody happy. Ultimately in the end a good deals is when
Island U'U Club
What's the greatest collection you've purchased?
don't buy collections I build collections. I don't ever think
it is a good idea to buy somebody's else's collection. You're buying
somebody else's taste and I think it is better to build a collection with
you're own eyes slowly. I would rather just pay top dollar and pick
"the best" out of the collection. A lot of dealers in
order to get the top few pieces they buy this whole collection. I've
never done that. I will just grossly over pay for the top
three pieces and be happy with that. In enjoy building collections.
people don't know this about me... actually the first pieces I bought from
you were African weapons. You had some very nice quality weapons at
your first or second show in Santa Monica. It was actually
African weapons form that brought me to African Art. Before that I
was more of an Indo-Tibetan dealer who had started to play with Southeast
Asian Art. Then I realized that all the great Southeast Asian
sculpture was just being bought and sold amongst the dealers and nobody
had any real clients. It was not until I got into African Art
that I realized there was a much larger market out there and at that point
I started selling to museums. So, weapons were a gateway to African
sculpture and in the end when it is all said and done I go back to
the weapons. I go back to the simple restrained forms.
of African Weapons
know its interesting, I saw a Sotheby's catalog from the early 1900's
which had African weapons and sculpture in it. An African Weapon or
Currency was selling for five times what a Songye figure or Hemba
Statue was selling for. You've got to remember that back in the time
of the colonials these were also more military collections. The
statues were pretty much just pagan art. It really wasn't that
interesting and nobody paid much attention to Tribal Art until probably
the 1950's or 60's in a serious way. Of course I don't like
weapons. I don't kill things, I don't hunt and I'm not a sports
person but I truly think these 19th century forged forms are beautiful
contemporary sculpture. They are antiquity but they fit beautifully
into the contemporary world. You can still buy a
"best-of-type" in this area for under $5000 and for under
$10,000 and surely for under $20,000. I will never be able to
afford a best of type Fang figure. It is just beyond where
I'll stretch myself. If I'm spending that money I'll probably be
buying contemporary paintings where I'll see more upside at that
form I think that simple things like neckrests can be absolutely brilliant
pieces of modern art. So there is a lot of what I call the "pots
and pans" business... there are a lot of pots and pans which have
been disrespected for years.
Kota Reliquary Figure, Gabon
If you could have just one object back that you've previously sold, do you
know what it would be?
do, and the answer will surprise you. I sold a contemporary wooden library
ladder to the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. It was
made by an artist in Philadelphia, but can't remember his name. It
looked like a large walking beast from "The War of
Worlds". It was a beautiful form and it was in the
corner of my living room for several years.
I bought it from Bud
Holland in Chicago who was a mentor of mine and an amazing art
dealer. When you walked into Bud's gallery you would see an Edward
Ruscha painting that said "boss" or "work" and
then you would see a collection of Austrian Viennese furniture followed by
a cycladic marble and then an African Sculpture or collection of
weapons. Here was a guy that was able to mix all these
different sensitivities together; modern art, antiquities, Tribal Art and
Viennese furniture. He was truly a master at mixing all of that and
making it look fantastic.
Step Library Ladder, Joined a Fabricated Black Walnut and Oak, 78 inches
ladder was in Bud's office and when I first saw it I fell absolutely
in love with it and asked him if I could buy it. He said, "you
know what, everyone has for years wanted to buy that ladder and there is a
list but I can't think of who it is and you're hear right now. I'm
going to let you have it." So, ultimately somebody
working with the Renwick Gallery found out that I had it and contacted me
and I sold it. Now it sits there in a niche in the Renwick Gallery
in Washington D.C. I do miss that piece, it was a fantastic
thing. When you sell to a client there is always the chance you
might get a great piece back again. When you sell to a museum its
nice to know that the public is going to get to enjoy it and that is the
benefit. The tragedy is that you know it is never going to come
around and that you're never going to get another crack at it.
