TM: How did you begin
selling Tribal Art?
started in 1972, it was unplanned. I had kind of a rough, but
interesting job as a book binder. A friend said she had a
commercial space available for rent in Sausalito above Swenson's ice cream
parlor for $65 a month. She asked, "Do you know anybody who
might want to rent it?" I said, Yes.... I do! I had no
idea what I was going to do but I knew I didn't want to do book binding
anymore. It was interesting but didn't pay very well and it was
arduous. I had been a ceramist, so thought I'll open a ceramic
store. Then I thought about it, in the history of the world has a
ceramic store ever made a profit? My conclusion was it probably had
not. So, I decided, since I had been collecting African art, I'll
become an African and Contemporary Art dealer.
model was the David Stewart
in Los Angeles
that showed African
and contemporary art. Incidentally, I bought one of my first pieces,
a Chi Wara from that gallery in 1955. At $65 a month I didn't think
my risk was too high, and I had no employees. My first exhibition
was of a contemporary painter named Peter Kitchel, who has actually become
a well known print maker. I also included a few African pieces from my
collection. I mainly made my living from African beads.
I would restring them and if I sold a couple of strands a day I
made my rent and food. That is how I started, I didn't really plan
it, it was just extemporaneous.
was a contemporary dealer as well as a tribal dealer for the first ten
years. I stopped doing contemporary are because I had the
realization that if I tried to do both, I would be mediocre at both.
They are really very different professions. Being a tribal art
dealer you're always searching for objects, while in contemporary art you
serve a "mothering" function; the artist wants you to be around
all the time. When you can find good tribal prices you need to be
quick to move. I felt that many others could be contemporary dealers
and I decided I wanted to be a significant tribal dealer. When I say
"Tribal" I specialize in African, Oceanic, and Tribal Indonesian
with a little bit of Nepalese and Tibetan art.
Chief's Figure, 19th c., 54 inches
TM: How do you feel the
business has changed since you first started?
WILLIS: Well, 34 years is not a long
time but in this particular area it seems an eternity. When I first
started there was a lot of material coming out of the field. There
were whole areas of African Art that were unknown, things we had never
seen before. I remember buying a couple of Moba pieces and then
never saw another one for 20 years. Overall, there was more material
around, prices were lower, and one could go to
and find authentic material with some regularity.
There were very experienced people such as William Fagg and others who
were great sources of information. Their experience and knowledge is
irreplaceable. The books are better now, but the ability to talk to
these important people who have left us is a big change. Obviously
prices have gone way up.
a business where sometimes the rewards can be substantial, keeping ones
perspective and realizing at the end of the day honesty and consideration
for your clients who allow you to be in this business should be foremost
in your mind. As prices go up, temptations will go up also.....
keeping a moral compass in this shifting economic situation is
critical. As the scarcity of material increases, the number of
dubious pieces that are appearing is something that we are all going to
have to deal with. That is the biggest threat to our business.
Collectors have to be intelligent and careful. Dealers have to be
very intelligent and careful. I think the problem with fakes and
tourist pieces sold as real pieces has always been great, but as there are
fewer genuine pieces, I believe it has become more important to dwell on
problems of authenticity. That leads into the question of provenance
which is a very existential question.
some ways the business hasn't changed at all. On the whole, the
people who collect are the ones who are passionate about it. There
are fewer public galleries in America and that is a big
issue. It is becoming a business of private dealers with the
exception of Europe
where there are lots
TM: What are your
thoughts on the issue of provenance?
been thinking about this a lot and I think it is a question of definition.
When clients ask for provenance, I think they are
asking for something else. When asked for provenance we say,
I bought this from so and so or this was published in an auction catalogue
or some other history of acquisition. In other words, historical
information which is not all that meaningful. I think what people
are really asking for is some
kind of documented assurance that the object is real and just giving them
the history of who owned the piece doesn't satisfy that, in my judgment.
I've been contending with this and I realized I've been doing it in the
wrong way because I've been trying to just answer the question of pure
history without answering the real
question which is, "What assurance is there that it is authentic and
of high quality".
in itself is a strange thing. I'll give an example, I bought pieces
in the 1950's and did
not have the concept of fakes. I did not even know what African
fakes were and since I had so little money I bought from the worst and
cheapest dealers. I recognized after I started my gallery that the
majority of these pieces I bought in the mid 1950's were fakes. So
by telling somebody that something was purchased in the 50's doesn't
really give them assurance. There were also many fakes in
collections in the old days. So, what does provenance really
tell you? I almost think we need to redefine the word, because I
spend all this time giving people the "history" which doesn't
guarantee authenticity. I can point out many Senufo fakes which were
made for European tastes in the 1930's. I see them all the time.
