Contrary to the temptation! An appeal for a new dialogue among museums and collectors, scholars, and dealers

African Arts, Summer, 2006 by Lorenz Homberger, Christine Stelzig

Relationships between museums and private collectors are determined by a complicated equilibrium. In the best cases they are characterized by a balanced give-and-take oriented to specific projects and through which critical perceptions, high ethical and scholarly objectives, as well as empathy for the concerns of each other are distinct on both sides and in a similar manner. In the worst cases, these principles are abandoned in favor of the misdirected ambitions of collectors and museums, presumably on the assumption that exhibiting objects from private collections without detailed examination of their authenticity and origin and without a clear contextualization is permissible, as long as visitors are presented with an exhibition of apparently unknown material, whose presentation and catalogue suggest that it equals or even surpasses the quality of objects whose authenticity has been determined beyond a doubt and verified by sustained scholarly revisions of the material.

The recent exhibition "Mit dem Auge des Astheten. Kunst aus Gabun" (With the Eye of an Aesthete: Art from Gabon) at the Volkerkundemuseum der Josefine und Eduard von Portheim-Stiftung in Heidelberg (November 6, 2005-January 22, 2006) constitutes a case study of such issues, exhibiting objects from unidentified private collectors. Museum visitors were presented with seventy-four objects, all but seven of which are illustrated in the accompanying publication--far more comprehensive than the exhibition--Gabon: Tribal Art (Walldorf: Schulte Weiss, 2005), printed with a trilingual text in German, English, and French.

This exhibition, the catalogue, and above all the objects themselves have caused great uneasiness among international experts in the field. Based on fieldwork done by Lorenz Homberger (see Figs. 1-4) and others in Cameroon and Gabon, it appears to us that many of the objects shown in Heidelberg are contemporary reproductions and therefore highly problematic to the trained eye. However, a visitor or reader unencumbered by such prior knowledge cannot recognize this. The many thousands of copies flooding the market are produced in abundance not only in Gabon, but also, and primarily, in workshops in Cameroon, where they are laboriously "aged." Despite the low wages paid to those who produce these objects, quite a bit of time is spent on them. The question arises, what immediate and long-term impact such an exhibition and publication may have for the field of African art.

[FIGURES 1-4 OMITTED]

Our response is that it can only be a negative one. It is not only that the catalogue contains sweeping claims such as: "In view of the impressive number of authentic masks connected with the ngil ritual which are illustrated in this volume it seems sensible to compile a typology" (p. 31)--although the six examples illustrated are anything but representative of a "typology." But, more importantly, the insistence on the authenticity of the masks reinforces one's rising indignation. Did the authors believe that simply saying it would make it so?

We would not have thought it possible that exhibitions of this dubious nature could take place in public museums today. There really have been enough examples in the past, which should have been a warning, calling for the utmost vigilance. The issue of authenticity and African art has frequently been raised in African Arts, from the 1976 special issue on "Fakes, Fakers, and Fakery" in vol. 9, no. 3 through Sidney Kasfir's 1992 article on "African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow" in vol. 25, no. 2 and subsequent discussion in the Dialogue column.

In 1980 an art enthusiast's African art collection was shown at the Kunstmuseum Bern (Switzerland). At the same time, the collector expressed his desire to leave some of his works to this museum as a gift. The director, a Renaissance painting specialist, was responsible for the exhibition. To ensure quality and scholarly credibility, he consulted a renowned ethnologist who had a good reputation as a scholar of comparative theology, but whose knowledge of African art was modest--he was more interested in ritual connections than in style, quality, or even in the distinguishing characteristics of genuineness of the objects. At the time, a catalogue was also published to mark the exhibition, written by an art dealer who, however, had also been the principle seller of many of the objects belonging to the collector. To make a long story short, one of the most distinguished scholars of African art, Professor Roy Sieber, who happened to be staying in Switzerland, viewed the exhibition and came to the conclusion that 70% of the objects on display were fakes. Piet Meyer, the former curator of African Art at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, also expressed devastating criticism, as did Irwin Hersey, who began his article "Scandal in Switzerland" with the following words:

   There is something strange about primitive
   art which tends to make almost anyone
   who gets interested in it an instant
   expert, sometimes with disastrous consequences
   (Primitive Art Newsletter, vol. 3,
   no. 12, December 1980).

 

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