How to Buy African Art

There has never been a better time to buy antique tribal masks and sculptures from Africa—just don't expect to find them there.

First, let’s agree on what to call it, because it’s a matter of some debate. For a long time, the preferred label was primitive art, which reeked of ethnocentrism. Since then, other catchalls have been proposed, each problematic in its own way: Negro art, village art, tribal art... People in the business today tend to call it simply “African art,” but of course that’s not right, either. For one thing, they’re referring to works created in the precolonial and colonial periods, which exclude contemporary African art. For another, the ceremonial masks and statues in question were never meant as art in the Western sense. And then there’s this: Most of it is not actually in Africa. Not anymore.

You can blame Picasso. Africa’s statuary began migrating to Europe in the 19th century with returning missionaries and colonists, as souvenirs and curiosities. But it wasn’t until Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and their contemporaries started incorporating the spectacularly new forms of African sculpture into their own works (picture Les Demoiselles d’Avignon alongside a Fang mask from Cameroon) that the art world started paying attention. Artifacts suddenly became artworks, and collectors and museums couldn’t get enough of them.

“The majority of what Europeans like as classical, authentic African art has now been sold and has circulated within Europe or the States for 120 years,” says Bernard de Grunne, who was a director of African art at Sotheby’s in the 1980s and ‘90s and now runs a gallery in Brussels, one of the epicenters of the African antiques market, alongside Paris and New York. “As far as classical African art, I think there’s very little left in Africa.”

Meanwhile, sales of African art continue to break records at auction, lifted by the rising tide of the art market as a whole. “I sold only two pieces in my five years at Sotheby’s above a million dollars,” says de Grunne. “Today a million dollars happens at [almost] every auction. Sometimes two or three million.” Chump change next to your average Picasso, but for Heinrich Schweizer, the head of African and Oceanic art at Sotheby’s New York, the comparatively small size of the market makes for a rare opportunity. “Collectors are aware that this is a market where you can still get works of world importance for relatively little money,” he says. “For $10 million, you can probably buy the equivalent of the Mona Lisa.”

The closest Sotheby’s has come to that benchmark was a superb caryatid stool from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Luba people that sold in Paris three years ago for $7.1 million. The African Mona Lisa, whatever it turns out to be, will be anointed by Western experts, according to Western tastes, independent of its original ritual function. “Whether it comes from Mali or Cameroon, it’s not really relevant,” says de Grunne. “It just has to be great art.” However you define that.

As the business of African art became increasingly a rich white man’s game, the cultures that created the works gradually disappeared or transformed. Carvers in the postcolonial era found it more profitable to copy older works to sell to foreigners, or simply switch to making salad spoons. Up until the late ’80s, says Carlo Bella, the Italian-born director of Manhattan’s Pace Primitive gallery, it was still possible to find authentic pieces in Africa. But little by little, the continent has been emptied of its antiques. “What you find in Africa is for tourists,” says Bella. “It’s wishful thinking. Souvenirs and fakes.”

None of the African art dealers I spoke with travel to Africa for business. Bella would sooner turn to eBay to find masterpieces—and has. Africa’s problem, he says, is the lack of infrastructure and trustworthy provenance, and it’s not unique to the continent. “Think of buying antiquities from Greece. You go to Greece? You go to Italy? Not really, but you go to Sotheby’s here.”

That’s not to say there aren’t treasures to be found in Africa, so long as you can accept the risk. In Arusha, Tanzania, I saw exquisite Benin bronzes, Songye masks from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ife heads from Nigeria among dozens of other works in the Cultural Heritage Centre, a rust-colored building modeled after New York’s Guggenheim. For every piece on the gallery floor, there were a hundred more in a dusty storeroom that reminded me of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. To believe the center’s director, it’s the largest collection of ethnographic art in Africa.

“A lot of people categorize all African art as replicas, because there are so many,” says Saifuddin Khanbhai, the self-proclaimed Ali Baba of this particular cave, who built the cultural complex off profits from the tanzanite jewelry he sells next door. (He’s quick to boast that he has done work for Bill Clinton, the queen of Norway and—bizarrely—Wade Boggs.) “Some of the stuff is replicas,” he acknowledges. The trouble is identifying the fakes, since forgeries can be so masterful. “For us to get in touch with Christie’s is impossible, because I can only believe what the agents tell me,” he says, referring to the network of dealers, often Senegalese, who have given him the pieces on consignment.

If this is a tourist trap, then it is an unusually ambitious one. In a city where the only bookstore seems to consist of unalphabetized piles of Mary Higgins Clark paperbacks and secondhand textbooks, the Cultural Heritage Centre is a quixotic undertaking. It seemed less important for Khanbhai that the sculptures be real, though some almost certainly are, than that they be seen. He laments that interest in traditional art among Africans has waned to the point that few carvers even bother making proper replicas anymore. “I want to raise awareness all over Africa,” he says. “If locals understood that their heritage has a value, it would go a long way.”