If I vet one out of a show people might say, well how can this be bad, it
was published in 1939. Well in 1939 the Africans were making fakes.
So this becomes a very complicated issue and I think we are asking the
wrong question and giving people the wrong definition. I've just
begun to think about this because we give people what they ask for, pure
provenance, but at the end of the day it tells you "something"
but not very much.
Terra Cotta Nigeria, Age 2000 yrs
TM: I think most people
perceive you as an African Dealer. Do you find that selling other
types of art such as Oceanic and Indonesian to be more challenging?
WILLIS: No, I think the reason
I sell more African art or deal with it is that there is just more of it.
is a huge
place. This is one of their great sculptural traditions. For
instance, most of the Oceanic islands are relatively small. It is
just that there is more African material. I'm not saying it is
better, just more abundant.
I have no reason to
rate one culture above another, and in fact it seems the market and demand
for South Pacific is greater, while I think the supply is fairly small.
I don't know if John Friede's installation at the
is accountable for
that. I like all categories pretty much equally and at one time I
was very active with Indonesian art, particularly Batak.
Guinea Yangoru Figure
TM: What is the
greatest collection you've purchased?
purchased a collection of Batak material from
and published a
catalogue called "Sculpture of the Batak" with Mort Dimondstein.
We bought the collection together during the seventies at 18 percent
interest rate, and nobody liked the pieces for about two years. In
the end I learned a lot about Indonesian art.
We did fine eventually, but I remember that 18 percent was really
from "Sculpture of the Batak" Exhibition Catalog May 15- June 30
TM: You've appraised
many important collections. Does one collection stand out for its
is a really tough question. I was hired by the Disney Corp. to
annotate, appraise, and negotiate the purchase of the "Tishman
Collection of African Art". This collection had a lot of great
pieces in it, but I think it was also known that it had a lot of pieces
that were not so good. I would say this is probably the biggest and
best known collection I have done. I've also appraised significant
Indonesian collections like the Fred and Rita Richmond Collection, which
is now at the Metropolitan
. I was involved
in the sale of the Helen Kuhn collection to
George Hecksher, who is promising the collection to the De Young
Museum, I believe. I do a lot of IRS appraisals for donation.
I've done a few appraisals confidentially that are significant but I am
not free to say what they are.
TM: Have any of your
appraisals been particularly difficult relative to others?
WILLIS: I think the most disheartening
appraisals are collections of bad pieces. I've appraised
collections where virtually every piece was a tourist piece or a fake and
there is nothing enjoyable about
that. It is uncomfortable to be hired by someone to give them
nothing but bad news.
I also do evaluations
for people who feel they have been defrauded.
I'm one of the few dealers who will do them. I feel strongly
that the collectors deserve assistance when they believe they have been
defrauded. If the collectors do not have anyone to go to, it may
seem that the dealers are participating in a conspiracy. So I
reluctantly do this kind of work because I feel that someone should do it,
otherwise the collectors are really left with nowhere to go when they
feel, either rightly or wrongly, that what they bought isn't what it is
supposed to be. These situations can be very difficult because you
obviously anger the sellers who either knew what they were doing or in
many cases did not. Often they don't accept your verdict and
sometimes they can get hostile.
You just have to live your life ethically and call it the way you see.
It is your professional opinion and that is all it is.
TM: You closed your
retail gallery on Geary Street
in 2001. Do you ever miss it?
was probably the right decision based on the scarcity of material. I
do miss it because what I really loved doing was putting on "special
exhibitions". The trouble is that this is very difficult to do
now. Over my career I've had a lot of exhibitions. I had
fourteen Kotas and a few Fangs in it. It is just not possible to do
that with any regularity now and so I felt I was reduced to "theme
shows", whereas I like to try and do shows that have never been done
before. To my knowledge when I started
in 1972, I was the first dealer to do this as a gallery. Most
dealers ran their places more like shops. I've always liked to have
exhibitions, I just found that increasingly difficult.
was talking to Daniel Hourde in
about the Fang show
they recently put on and he said that he and Philippe Ratton worked on
that for 5 or 6 years. To have
those kind of resources in
, is very difficult.
