Get a Bead on This

Michael Oliver, African art dealer

"These beaded pieces have a life of their own. They're powerful and spiritual," says a collector, referring to the African beaded works she bought from New York-based dealer Michael Oliver.

Oliver is one of the few dealers in African art who has made a specialty of rare 19th- and early-20th-century beaded artifacts, mostly from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Prepare to be dazzled by his astounding collection of conical crowns, especially those with long veils to hide the face of the king or chief. Oliver also has an exceptional group of diviner's bags used by herbalists or diviner-priests for holding ritual paraphernalia. Their striking color variations are created with tiny beads meticulously stitched on leather or cotton. Ceremonial beaded panels that dancers wore on their hips, long sheaths for sword-like staffs, and an occasional rare Zulu beaded cape make up the bulk of Oliver's finds.

Beading was generally an overlooked aspect of African art until the 1980s, when a few galleries mounted beadwork shows. But Oliver became intrigued long before that. His graduate degree in 1968 was in urban planning, but early on he switched to jewelry design which landed him in beads. In the 1970s he began traveling to Africa to learn as much as he could about them.

"I spent a lot of time visiting African villages, observing how beading was done by a defined class of men who could only marry within their clan and were considered not just talented, but holy," says Oliver, who, now in his mid-fifties, has a professorial salt-and-pepper beard and soft voice that belie a passion for all things African. By talking with elders and observing how each piece was used, Oliver learned to interpret the iconography and colors which served as "identity badges, indicating a particular tribe, ruler, or ritual." He bought as much authentic material as he could, hoarding it, in effect, until its value as works of art was more widely appreciated.

In recent years, Oliver has sold consistently to museums and to European collectors. "Now I find that these masterpieces are getting the attention they deserve from American collectors. Beadwork is definitely coming into its own." Today there are a number of shows. Significantly, quite a lot of pieces in European and a few American collections have become available on the market again, since the original owners have died and their heirs don't want to keep whole collections intact.

From the 16th century onwards, European glass beads traveled to Africa in the pouches of explorers, merchants, and traders who exchanged them for ivory, incense, tortoiseshell, and gold. Beads became the commonly accepted units of currency. Much more uniform in size than cowrie shells, seeds, and nuts—earlier "beading" material—the European beads also didn't require painting. For the artist, working with glass beads meant incorporating color in their designs much more easily.

Beaded pieces are immensely appealing because they are so "punchy," says Oliver. They can accent a room or complement any collection. "Africans treat them as power objects of great historical and religious significance, but for Westerners their artistic merit greatly exceeds their cultural context." Oliver's collection of beaded works ranges from about $5,000 to $25,000. By appointment only. For information: 212-222-3081.