The Arts of Gabon, a market of its own

Gabon occupies a special place in the history of tribal art. These works, created by men living in the heart of a wild territory, populated by dense and deep forests, played a primordial role in the recognition of African arts. Considered very early on as its most accomplished creations, the embodiment of an ancient aesthetic ideal, they were fiercely sought after.

From the beginning of the 20th century, merchants and collectors became interested in its work, such as Paul Guillaume, whose collection “included about fifteen statues of Fang ancestors and almost as many Kota reliquaries, as well as a few ‘mpongwe’ masks,” notes Louis Perrois in his volume devoted to traditional Gabonese sculpture.

“Vlaminck's famous Fang mask, which his friend the painter Derain bought back in 1905, now in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, marks the beginning of its recognition and of the dialogue that was then taking place between African and modern art,” recalls Alexis Maggiar, who is now head of the primitive arts department at Christie's since last year. The expressiveness and humanity of his works, marked by the power of the sacred, fascinated Westerners. “These objects were brought back to Europe very early on, as early as the middle of the 19th century, before colonisation. They are all ancient and of exceptional quality, which explains the fascination of the art world,” says Bernard Dulon. Gabon, which became part of the French colonial empire in 1866, was one of the first regions explored by French missions in the second half of the 19th century. Let us remember the 1851 expeditions of Paul Belloni du Chaillu, the one of Victor de Compiègne and Alfred Marche in 1874, followed four years later by the voyage of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who discovered the source of the Ogooué. “The first amateurs detected very early on what was the best of this production: the Fang and the Bakota”, explains Alain Lecomte. “They are representative pieces of African art, which have become great classics and therefore among the most sought-after”, analyses Charles-Wesley Hourdé.

Evolution of the number of lots offered for sale

Evolution of the turnover

Hence a sustained market whose total turnover today represents €110 million, while that of the Ivory Coast, another classic of tribal art, is €90 million. A stable market which has seen a positive price evolution over time, from €25,000 in the early 1990s up to €100,000 today. Annual turnover has been growing steadily – punctuated by significant pics in some years, as in 2006 with a result of €15.5 million, which is explained by the high number of lots sold above €100,000 (26) and the record sales of the Vérité collection – until 2018. The following year marked a slowdown with a fall in sales to €2.7 million. In 2020, a year marked by the Covid crisis, it reached €2.5m but with half as many lots: 120 against 289.

Evolution of average and median prices

Average and median prices thus rose sharply between 2019 and 2020 (+113% and +90.6%). “This phenomenon is the result of the strategy of the major auction houses, which are positioning themselves on top-of-the-range properties,” notes Charles-Wesley Hourdé. “The market has become very selective with fewer but higher quality works,” confirms Alexis Maggiar. “Prices of works from Gabon remain relatively high compared to the overall market,” observes Bernard Dulon, for the reasons mentioned above: the age and extreme quality of the works. Thus, the average price is €95,000, while the median price remains at €7,500, this value taking into account the volume of lots (3,870 objects). This disparity, which is quite high, is explained by the rate of bought-in items and some extremely high prices.

Evolution of the number of lots sold above €100,000

any of the latter are in the top ten of tribal art results, such as the €5.75 million obtained by the Fang Ngil type mask from the Vérité collection in June 2006 (Enchères Rive gauche) or the €5.46 million of a Kota reliquary figure sold in June 2015 by Christie’s in Paris.

Fang Ngil Mask sold € 5,750,000 through Enchère Rive Gauche June 17 2006

any of the latter are in the top ten of tribal art results, such as the €5.75 million obtained by the Fang Ngil type mask from the Vérité collection in June 2006 (Enchères Rive gauche) or the €5.46 million of a Kota reliquary figure sold in June 2015 by Christie’s in Paris.

Following the tribal art market as a whole, France remains the stronghold of works from Gabon, with 55.9% of lots, 71.6% of sales (€98.5m) and an average price of €93,625. It is followed by the United States with 26.7% of sales (€36.7m) for 840 lots (21.6%); other countries not being significant in this sector. Although the market remains French, the collections are European: France, England, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium. “The market is less active in the United States, but the collections are also quite significant there,” observes Charles-Wesley Hourdé. For some time now, Asians have been interested in pieces from Gabon because they see in these works reminiscences of their own creation, particularly the white Punu masks with their very singular eyes,” notes Alain Lecomte.

Distribution of lots and turnover by tribe

Within the arts of Gabon, Fang works are by far the one interesting collectors most. They thus represent more than half of the turnover (54.6%) for only 28.5% of the lots and an average price of €168,225. Some of the lots have crossed the €3 million threshold, such as the one auctioned by Christie’s in Paris on 3 December 2015 for nearly €3.8 million. This Fang sculpture had belonged to Paul Guillaume, who bought it “from brokers of colonial products, sometimes even directly from ships coming from Africa,” relates Louis Perrois. When the dealer’s collection was sold in 1965, it was acquired by André Fourquet, another great collector. The piece embodies everything that fascinated artists and intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century, the votive image of an ancestor watching over the bones of the deceased for all eternity. It possesses the magic of great works. Its oozing lacquered patina is a quality particularly sought after by collectors.

Evolution of the bought-in ratio

The question of provenance, which is excellent in this case, is not an absolute, however. “It cannot solely give quality to an object, just a period,” says Alain Lecomte. “Provenance tells a story, offers better traceability, but it is not the first thing to be taken into account,” confirms Alexis Maggiar. And the figures bear this out, the average price of a work with or without provenance being more or less the same (€81,425 against €80,275).

After the Fang, Kota pieces are the most sought-after. They account for a third of the turnover for 21.4% of the lots with an average price of €70,225. “Their production was abundant, several thousand,” explains Bernard Dulon. “There are significant differences in quality between the works.” “Figurines dressed with cut-out lamellas – instead of copper plates – are more looked for, just like those with curved fronts,” observes Alain Lecomte. “Nowhere else than in Gabon can be found so identical and precise typologies.” The Punu pieces have a turnover of €12.8 million for 830 lots, while the Kwele have a turnover of €3.7 million for only 80 objects. These masks with their extremely simplistic shapes are very popular, like the beautiful example from the Viviane Jutheau collection, which sold for €391,000 in Paris in December 2016 (Sotheby’s).

Kwele Mask sold € 391,500 through Sotheby's Paris December 14 2016

Charles-Wesley Hourdé “even utilitarian objects such as spoons and stools are quite expensive compared to other regions. This is the magic of the arts of Gabon,” confides the merchant. This market is also characterised by a rather slow resale of works. Of the 3,303 objects sold, 444 were presented more than once. “You have to wait a long time to see some pieces again. Masterpieces enter the collections for several years,” confides Bernard Dulon. “Investment is not what drives these collectors. It is a group of true enthusiasts.”

And to conclude, “Before the 20th century, artists from Gabon invented an absolutely magical art, they created some of the most beautiful objects of humanity.” Today, those are collected by true art lovers in the same way as the works of the greatest artists. Classics among classics.