2003 May New York International Tribal Arts Show at the Park Avenue Armory

Written by Michael Auliso and republished here with his permission.

This years show had 43 vendors which was the same as last year.   However, the quality and quantity of the usual museum quality objects seen in previous years was notably diminished!  Unfortunately, there were at least 8 major dealers who chose not to do the show this year.  Perhaps this is why overall attendance was so low?  The opening night was low energy, dismal and lackluster compared to previous years.  But there was the usual guy in “Drag” walking around wearing a blond wig  (who is he anyway?).  Jean Frittz was there making her rounds thanking various dealers for their “participation” at the Sotheby’s Auction.  Conspicuously absent exhibitors were “the master” Wayne Heathcote (Brussels), and heavy-hitters like Kevin Conru (UK and Brussels), Alex Arthur “Wild Tribal Arts” & Editor Tribal Art Magazine, James Willis (San Francisco), Tad Dale (Santa Fe NM), Gallery Valluet-Ferrandin (Paris), Alain Bovis (France), Thomas Murray “Asiatica – Ethographica” and Patrick Morgan (Del Mar California).  

So what happened..??  Was there a mutiny against the Caskey-Lees show promoters?  Were dealers fearing low attendance and slow sales because of a sluggish U.S. economy or was it a combination of factors?  I can’t speak for all that were not present but Tad and Sandy Dale tell me that it is a very expensive show to exhibit at (no surprise) and they choose to exhibit at the Bruneaf Tribal Art fair in Brussels from June 10th to the 15th.  The consensus among dealers is that the NY show is costly– perhaps too costly to justify the effort?   Dealers tell me they find the show stressful with a short one day, 6 hour set up with “vetting” taking place the same day!  Other concerns are that the Manhattan market for Tribal Art is somewhat fickle and finite.  Others believe the show is under-advertised and still others have “issues” with the promoters themselves.  Although dealers are grateful to sell to repeat local customers, they are really seeking new clients which appear all to infrequently like the interior designer with a large budget or a “corporate client” who will make their entire year.  The obvious problem is that the New York show is so close in time to the Brussels show– about a month apart and the Sotheby’s auction is just not a big enough draw to help bolster attendance at the Tribal Show.   The great dealers favor The Brussels Show because their sales are more consistent.  And it’s no wonder– the average European and especially the French have a far deeper affinity and appreciation for Tribal Art in general.

Although gate attendance was low, exhibitors were selling objects.  Kirby Lewis (Lewis/ Wara Gallery) among other things sold a fine old New Britain Mengen Shield and a New Guinea Highlands shoulder shield with a painted figure.  Kirby as always, had a very strong display of Oceanic Art (Nice Job Kirby).  Of particular note, he had a 19th century Massim Lime Spatula in the form of a stylized pig by master carver “Mutuaga” which was also featured in the show catalog.  It was priced at $15,000 but its quality was so fine, it would make you one weep.   Dave Deroche sold a superb Mangbetu Figural dagger for $12,500 and a Colima Parrot pot to name a few items.  Langotsy Gamba Tribal Arts, NY sold an especially good Nias War Shield with polychrome paint.  Other dealers who reportedly had a good show were Peter Boyd of Seattle, Bruce Frank NY,  Brant Mackley of Hummelstown PA and Jeffrey Myers NY reportedly selling around $300,000 in Northwest Coast and Eskimo artifacts.

Several “standout” pieces included William Jamieson’s Torres Straight Drum priced at $65,000.  Bill is a likable and sophisticated long-time collector/ dealer out of Toronto.  It was refreshing to see him debuting his fine pieces in New York City.   He also had a pair of sublime Shuar shrunken trophy heads from the Ecuadorian Amazon (Wow!), one with warrior tattooing on the face, priced at $35,000 and $30,000 respectfully as I recall.  Lastly, hanging on the upper left wall of his booth was a rare 19th century Alaskan Yukon Kuskokwin Mask (heavily provenanced) which drew a lot of interest and hovering on lookers. 

Joan Barist Primitive Art had an amazing Baule Gong Striker with the handle morphing into a human arm!  Easily the greatest I’ve seen and quite possibly the best one known.  Peter Boyd had a stunning Zulu pipe, nestled on a shelf of his all white booth, with stylized arm holding the bowl which was decorated with lead inlay throughout, not to mention a lovely Bembe Ancestor figure.  The ever suave Joel Cooner of Dallas TX had a very choice New Guinea Humbolt Bay Drum with a lovely hart shape face priced at $8500 making it unique and appealing.  In addition, eyes were drawn to his classic and beautiful Tami Island figure perched on top of this glass display case.  Joshua Dimondstein had an especially large and impressive Nigerian Mumuye figure displayed front and center in his booth (where did you get that?).   Bruce Frank Primitive Art had handsome booth with a terrific selection of high quality Indonesian sculpture featuring an early Leti Figure with haunting inset porcelain eyes.  Michael Rhodes displayed a 24 inch Songye Female Figure (Ex. Alain Schoffel) with the loveliest and serene face $35,000 could buy (Mike, I’m surprised she hasn’t sold yet?).   Tambaran Gallery — Maureen Zarember who incidentally has her gallery located just one block away from the Metropolitan Museum (how is that for a location??) had a very sculptural array of 17th-18th century Japanese gilt spear head covers.   

We commend and support Maureen who is actively hosting events for interested potential young collectors.  Maureen feels as we all do, that too little is being done by museums and other organizations to promote fresh interest in tribal art.  See “Gallery News”, page 38 of Tribal Magazine.