"The European Exodus"


Reviewing the recent San Francisco Tribal art gathering has taken longer than usual to write as I keep shifting through not only my own assessment, but those of other participants, dealers, and collectors.  As usual, the show was beautifully appointed and well-executed by the Caskey family and its very competent crew.  The market appears to have improved slightly over last year.  There was a perceivable up-tick in consumer confidence and spending by an estimated 10-15%.  That is positive news but this market was so far down that it was poised for a bounce, however modest.  The recovery will likely be slow going forward since consumers are still tapped out, unemployment remains high and commodity prices are up (inflation) across the board.

This year's great success story belongs to German dealer Rudolph Smend,  Rudolph is one of the world's great experts and dealers in antique batik from Indonesia.  His large exhibition in the foyer was noteworthy for its breadth of quality and beauty.  It was also a financial success proving that when a corpus of good material is exhibited, when there is choice, and no confusion about quality or veracity, the public positively responds.  This exhibit effectively raised the status of the Art of Batik which has typically sold for fairly modest prices in the past.  He sold a number of them and one reportedly for $20,000+.

This year there was a HUGE donut hole in the participation of dealers, especially the Europeans!  European collectors with few exceptions were absent too.  The "bubble" for this show was in 2007 when there was a waiting list to get in and the top dealers on the planet wanted to exhibit.  In four short years due to the economy, buyer apathy, and other factors, the demand among dealers to exhibit has cascaded.  This is a seriously dangerous trend and its continuation could ultimately mean that the show fades away.  I'm not fear mongering but the reality is that it happened to the New York Tribal Show held at the Armories.   This show venue could be in SERIOUS trouble.  I do hope I'm wrong.  The demise of any show is not preordained but it is important people are aware of the attrition of dealers so it can be addressed.

Astonishingly this year there were several "empty" booths.   Many of us were surprised.  To fill the voids the show promoters either walled these booths off or dealers with extra material helped fill the vacancies.  This was the case with the booth next to me.   This is an unprecedented occurrence for this show!  This is the last great show remaining in the States and if collectors wish to see it continue then please come out and support it, otherwise all that is left are the auctions, and a very few galleries.

To help understand the huge void of dealers that dropped out this year the list is as follows,  American Dealers: Peter Boyd , Ramona Morris, Pace Primitive, Acquisitions Inc. and Primary SourceEuropean dealersKevin Conru, John Giltsoff, Olivier Castellano, Galerie 1492, Riccardo Columbo, Yann Ferrandin, Alberto Levi, Edith Mbella, Joanquin Pecci, Serge Schoffel and Renaud Vanuxem.  If that is not an exodus I don't what is.  Mind you, this is only the tribal dealers. If I was to include the textile and jewelry dealers the list would be even longer!  As an aside, last year saw at least a dozen dealers who dropped out that were exhibiting in 2009.  The trend is clear.   When looking at these names, if you're thinking the overall quality of the material "dropped" you're right on. 

Under current economic circumstances the absence of European dealers is largely understandable.  It's unfortunate they couldn't have hung in there a bit longer since the market is just now beginning to recover.  For an international exhibitor it costs between $11,000-$15,000 (Booth, lights, pedestal and showcase rental, shipping, hotel, airfare, etc....  Thus, sales of at least $20,000 are required to make the show even feasible.  Last year a dealer was lucky to break even let along see a profit, so few probably see any point in returning.  Soon after the deep recession set in, the promoters would have been wise to slash exhibition cost by at least 20% to help mitigate the damage to the show (hindsight is 20-20).  This is speculation, but it could have allowed quality dealers to stay in the show and to coax others that already left to get back in? Unfortunately that didn't happen and I predict more dealers will likely drop out next year especially if we see the weak dollar trend continue.

It was interesting to see which dealers the show promoters recruited to fill all of these empty slots.  There were some new dealers trying to establish themselves, semi-retired dealers, dealers who sporadically exhibit and finally collectors who became dealers by default. 

The atmosphere was notably less intense and serious this year.  During the show I heard a number of dealers remark that they didn't sell anything opening night and how attendance seemed low.   Ahem..... with a $150 price per person what would you expect?  That feels like too much.  Most people stay around the catered food court area trying to eat and drink their money's worth, most do a pretty good job I might add.  At that ticket price looking at Tribal Art seems secondary!?  Even active collectors tended to wait until Friday morning for the $10 general admission price before shopping.


