"What does it take to be a successful tribal arts dealer?" I recently asked a friend. "Oh, boy," he said. "First you have to be an archaeologist, ethnographer, linguist and art historian in roughly equal parts, and you have to care passionately about what you do. And then you must be extremely patient, because what you care about might be totally unknown. So you have to pioneer, write and arrange museum shows, and that's only at one end. You also need to convince the people whose art you want to acquire that you care as much about their tribal and ancestral treasures as they do."
This conversation came to mind during the International Tribal Antiques Show at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York, May 26-31, 1999. For the past four years, this show was held in the more modest armory space on 26th Street. Would the new premises, with its uptown ambiance and higher booth rentals, pay off? Was New York ready for a tribal art show with full-sized prices?
The answer is yes. Despite coinciding with the Memorial Day holiday, the show found the Upper East Side a fertile field, and most dealers were satisfied that their investment had paid off.
Fifty dealers from three continents (including a hefty U.S. contingent) brought rare tribal textiles, jewelry, sculpture (wood, bone, ivory), ceramics and many other objects that don't fit structured categories. From ancient civilizations to the early years of our century, from the rain forests of South America to the ice palaces of the Inuit, the show seemed to encompass all times and all places.
One standout was a wooden dancing figure from the Gulf of Papua in Papua New Guinea. With wide open eyes and unusual rope arms made of braided mango tree roots, the carved figure stands 24 inches tall and was made in the late 19th century. Priced at $32,000, it was one of several prizes at the booth of London dealer Mirabilia Mundi.
Several carved chests were available at the fair. Chinalai Tribal Antiques from Shoreham, N.Y., featured a 19th-century Burmese document chest, inlaid with gold and glass images of dragons and flowers for $9,800. Another New York dealer, Singkiang, had several chests, including a storage chest depicting a hunt with an archer and crouching figure, from 14th-16th century Himachal Pradesh, in northwestern India.
Tribal textiles bring high prices because so many century-old techniques of weaving and dying are lost. In more recent decades, many tribes have limited themselves to embroidery and appliqué on westerns cottons, silks and woolens. Tony Kitz Gallery of San Francisco showed a variety of Middle Eastern carpets. A large 19th-century Baktiari, in full floor length of 14 by 17 feet, offers brilliant colors with hundreds of details in floral and animal designs. Tony buys carpets every day. Prices range from $12,000 to $200,000. What does he look for? "Age, beauty, rarity," he said with his eyes glowing.
At Sam Coad Gallery, who shared a booth with Singkiang, a rare 16th-17th century Karapina fragment from Turkey was available for $6,500. Joan Barist Primitive Art of Short Hills, N.J., presented a completely feathered child's poncho from Peru (about 1000 A.D.) for $15,000. Manhattan gallery Alaska on Madison displayed a Haida button blanket from Queen Charlotte Island, British Columbia. It dates from ca. 1900 and was priced at $10,500.
Ceremonial masks are an important component of tribal culture. For the most part, they are worn to impersonate supernatural beings or animals and are thought to impart their qualities and their characteristics to the wearer. Alaska on Madison brought a female wood ceremonial mask with labret (lip ornament) also from the Haida tribe of Queen Charlotte Island, B.C. It was priced at $29,000. A fierce ritual mask from Timor Island in Indonesia, festooned with feathers, guarded the booth of Feichtner & Mizrahi of Vienna, Austria's only exhibitor in the show. It dated from around 1900 and was priced at $14,000.
An abundance of excellent sculpture was available at the fair. Alaska on Madison had a fossilized ivory bear of the Okvik people of St. Lawrence Island, dating from 250 BC-100 AD. The brownish bear, measuring just over seven inches, was priced at $15,500. Joan Barist had a dramatically colored clay torso from the Nok tribes of Nigeria. Dating to 500 B.C., it was priced at $30,000.
Dramatic 19th-century bridal jewelry from Turkoman, Uzbekistan and Khazakstan, rich in silver mosaic with turquoise and garnets, was on view at Singkiang. Linda Pastorino of Singkiang wore some of the jewelry herself.
Finally, an enormously rich variety of pottery was on view. Leonard Ezra Kalina of Pacific Palisades, Ca., showcased a Honduran Mayan marble vessel with Jaguar handles and heavy relief carving from the Ulua Valley. The price: $35,000.
Don't wait until next year's fair to start your tribal art collection. As long as the New York area has more than 60 first class dealers and dozens of museums and shows, you can find tribal treasures any time.