By: Kevin Conru
Serendipity is the word that comes to mind when I think of my pattern of collecting. I grew up in Indiana, in an environment that wasn’t particularly artistic, and I spent my first decade after college playing the double bass. It wasn’t until I studied arts policy in London in the late 1980s that I became aware of the art-collecting world, and only after working at Bonhams for a few years did I begin to occasionally acquire a painting, sculpture or tribal piece. Part of my London life was to visit friends who had stalls at the Portobello Road street market and spend time looking at their various wares. As I worked in the auction house’s ethnographic department, I naturally gravitated to those dealers who specialized in the subject, and I gained valuable insight on all those Saturdays.
With centuries of colonial connections, England had a wealth of tribal material, a lot of which came onto the market through auctions or dealers. Artifacts from South Africa, because of the region’s ties to England, were relatively common, as were those from the Pacific. As the market for African art was driven mostly by demand for masks and figures from West and Central Africa, quite amazing works from the much less-known South could readily be had for relatively little money. I acquired many fine pieces on Portobello Road, as well as from other English sources, and within a few years I had quite a core group.
After leaving Bonhams in 1993 to set out as a private dealer, I was invited to exhibit my South African material at a commercial gallery in New York, and although the show was successful in selling the less-expensive items, I went home with practically all my major pieces. It was then that, after evaluating the results, I decided to put the remainder aside and do something more intelligent than to disperse what was left to the winds. I realized early on that I had come by some remarkable things, and in the next couple of years I added many important pieces.
By luck, one of my next-door neighbors in South Kensington was the collector Seward Kennedy, who had amassed an Aladdin’s cave of tribal treasure. He was just beginning to disperse his holdings, and he knew that I was looking for South African items and paying what was perceived at the time to be top dollar. Practically every day, he walked over with a bag of knobkerries (a type of club from southern and eastern Africa) or snuff containers or wood pillows, and offered me the lot. Some of my very best pieces came from him.
In a similar vein, I also benefited from Jonathan Lowen, a passionate lover of the arts who went through several phases of collecting. As soon as he would sell one collection, he was off to the market to start another. His habits fed not only my collection but also formed the core of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. After the first 50 or so pieces, I began to look for unusual works that would build and complement the group. As figures from South Africa are extremely rare, I searched worldwide for any that could possibly become available and pounced whenever they did. Likewise, certain vessel forms, iconic in museum collections, were almost impossible to find, and in these cases I had to wait years, if not decades, for a choice item to appear.
Around 1997 I made my first trip to the South Pacific, visiting the Melanesian Islands of New Guinea, New Ireland and New Britain. While good, old material was scarce to see, let alone export, the trip kindled a love for the island peoples and their art that led my collecting in another direction. From my auction days, I had always liked Pacific pieces, as the use of wood, especially in Polynesia, is reminiscent of works from South Africa. And while prices for the region were generally much higher than for southern Africa, utilitarian objects could still be had quite reasonably. While I appreciated Polynesian forms and patinas very much, some Fiji clubs I acquired led me over into Melanesian art. Here was a world of surreal masks, crazed figures and wild colors, and the vocabulary of the art spoke to me directly.
I quickly found that, as with South African art, there were pockets of discovery where opportunities to acquire world-class pieces still existed. Although the field of Papua New Guinea was dominated by the American collector John Friede (he always had a way of winkling out the best pieces), regions like New Britain and the Solomon Islands were still open. Old colonial-era pieces from these cultures were just common enough to find with the help of perseverance and good contacts but rare enough not to hit the big-screen auctions that inevitably fuel demand and high prices.
Luckily, in both these areas I acquired some seminal pieces quite early and, in the Solomon Islands in particular, continued collecting until I built up a representative group.
My main criterion for all my ethnographic collections has been that each piece has to be among the very best of its type in terms of its age, usage and aesthetics. Long research into Pacific art has shown me what types of objects the island peoples produced, and for comparison purposes, my reference library has most of the published examples known.
One very different area where I’ve had fun at home is with a Lucite bag collection. Years ago, on a rainy Saturday morning during a fair week in New York, my wife and I were wandering around the West 26th Street flea market when we spied a brilliant red box object forlornly placed on a table. The owner explained that it was a plastic bag from the 1950s and would cost me $65. We bought it and took it to my booth at the tribal fair, where later on during a calm moment in the afternoon we looked at it on a pedestal base under the spotlight. It was beautiful. Minutes later, Anthony Meyer, the prominent Paris dealer, saw it and mentioned to me that there was a specialist dealer of such bags on West 25th. Needless to say, the next morning I made a beeline to the place and, well, started collecting something else all over again.