In a ‘Surrealist Map of the World’, published in 1929 in the French magazine, Variétés, the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic occupies the centre of the map. Easter Island is drawn larger than Europe, and Papua New Guinea larger than Africa. Where the early modernists – Picasso, Braque, Matisse – had turned to Africa for inspiration, the Surrealists – André Breton, Paul Éluard, and Roland Tual – turned to the art of the Pacific. For Breton, Oceanic art represented ‘the greatest effort of all time to expose the interpenetration of the physical and the mental, to triumph over the dualism of perception and representation’. He particularly valued Uli ancestor figures from New Ireland in the Bismarck Archipelago for being not merely depictions, but powerfully expressive, physical manifestations of the ancestral clan leaders. As Breton wrote, addressing his own imposing Uli figure: ‘You frighten, you astonish.’
Today, these ancestor statues are still highly valued. At the landmark sale of Oceanic works from the Frum collection at Sotheby’s Paris in 2014, a Uli figure sold for €1.6m. More recently New York has started to compete with Paris, the market’s traditional heartland. In May last year an impressive Uli ancestor statue dated to before 1800 (and so before Western contact), sold for $4.7m at Sotheby’s New York. In Paris, meanwhile, Christie’s held its first dedicated Oceanic sale in 2013, where an equally fierce wooden ceremonial roof figure from Papua New Guinea, dated before 1890, achieved €2.5m, more than twice the top estimate. ‘This top lot had five bidders most of whom were crossover collectors,’ says Susan Kloman, international head of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s. These prices may lag behind the $12m record for African tribal art, but they indicate, as Kloman suggests, that the market has broadened out from specialist connoisseurs. ‘Oceanic art is hard on the collector,’ she says. ‘It is an intellectual market. To make comparisons requires a lot of study, but at the top it is a formalist market. You can dive into the aesthetics of the objects.’ As well as these new masterpiece collectors, there are, Kloman tells me, younger people coming into the market ‘who do like to get their teeth into all the different kinds of club. There is a lot of range.’
It was 40 years ago that the market saw its first escalation, with sales of works from the renowned collections of James Hooper and George Ortiz. Hooper’s pieces reflected a more scholarly, ethnographic perspective while Ortiz’s holdings were more aesthetic. Where the Surrealists had favoured pieces from Melanesia (including the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea), Ortiz sought the rarer, more refined works originating in Polynesia (a triangle of small islands thousands of miles apart set by New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island). In a 1978 essay, Ortiz wrote: ‘Polynesian art is for the Westerner like an escape, a quest for beauty and truth.’ A wooden stool once in his collection, made for a Rurutu chief in the Austral Islands, French Polynesia, sold for $386,500 at Sotheby’s New York in 2008. Last summer, a similar one, originally acquired by the English missionary George Bennet in 1822 as proof of the Polynesians’ earnest conversion, sold at Sotheby’s Paris for €1.08m. In 2014, also at Sotheby’s Paris, a small rapa or ritual paddle from Easter Island, fetched a surprising €1.9m. ‘Sometimes it is just the quality of the piece that people are looking for,’ says Sotheby’s specialist Alexis Maggiar of this particular lot. ‘The aesthetic of this piece could talk to all humanity.’
It was this universal quality that drew Paris-based dealer Anthony Meyer into the field more than 30 years ago. ‘[Oceanic art] spoke to me in an instinctive and emotional way,’ he says. Having presided over a steady increase in collector interest over three decades, he now sees evidence of a slight falling away. This May in New York he exhibited at both TEFAF and Frieze in pursuit of new collectors. ‘Some people are interested in big showy masks,’ he says, ‘others in pure form.’ There are collectors of fish hooks (as memorably displayed at Frieze Masters in 2015), of clubs or shields, of only Polynesian or the extremely rare Micronesian artefacts, or the art just from one or two islands. One collector, Antoine de Galbert, has a passion for headdresses.
Brussels-based Lin Deletaille says that since the 1980s, Oceanic art ‘has been redefined as an auxiliary of modern art, so collectors are trying to find form, texture, colour’. She mixes these pieces with contemporary art, consciously appealing as much to decorators and architects as collectors. ‘We have to be very creative in our approach to the market,’ she says. ‘It is getting smaller.’ Meanwhile, Bernard de Grunne, one of Brussels’ leading tribal art dealers, made a splash at this year’s TEFAF Maastricht with a display of 17 carved ancestral figures from the Sepik River regions of Papua New Guinea. Eleven were bought, he tells me, by one new collector. A further spectacular example, once in the celebrated collection of John Friede, is available for around €1m.
UK dealer Adam Prout says that while most collectors are based in Europe – especially France – and America, much good material still lurks in England, brought back from colonial adventures. The English, in particular, had a fetish for weapons. So, for instance, he will bring to Tribal Art London (5–9 September) a Fijian bow as well as two Buka paddles from the Solomon Islands. ‘There is more interest in Oceanic art today,’ he says. ‘There are fewer fakes than in African tribal art.’ Paris-based specialist Jean-Edouard Carlier of Galerie Voyageurs & Curieux notes that he has collectors from New Zealand to Brazil. ‘There are even the beginnings of interest in Japan,’ he says. Among other works, he will bring to Parcours des Mondes (12–17 September) a painted balsa wood dog head (ganabi) from the Gogodala people of Papua New Guinea (price on request). ‘Some people are interested in ethnography, others are drawn to the aesthetics,’ he says of the field. ‘The wonderful shapes and soft patina seduce.’
From the July/August issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.