You've said Tribal Art is suited to any home. Can you explain?
What do you find most appealing about Tribal Art?
it's Jungian, I mean why did Jung and Freud collect tribal art? It's
very primal and back to the roots, as we know Tribal Art influenced modern
and contemporary art. That's not news but we are just reliving the
aesthetics. There is power in Tribal Art, you know.
Tribal Art that was made for use has an inner power to it that is strong
and undeniable. When its good, its great. Its not "oga
buga", its not meant to scare you its basically meant to bring you
closer to the earth, closer to the Gods. What's really
interesting to me about Tribal Art as opposed to other areas
where a contemporary painting will sell at a certain price by the inch or
Tibetan Thangka has a basic mathematical structure with the
proportions being very much the same.
Tribal Art however is unique in that
no two pieces are really alike. There are a lot of subtle
differences in Tribal Art and the price point of a piece of Tribal Art can
change drastically by the tilt of the head, by the torque of the
waist. I look for pieces that I call "theater-in-the-round." The
problem with a lot of Tribal sculpture is that it might be beautiful in
the front and fall completely flat in the back. But when you
find a piece that is in the round beautifully, that to me is an
Dan Spoon, Ivory Coast
What's interesting about finding values
and coming up with a price, is that if you see something subtle or elegant
where the aesthetics in the piece give you a little bit more than the norm,
it allows you to ask a little bit more for it. So you can go out
there an pay top dollar for a
great piece but if you see a little bit more in it than everybody else
does, and you can elevate it; there is always an extra dollar in
it. The excitement of the hunt is finding the piece in Tribal
Art that really does stand out from the rest because its not
catholic, no two carvers are alike. Sure, like a Chokwe mask is
almost always the same proportions so there is a certain catholic, but within
that face it is completely different, the ethos, what's looking back at
you is completely different.
Mask, Dem. Rep. of Congo
What are you thoughts about Art as Investment?
classic answer is you always buy art because you love it. But
personally I think you're silly, I think you're stupid if you don't
consider the investment potential or aspect. If you're going
to spend real money I think you need to consider the investment qualities
of the piece. If you buy quality you'll never go wrong. And
this is what were taught from the get go to not do; tell your client don't
consider the investment or the upside. I don't try to sell things
for their investment upside but I think the client in his heart should
look at it. Again, I tell them if you buy quality you'll do
well. If you just buy stuff or mediocrity there is no telling if
anybody is going to be interested in your collection.
You know it is
sad to me to see these collectors that have spent huge fortunes
always shopping deals, always shopping flea markets, always trying to
"best" somebody or always looking to screw some dealer to get
stuff cheap. In the end when the spouse dies and puts the collection
up for auction nobody will come and buy the material. The
collections that do well are the collectors that go out there and
pay a fair price for a great object. They always do well.
people think Saul Stanoff overpaid for objects but quite honestly
he didn't. He paid fair market value for great objects and in the
end he won. I won't name names but we all know people that have just
been bottom feeders. They'll have 3,275 pieces in their collection
and they feel rich because of that, but like I said if they needed to
raise money, nobody would come to their party. Nobody wants mediocre
things. So the mantra is pay a fair price for great things and you can
not go wrong.
C. Japanese Shinto Shrine Figure Depicting Chief Magistrate of the
Is there anything you recommend buying right now that is undervalued or
has been a surge in values in Tribal Art in the last couple of
years. I find antiquities and Japanese Art to be undervalued right
now. I think that Japanese Zen paintings by known painters are
grossly undervalued for what they are but that can change in a
heartbeat. Certain aspects of Asian Art are still undervalued
especially Japanese material in general. My aesthetic comes from the
the Japanese aesthetic. I buy Tribal Art and Modern Art with a
Japanese aesthetic. My greatest teachers as far as influences
have come from Japan. You know, the way they finish the back of an
object and the attention to detail is amazing. When you study
Mingei, the restraint, simplicity and the scraping away of the
gingerbread is perfection. Relative to Tribal Art, Japanese Art is
it is getting very hard to find great Tribal things, I think it is
time to start looking at the contemporary art in these same
traditions. I think there is HUGE upside. I would look
at contemporary Asian ceramics or Japanese bamboo sculpture, I think for
the money this stuff is great. I'm not talking about things that
mimic Tribal Art, I'm talking about the work of contemporary artists in
these traditions. I'm less familiar with African contemporary art
but there is this Zulu woman named Nesta Nala who makes these beautiful
pots which can sell for $20,000-$40,000. Third-world contemporary
arts are a fresh and interesting place to look for opportunities.