I think the French and
dealers who are
putting on these significant shows deserve a lot of credit. Lin and
I went all the way to
to see a
show that Mark Felix
curated. These are big
efforts and I think the exhibitions are quite remarkable.
TM: If you could have
just one object back that you previously sold, do you know which it would
Yes. I saw it just the other day. I believe it to be Zulu, a small
figure which is on exhibit at the Met belonging to Udo Hortsmann.
For some reason inexplicable to me they call it Makonde and it is located
in the East African section. It is a great figure which I sold years
ago to Udo. I didn't give it away but I think I would love to have
that piece back. I do not regret selling any object. I price
pieces at what they are worth. I'm delighted when an object becomes
worth a great deal more than I sold it for, and the client prospered.
Of all the pieces I can think about, that is the piece I would love to
have sitting in my living room right now. It is sensational.
TM: At 72 you seem to
be at the top of your game
think one of the nice things about being an art dealer is that one becomes
stronger with greater experience. I can not work as hard as I used
to, but my memory is still good; it is not a profession that you need to
retire from when you are past 65. I still have good energy. I
think an enormous amount of experience has got to be an advantage, and if
you're honest with people over the years, that gets around and I think
that is the most important thing that you have. You tell the
truth, you don't make stuff up and you do your best not to make any
Fetish, Congo. Ex. Mangio Collection, Published "Art Bakongo"
by Lehuard Vol. 2 Plate 714
TM: What inspires you
to keep working and offering great pieces for sale as opposed to sitting
on a beach somewhere?
love the material, I love finding the pieces, and I love finding somebody
who agrees with me. If I was a roofer, I would be sitting on a
beach. This activity still interests me and I see no reason to quit,
plus I have such a large inventory (laughs) that I have to figure how to
keep moving. Basically I enjoy it. It is like any job, an
enormous amount of it is like house work. Sometimes we’re more
like warehousemen than we are dealers. Any dealer that has
experience will tell you that he spends more time cleaning up and moving
things around than doing anything else. I don't love all of that,
but I still do it. There is always that ‘great piece’ out there
that you are going to find. I basically like the people. I
like the dealers. Most of my clients become my friends.
People who collect tribal art have passion, so it provides me an
interesting and wide ranging social life.
TM: You've conquered a
series of health crises, what do you attribute your amazing resilience to?
think part of this is genetics. My mother and her twin sister are
94. My mother's sister's son is Senator John McCain from
, and we all know how
tough he is. I think I got some genetic help, biology, luck, and
good medicine. I had a deadly cancer once and at the time I was the
only known survivor. I had a pretty bad heart attack too. I'm
clean living, I exercise a lot, I don't drink much and have never been
over weight. I think that all helps but most of it is just genetics.
And perhaps one of these African fetishes has helped.
Door Lock, Ex. Stanoff Collection
TM: You used to field
collect. Do you occasionally still do so?
WILLIS: Field collecting is a kind of
a misnomer. Nobody field collects much. You go to the field, which means you go to the country and you buy the
best pieces from the best dealers. The number of the pieces I've
truly "field collected" are low. I think I bought a Senufo
stool that a woman was sitting on. The time it would take to trek
around to small villages and negotiate purchases is just not economical.
It is always the same, there is a hierarchy of dealers and the best ones
have the best pieces and are usually in the big cities.
No one can
know the number of pieces still in
Obviously, there are pieces the people are keeping. There are still
pieces in the ground. However,
I would not consider going to
purely on a collecting trip. There is
limited collecting in Mali, because we have an agreement with Mali that
significant things can not be exported, In addition, I am on the Cultural
Properties Advisory Committee which is by Presidential appointment.
So obviously I will not be doing any collecting in
there may still be masterpieces but they are only there because they are
not for sale.
TM: What advice would
you give to new collectors just starting out?
is a complicated question. Let me turn that around. I have a
much easier time placing an object with a person who is knowledgeable.
I find it difficult if someone doesn't know anything.
If they don't know the difference between a $500 piece and a
$50,000 piece, how are they going to make choices? So it seems
incumbent upon a collector to acquire some experience. Books help,
as well as seeing as many objects and exhibitions as possible. This
is a very small world and it is not extraordinarily difficult to find out
who you should be dealing with, and perhaps who you should avoid. It
amazes me that someone who will research everything about their business,
will buy an expensive object without considering the integrity of the
dealer or learning about the material.