A busy Saturday Afternoon


Miranda Crimp, Sausalito CA


Patrick Mestdagh, Brussels with a fine Kikuyu Arm shield from Kenya


Mestdagh, (upper left) A hide and Monkey fur shield likely from the Kaseng of Southeast Laos.  Note the fine Japanese Keyaki kettle hook hanger in the lower right


Marcuson & Hall whose booth is right off the food court specialize in the fiber art always has a fine selection of Tutsi baskets and textiles



Tribalmania with a theme exhibit of "Tribal Arms".  I had good intentions of taking more photos of the show but there always seemed to be a steady flow of people making for long conversations and little free time.



My friend Neil Becker "New World Antiquities" of West Harrison NY, brought a great selection of Eskimo and Northwest Coast Art.  Note his Yupik Eskimo finger dance fan (Tarayamaarutet)


(Neil Becker) A great selection of ancient Eskimo Ivories


(Neil Becker)  A classic Northwest coast Chilkat blanket


(Neil Becker) A Yupik Eskimo transformational mask



Vicki Shiba, Mill Valley CA with an amazing group of early parrying shields from the Moluccas Island, Indonesia



Booth of Wayne Healthcote and Jack Sadovnic (Sharon Singer chatting with Jack Sadovnic)  Jack sold this rare and early pair of throne supports from Lampung, South Sumatra



Wayne Healthcote with a splendid Maori Treasure box (probably early 19th century)



Art Passages, Shawn Ghassemi San Francisco.  Maori flax cloak, New Zeland


Art Passages, Maori whalebone hand club




This sizeable New Guinea Middle Sepik suspension hook was in the booth of Dave DeRoche.  This year Jo De Buck from Brussels were back sharing their same large booth toward the entrance of the show. 




These lovely pieces were in the booth of Bruce Frank (left) a small masterful New Guinea Sepik maskette (right) a Songye Fetish (bottom) a New Guinea Iatmul flute stopper



Brant Mackley, Hershey Pennsylvania with a rare Eskimo walrus effigy harpoon storage box circa 1900



Mark Johnson's Booth (center), Bill Sutterfield (left) and Linda Pastorino holding in a sneeze.  On the back wall (upper left) is a Toraja shrine vault panel from Sulawesi


B.C. Denton, San Francisco, with an unusual Japanese mask




Kirby Lewis (Seattle),  with a fantastic Aboriginal Coolamon dish and a 19th century New Caledonian figure (right)



James willis (San Francisco) with a large Dogon female figure from Mali



 Seabastian Fernandez (New York) and Fily Keita (Los Angeles)



Michael Evans, Dijon France.  Mike had a great display of 9 black and white photographs of Maori tattooed heads "mokomokai" by Horatio Robley.  They are pictured in the catalog but they sold before I had a chance to shoot a photo.


(Michael Evans)  Among many sales, Mike sold this New Britain nassa shell neck ornament



Joel Cooner (Dallas Tx) with an early New Guinea Hunstein garra hook mask, Bahinemo People



Joel Cooner with Jack Sadovnick.  Joel, that 5th cappuccino looks like it is really working!



Cathy Cootner, Sonoma CA




James Stephen (Brooklyn NY)  next to a Luba Fetish.  James as promised everyone that he won't use that yellow wallpaper anymore.



Mehmet Cetinkaya Gallery, Istanbul Turkey.  I'm always envious of the textile dealers who I've seen break down their booth in just minutes and have everything packed up in one or two suitcases! 



(Center) John Molloy- New York (right) Ingmars Lindbergs, Bonhams and Butterfield's specialist



Tad and Sandy Dale, Santa Fe New Mexico talking to Clinton Nagy and his wife (foreground)



(Dale) with the oldest New Guinea Lumi Shield I've ever seen. 


(Dale) with an impressive master-carved Songye Prestige Stool from the Frank Crowninshield collection New York (Ex. Sotheby's NY 2002).  This was my favorite piece in the show.  Unfortunately it was not on display long.   It sold immediately opening night with the buyer taking it home.



A shot showing part of the food court.  Any booth surrounding this area is prime "real estate" and costs the dealers a premium


The show winding down, late one afternoon, or it could have been that hot Cajun jambalaya that sent people home :-)



Joris Visser (Brussels), New Guinea Abelam painted bark panels, (right) New Guinea Highlands "Timbuwarra" figure


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(Text and photos by Michael Auliso)

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