Scene with Photo of a Muslim Woman
think photography is grossly undervalued. You know, silver
gelatin prints, basic black and white film is "archaic".
In our lifetime we've seen the end of photography. It's all digital
now. If you buy quality photography now you can not go
wrong. I saw this show of Irving Penn where he had additions
of four. He had this photograph of a "cup" which was an
addition of four that sold out. The last print sold for $150,000
for a photograph of an Irving Penn Cup! And I have to
say it was a fantastic photograph of a cup (laughing). I'm
just saying if you can sell a photograph of a cup for $150,000 you better
pay attention to this market (still laughing). Irving Penn is
a soldier, he's been around for a long time but it is happening. A
young collector can actually collect photography and buy a lot of great
classic stuff for $500-$1500 a shot. Photography blends beautifully
with any other type of art.
What do you see happening to the market for Tribal Art in the next five to
the next five to ten years it is going to continue to blossom. I
think people are going to take it more seriously. The top
level material is going to skyrocket and the mid level material is going
to become very difficult to sell. I really do think quality is king
here and we are seeing fewer and fewer major sculptures out
there. I think right now the $30,000 to $100,000 range is an
interesting place to play and has a big up side. As far as the
market goes I think it is going to be more and more difficult for people
to make a living at it just buying and selling. I think for people
dealing in the top level they will be very successful. Quality is
truly king and I think everyone should lean in that direction.
Scene Juxtaposing Contemporary, Tribal and Antiquity. (Table
Sculpture) Sherry Owens- Man Brain/ Woman Brain (Photo) Boy from the Surma
People of Ethiopia, Photo by Bertie Winkel
there are so many pieces out there, it is limited. It is
interesting, as you look at certain dealers like "Rossi and
Rossi", Indo-Tibetan dealers, last year at the New York Asian Art
show they were showing contemporary Tibetan paintings. Nancy
Weiner was also showing contemporary Asian Art. A lot of people are
now starting to mix contemporary with the old and it works as long
as you keep the quality consistent. I see this, all the big
dealers are starting to look for other areas where they can make some
money and there is money in Contemporary Art. At a
certain point if you can't get old quality pieces anymore what are you
going to do, start dealing in lesser quality? You can't go back!
So people have to start looking for other areas where they can find
something new and exciting. We're going to find more and more
eclectic dealers who cross over between the contemporary and the Tribal
and those are the people who are going to last and do really well.
Is there anything that you want people to know about you?
sigh) I'm really a traveler. Pretty much I got in
this business to travel and then I fell in love with the art. What's
interesting about this business are the personalities and the
friendships. As a purveyor of Art it opens you up to such a variety
different people and psychologies that other jobs probably
wouldn't. So, in the end the gift of the Tribal Art world is really
the cast of characters that it has invited into my life and to everyone's
life. When it is all said and done, it is the value of the friendships
made and the variety of friendships.
Anyone of us dealers can travel
just about anywhere in the world and have a friend there, someone we can
relate to. So, initially it was about the traveling, then it was
about the pieces and in the end it is about the sharing and the
friendships. The art is the common ground but the friendships are my
extends its sincere gratitude and appreciation to Joel Cooner for his time
and insightful views.
Joel Cooner's Website