Tanimbar Post Figure, Collected
1900 by Van Oldenbarnevelt
TM: It seems that more
pieces and collections are going to auction these days and there is a
preference for collectors to overpay at auction as opposed to buying from
private dealers. Do you feel the days could be numbered for
dealers or will we always serve a function?
don't think our days are numbered at all. I think we support each
other, and we can not exist without
the other. I think it is important to have a public auction forum so
people can see that the objects sell for a certain price and that the
objects have a value. While auctions do have an educating function,
collectors need to spend a lot of time with dealers and their inventory,
looking at and discussing the art, learning, getting advice, etc.; auction
houses do not provide that in the same way. Some objects do well at
auction and some do not. I see auctions as complimentary and have
never felt they are the enemy. We are seeing some very high prices
at auctions. I can not be sure
of the reason. I suppose people feel more secure when someone else
is willing to bid nearly what they are willing to bid. This doesn't
happen in a private sale. One
of the reasons some people buy at auction is that it does not take
as much effort as going around from dealer to dealer.
TM: What are your
thoughts about the prices realized at the Verite sale in Pairs June 2006?
will tell if these prices are sustained, and if these were rational
prices. If they are not sustained and if the same pieces reappear at
auction a year from now and sell for much less, then we can conclude that
the prices were too high. I think this was a specialized auction
which was brilliantly promoted. It happened at a spectacular time,
coinciding with the opening of the
. I suspect some
of the buyers were not terribly experienced and wanted to buy a piece in that
auction at that time. Again this is all speculation and we will see if
the next two or three years bring the same spectacular results with the
same kind of material. Only then can we say they are ‘just’
prices. If the market drops substantially or reverts to what it has
been, then it was a one time occurrence.
TM: What do you see
happening to the market for Tribal Art in the next 5 to 10 years?
know more about the past. I can only speculate about the future.
It is a great art. It has
got that. I loosely quote Picasso toward the end of his years,
"The greatest artists that ever lived were the Africans."
I have a tendency to go along with that. When something is of great
quality, it will maintain its value. What we will have are some ups
and downs. All art depends upon certain economic factors, and is
bought with discretionary funds. If there are bad economic times or
we have a decline in the housing market, I could see the market for all
art softening. African Art is still relatively inexpensive compared
to other great art; witness a 125 million dollars for a Gustave Klimpt.
Klimpt is a fine artist but he is not Michaelangelo, de Vinci or Rebrandt.
So, the prices we are seeing in African Art, which are in the thousands,
with some exceptions, do not have very far to fall. But if tastes
change in the future and people want something else in their lives, then
who knows what might happen. The thing is that prices have never
fallen much and there is a good economic reason for that. This is a
non leveraged market. The securities market is often leveraged; the
housing market is leveraged, but people who own tribal art have paid for
it in a relatively short period of time. So we do not have the
problem of an enormous amount of material hitting the market. In
fact, when prices go down, the material becomes scarcer as people simply
keep their objects.
Magical figure, Collected by Dr. L. Van Hoorde in 1934
in "Songye: Masks and Figure Sculpture" plate 99
TM: What do you do to
like salt water and fresh water fly fishing, but that is pretty active and
hard work. I went fishing in
Tierra Del Fuego
love to travel. My ideal would be to do less busy work and more
traveling. Lin and I generally spend a month in
each year. We
try to go to Africa
every two years,
we're in Europe
two or three times a
year... I exercise. I like to read. I've got
four children so I have some responsibility there. When one thinks
of one's ideal life, I don't
think I'm too far away from it. I live in a city l like. I
have a profession I like. I have a wife whom I love. One
can always improve ones life, but I feel pretty lucky. I would like
to take up a new competitive sport (laughs), because the ones I used to
play, are too hard on my body.
TM: What are you're
plans going forward?
do the San Francisco Fall Antique show, and our SF Tribal group has our
annual show. In February I'm doing the Caskey Lees San Francisco
Tribal Art Show. I contemplate whether I should spend more time in Europe
because the center of
the tribal art world is definitely
now. It is
logical that it would be, the auctions are there, and the French were the
first people to really appreciate Tribal Art as art
and not as ethnology. I find the whole environment in France
in terms of the art
scene, the people, their sophistication, and aesthetics to be very
Auliso with Jim and Lin Willis
Yombe Figure was published in 1923 in a Paris Exhibition Catalog
extends its sincere gratitude and appreciation to Jim Willis for offering
his insightful views.