"Transition and Survival"

Review & Photos by Michael Auliso


This year I didn't participate in the show since I had an ongoing New Guinea exhibit at my gallery.  However, I was at the show everyday observing and talking to everyone which gave me a fairly clear perspective.

The show promoters organized this year with their usual artistic expertise.  The show was attractive from entrance to end, and had the appealing foyer display attendees have come to expect.  Opening night was as lavish as past years, although attendance seemed down, possibly due to the economy and the fact that the ticket price had not been lowered from past years.

It seems to me that what was once an "international" show has been slowly evolving into a "local" one.  It was only a few years ago when you would see "top tier" dealers from the Paris and Brussels galleries exhibiting or visiting the show.  They weren't represented at the show for the most part, which also excluded many of their customers.  Just a few years ago the show was buzzing with the best dealers and collectors from the East Coast but they were sparse as well.   As late as 2007 this popular show was packed with European dealers mostly because the promoters were giving them priority.  It was truly an international show back then with some stellar material to draw in visitors.  Five years later it has contracted to a kind of regional/ domestic show and today it is drifting toward the label of being called a "local show".  I've talked to several dealers who said they had to persuade their out-of-state customers to attending the show this year.  The sad truth is that after three quarters of the European dealers left the show, it has been suffering from a deficit of quality.  That's undisputable.   There are still good pieces there but the "perception" of lesser quality is a dangerous narrative that may be taking hold. 

Overall there was a distinct lack of exciting material which seems to be the new Paradigm.  Unfortunately more key dealers, known for their fresh material and quality, dropped out of the show.  They included, Kevin Conru, Michael Evans, Ben Hunter, Jim Hart & Loretta Carbonaro, Craig De Lora, Galerie Flak, Jackaranda Tribal Art, Tribalmania, Lewis Wara Gallery, and others.  For the most part a new mix of jewelry and rug dealers occupied these booths.  If the show continues to lose "tribal dealers", honestly there won't be much "tribal" to write about anymore.



On the flip side, his year sales seemed "slightly" improved over last year.  Customers seemed to be a bit more upbeat and ready to wade back in the market.  I attribute this to a modest up-tick in consumer confidence.  The remaining tribal dealers seemed to benefit from reduced competition created by the many dealers which dropped out.  This natural process of attrition and transition seemed to create market equilibrium, a rare first, under the roof of the "Festival Pavilion" building.  In past years the large number of dealers and vast supply of Tribal Art have always eclipsed the small pool of buyers.   That pretty much changed this year and the dealers that hung in there found less competition for their pieces. 

So the "right-sizing" of the show took place this year.  The market has basically determined the correct size of the show and the mix of dealers.   It was unrealistic to think that its scale and intensity, seen in 2006 and before, could be maintained indefinitely, especially in a climate of economic headwinds.

For every dealer I know of who sold well, exceeding expectations, there were an equal amount who sold poorly and this included established dealers who typically sell well in San Francisco..!  The trend of Oceanic material selling better than African continues.  To be blunt, the African material was largely uninspiring.  Its pretty clear that San Francisco is not the best city to sell high end African art-- the customers aren't here.  Five years ago it seemed like it was a good African selling venue but that was largely because a few "key buyers" were once active in the market. 

The promoters reshuffled the African and Indonesian vetting committees this year adding Pierre Loos from Brussels for African.  Bringing in outside experts, like I've advocated, is a step in the right direction but more are needed to replace ALL of the dealers who formerly vetted.  Some inside baseball..... Some African dealers told me privately that they resented pieces being removed from their booths during the vetting process by dealers they felt were less qualified.  Often pieces that were vetted out wound up back in the show making it frustrating for those doing the vetting.  Vetting is like the ugly process of "sausage making" and is best outsourced to objective independent  experts to get their hands dirty.



Many dealers were still trying to make sales by showing existing inventory familiar to many of us.  This is a very "capital intensive" business often requiring LARGE cash investments for new material.  In this economy, capital is what most dealers lack, BUT it is the new, undiscovered, and exciting material that collectors "hope" to see every year.  Unless a dealer has very deep pockets or has access to great material on consignment, they may not be able to stay competitive...

