Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Internet - Your Best Friend or Worst Enemy

I must say that I have been obsessed with computers since I first sat down in front of a 486 in 1984. If you are old enough to understand that last sentence, then you know something about dos command lines and the maddening restrictions imposed by the magical number 642. For those of you that wonder what planet I come from suffice it to say we live in a far better and maybe far worse world now than we did then. I am delighted that I no longer need to rely on a talking head to formulate my political beliefs.. I can now just go on You Tube and see for myself exactly what the politician said then that they are denying now. That is a powerful tool. The ability to research almost any subject easily makes it possible for anyone who wants to invest a little time to be more informed. That's the good side that Google and the many other search engines provide. The bad side is that misinformation lives forever. In the past if you did or said something dumb, sooner or later the deed would be forgotten and you could move on. Not so now and this is in my judgment troubling. Awareness of this fact gives us an added responsibility to speak up when you know something to be wrong. That is the message.

In my 36 year career I have met some people that I respect for their commitment to their jobs under difficult conditions. Recently a blog posted a piece that implied the former curator of Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art was at best a little oblivious and at the very worst incompetent. The blogger is not important but if someone in the future is searching the Internet on Molly Huber I hope they find this piece as well.. because she deserves the respect. The blogger wrote:

"When the curators at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) selected 20 pieces from their collection to display as part of their “In Pursuit of a Masterpiece” exhibit, Molly Huber selected a fake. And one that wasn’t very good, either.

But it was a fake that fooled everyone for years, a fake that toured museums in Europe. The statue was of a figure first made famous at Chichen Itza known as a “Chac Mool.”
According to Huber, the MIA acquired the statue in 1947. The museum exhibited the statue for years as an example of pre-Columbian artistry. In the 1950s it loaned the statue to museums in Rome, Berlin and other European cities.

Its true nature was only revealed in the mid-1970s, when research by the first curator of what was then called the primitive art department showed it to be a 20th-century fake, created with intent to deceive and likely modeled loosely after a Chac mool from the Chichen Itza in the collection of Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology,” Huber wrote in the new exhibition’s online catalog.

The original Chac Mool found at Chichen Itza.

Huber, until recently, was the MIA’s assistant curator of African, Oceanic and Native American Art. She did not explain, at least not in any online materials, why she selected the Chac Mool and unfortunately, she is no longer working at the institute and therefore unavailable to answer questions about it. But if you happen to be in Minneapolis and would like to see the fake that fooled everyone for decades, drop by the MIA."
If the blogger had taken the time to research the Internet on this exhibition, he or she would have learned that inclusion of this sculpture was done to make the point that ongoing research in a museum is critically essential to fulfilling the responsibility of the museum:

"...The biggest factor was the lack of a pre-Columbian expert on staff, someone who would have known not only that the style and materials are wrong, but also that, compared to authentic examples, the carving is clumsy and awkward. When I first saw this sculpture in storage many years ago, it seemed almost laughably bad, and now it's hard to believe so many were taken in by it for so long. The sculpture remains valuable, however, as an example of the importance of ongoing research to determine the authenticity of even well-respected artworks "
Molly Huber, Assistant Curator, African, Oceanic, and Native American Art

So obviously Huber chose this object because it was a fake and it illustrated an important point. And by the way Huber did include in this show a superb Veracruz yoke from the the collection that is certainly authentic.

Maybe the more important point is do our museums in fact really honestly pursue the issues of authenticity within their collections or do they just offer political lip service to a serious problem. Museums and their problems do not lend themselves to simplistic descriptions or easy solutions. Any museum director must carefully weigh all the implications and ramifications of any decision.;however, there is not much that is more fundamental to the success of an institution than their credibility in representing their collections honestly. As an important teaching tool, I wish more museums would openly display their fakes as a teaching tool for their members.