I heard there was a new collector from southern California who was a new attendee, and a Museum curator who was lining up pieces to present to their board of directors for purchase.  With those two exceptions, it appeared the same contingent of old buyers were active.  There are always one or two dealers who take the Lion's share of business.  This year a European dealer, sold 18 pieces totaling over $200K.  Half of these pieces had been purchased from other dealers prior to the shows opening!  Nice going-- the Midas touch I guess?

I disagree with some of my colleagues who say sales were better this year because of an improving economy.  Maybe?  Consumer confidence did seem more upbeat, possibly because of a rising stock market, but we are not out of the woods yet and this is an anemic recovery at best.  The U.S. economy is still skimming the bottom.  The GDP growth rate in 2011 was just 1.5%.  Coming out of a recession historically we've had growth rates of 4-6% GDP.  The real unemployment rate "U6" is still very high at 15% and includes people who have stopped looking for work.  There has never been an economic recovery without the housing market strongly rebounding and leading the way higher.  However, the housing market remains weak with prices nationally back down to 2001 levels despite record low interest rates.  The spike in gasoline prices alone can throw a wet blanket on any economy recovery, because for every cent increase in gas prices, a billion dollars is taken out of the economy.  So a one dollar increase in the price can take a Trillion out of the economy.   In central Europe there is no recovery, just the prospects of a longer recession and an unresolved debt crisis.  The geopolitical tensions in the Middle East get more serious by the day and it now seems imminent that Iran's nuclear sites will be struck.  Not to be a downer, but a sustained economic recovery seems far from certain.


James Stephenson (Brooklyn) with a rotund and noteworthy Mende female figure



(Stephenson) Pair of Kamba figures from Kenya


James Willis (San Francisco) chatting with customers


Galen Lowe (Seattle) with a fine selection of mostly Japanese art



Galen Lowe (Seattle)


Andres Moraga (Berkley) has been a fixture at the front of the show since it began


Andres next to a woven Algerian Woman's wrap, Kaba'il People, circa 1880


(Moraga)  This unusual looking piece is a Kuba hat with applied takula powder, worn by pregnant women for 9 months




Bruce Frank (New York) always has fresh material of interest to connoisseurs




(Frank) Detail of a fine Korwar charm with child



(Frank cont.)  An early New Guinea Upper Sepik Pottery bowl and a large Philippine Bulul wearing an "oklop" helmet


Brant Mackley & friend (Hershey Penn.)


(Mackley) Iroquois False face mask



(Mackley) handsome contents in his display case!



Booth of Gary Spratt and Miranda Crimp (Mill Valley)


Detail of a fine Navajo weaving which was woven for the Wetherill family at Mesa Verde, Colorado in the 1880-90, Wool dyed with vegetable and aniline dyes in a classic period Serape pattern.


Miranda Crimp always has a terrific selection of Jewelry.  The beaded blouse on the wall is from the Bagobo people of Mindanao (S. Philippines)


(Gary Spratt)


These Batak "Singa" heads from Sumatra came from the ends of a large dowry chest.


Photographer, traveler and collector Mike Glad's booth.  Mike was selling DVD's of a hard-hitting  documentary he produced called  "Recycled Life".  It is about people deriving sustenance from the largest garbage dump/landfill in Central America.  It is heart-breaking but worth a look.


Mark Johnson's booth (Los Angeles)


(Mark Johnson) Modang Dayak Sculpture


Leonardo Vigorelli- Dalton Somare (Milan)  with a large Maori figure


(Vigorelli)  Small Songye Fetish



(Cooner) Wearing a 18th c. or earlier "European" festival mask.  Joel loved to quiz people where the mask is from.


Joel Cooner (Dallas) chatting with Christina Hellmich- Curator of the AOA Department de Young Museum


(Cooner) with an important Dayak panel collected in 1898




(Cooner)  Expressive Japanese Oni candlestick


(Cooner)   vagina representations!  Left:  African Bellows, Right: a Columbia River arrow straightening stone



Tom Murray (center) next to Raphael Reichert collector, sculptor and Art Professor.  During the show, Tom celebrated his "39th" birthday.




Tom Murray


(Tom Murray)  Far right, a pair of Philippine standing Bulul figures made by the noted carver "Tagiling"



Booth of art dealer Ernie Wolf- Los Angeles


Booth of Wayne Heathcote who was not present at the show.  Jack Sadovnic (left) talking with Bruce Carpenter


(Heathcote)  with a complete New Guinea Vokeo Island mask


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(Text and photos by Michael Auliso)

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