April 2010 - The Tribal Art Market - Where Are We Now

At the end of the first quarter of 2010 as we head into the late spring early summer auction season, we are beginning to see further indicators of a deteriorating market . The San Francisco Tribal & Textile Arts Show hosted by Caskey Lees has in the past been considered one of the top venues for Tribal Art. The show was held this year in mid February and was regarded by many as flat with many dealers walking away with losses. The comment I heard repeatedly was that the players were there but people weren't buying. At the same time Kim Martindale organized and hosted the 25th annual Marin Indian art show just up the road in San Rafel, California. The thinking was that the two shows would have a stronge enough draw to bring out of state collectors, dealers, curators, and enthusiasts to the the venues. Martindale reported that the dealers reported doing better than expected while direct quotes from dealers described sales as lackluster. The New York International Tribal and Textile Arts Show to be held in March was cancelled due to a lack of sufficient response from the exhibitors. To be honest not all of this can be attributed to the market, for there has been some serious dissension and complaints about the changing venues for this show. I do believe that formerly successful venues that are now struggling is a market indicator to be considered.

So as a collector or dealer what should your strategy be? Should you pull back your best pieces for better days. As a collector should you be entering the marketplace as a seller? Should you be buying? Clearly one man's problem is another man's opportunity. As I have said in this forum for more than six months your success or failure is going to be part strategy and part luck. I see the auctions right now as a crap shoot. You may do well but you could also be burned. Check out the reserves for Sothebys May 14th sale in Paris. The reserves certainly appear lower to me .. which would be smart to try to entice me into bidding.

The past few auctions have also been indicative of a slowing market for middle level material in particular. Bonhams held a tribal art auction on February 12 to coincide with the two tribal shows held at the same time. Out of 280 lots 130 failed to sell. Nothing sold over $50,000. Certainly objects in the $50,000 and below will feel any economic impact before the great works that tend to hold their value longer. The Milton Rosenthal collection of Oceanic art (March 24, 2010) auctioned in Paris illustrates that point with only 7 of 37 lots failing to sell. The Maori tiki illustrated above as lot 11 sold for 372,750 euros ($503,749) and was documented by the curator of the Auckland Museum in a 1974 letter to be pre-contact. The provenance quoted the well known dealer Charles Ratton. " 'It truly is a magnificent piece' enthused Charles Ratton in a letter of 26 May 1956 to the collector, archaeologist, and historian Bernard Bottet, who had just acquired this pendant from the collection of the Countess Martine de Béhague (1869 – 1939)." To my recollection this is the highest price ever paid for a Maori tiki. Please correct me if I am in error. But the point is that great things normally hold their value in bad times.

Certainly many interested parties will hold their collective breaths over the the auction sales scheduled for May and June. Among them are the following:

June 7, 2010, San Francisco, California Bonhams'
Native American andPre-Columbian Art Auction

June 19, 2010 Würzburg, ‎Germany
61st tribal art auction: African Zemanek-Munster

Fri, 14 May 10, 10:00 AM, Lots 1 - 158, New York, New York
Sothebys, New York

Fri, 14 May 10, 2:00 PM, New York, New York
Sothebys, New York

8 Jun 10, 10:00 AM, New York, New York

15 Jun 2010, 3 PM Paris
Art Africain et Océanien Art
Christies, Paris

7 Jul 2010, 3 PM Paris
Collection de Madame Darthéa Speyer, Paris
Christies, Paris

16 Dec 2010, Paris
Art Africain et Océanien
Christies, Paris

It is significant to note that there is no summer sale scheduled in Paris by Sothebys. Clearly the prestige for any sale at this point in time is Paris. Pragmatism and the very lopsided exchange rate dictates New York as the only reasonable site for a sale. The Europeans with their euros get a 30% discount while the US collectors avoid paying a premium for buying in Paris. So for the moment the market comes back to New York. Christies has adopted precisely the opposite strategy for reasons that don't make a great deal of financial sense. If I were an owner in that sale, I would be even more nervous about where this is going. Maybe the material is good enough for a buyer to look beyond the purchase price. I remain skeptical but we will let you know what happens.