KevinHolding a Tami Island Neckrest at a Private Viewing of Tribalmania Objects
KevinConru is very well known in the Tribal Art community as aninternationally acclaimed dealer and collector.  His consistently fine qualitytribal material, his life achievements, and extensive knowledge of Tribal andEthnographic Art has earned him recognition from his fellowdealers, trust from institutions, and private collectors.
Irecently met with Kevin at the charming "Water Street Inn" inSanta Fe New Mexico, during the run of the Tribal Art shows.   Wechatted on the outdoor terrace over a cup of morning coffee.  The followingis a transcript of his thoughts on a variety of topics.  
We hopeyou find this an interesting and valuable new feature to the website.  Weare honored to present views on Tribal Art from "KEVINCONRU"...

I studied classical music at the university, in particular double bass.  Performance is what I did for a number of years and played professionallyin symphony orchestras in Chicago.  I moved to South Africa when the Orchestra started in Durban, then off to Hong Kong when I met my first wife who was S. African. We had the choice of going to Memphis or staying in Hong Kong, we thought Hong Kong was more interesting. 
    Because of the claustrophobicnature of Hong Kong and my small salary and small apartment, I had a longing forAfrican (South Africa) in a sense, the space, the sunset, the romance… and youknow having lived year round we had a few African things, you know gourds; stuffyou would buy at curio shops in Durban.  Iremember I had a pair of modern Ci WarasI bought at “Ivys” in Johannesburg.  This was about 20 years ago in1985.  So that was just my interestin the culture.
    I left Hong Kong and the Orchestra in the end and went to London.  I wanted to change careersbecause I got a little bit tired of the symphony life although I loved themusic.  I did my masters degree in London.  It was an MBA on Arts PolicyAdministration for museums.  I usedfor some of my research the ethnographic museums because I sort of carried alittle bit of the African thing through, not really knowing about the art perse; but just buying books and looking at pictures, going to the British Museum(Pitt Rivers Museum) and attending a few auctions.  I sort of became interested in African Art. After a year of study I got my degree…be that as such, I wanted to stayin London.  In 1987 I convincedBonham’s which was a small auction house then, now of course they areenormously big, to start a department of African Art, Tribal Art andAntiquities.
    I don’t’ know if that was agood thing or bad thing, but we started it in London.  My African Art experienceinitially was a disaster.  The firstsale was terrible, a “crime against humanity” auction. Fortunately, they had the courage to back me for another auction. I learned very quickly.  Ihad five people in the audience the first auction. One of them was Pierre Loos who took me aside afterwards and said, “youhad some nice things (which was of course he bought for no money) and therest was crap".  Come to Brussels for you next auction and I’ll give you stuff that will at least be real”. 
    Auctions in London were tapering down at this time in the late 1980s.  Sotheby’s had just hired Jean-Baptiste Bacquart to run the few smallsales. Then in the early 90’s both Sotheby’s and Christie’s basicallypacked up and went to New York and Amsterdam because the market was just dryingup;  at that stage I went privatelyas a dealer in 1992.  I was leavingthe auction house behind (Bonham’s) after 5 years there. The antiquities, the Asian art and the other departments remained strong. Their Antiquities department had a sale about a month ago where they made11 million dollars in 25 lots from a very important collection, so there isstill great strength.   I’mvery pleased to see from the small beginnings how these things went.   Tribal Art in London has stayed on a very small level, and that’s why I left London altogether.
    I did my first black and whitecatalog in 1995 in London and also exhibited at the Royal Academy show of thecontinent.  This wasI thinkprobably the last year Christies was there, maybe 1996, Sotheby’s was gone bythen.  I did consulting for a fewyears.  There was always a bit of“pull”. In June the international tribal art community would come to Christiesand because London was always a magical place to find things.  This wastrue whether it was Polynesian treasures, or American Indian or African, mainlyethnography of course but odd sculpture would turn up, because the Englishcollected a lot of things. 
    England and the UK, even with thechannel is still an Island cut off from the continent; you just can’t get inyour car and “willy-nilly” drive to Paris, Holland, or Germany. It is a little bit of an extra effort to get there. So people didn’t just think of popping over and if they did, they werethe French and Belgian’s who were all of course looking for real bargains.  Theyounger dealers arriving would find simple ethnography which is all that wasleft.  There was not really anymoney or professional standing left in it anymore. 
    The cost of doing business in London was just too expensive.  It’soutrageous, property; everything in London makes it an expensive city.  Thatis why over time I decided to move a part of my operations to Brussels.   I’m an English residentand keep my residency there.  So Ikeep my main operations in London and I go back often because we have a house there.  I’m in London once very couple weeks, and I still do find things there. 
    But for selling, it is aninternational world as we know.  That’swhy you see me everywhere doing all sorts of things; because the market placefor good pieces is global.  You knowthat as well Mike from your work on your website, which is very clever the wayyou market your material.  It'sfabulous, it’s like your gallery is all over the world. I don’t do that.  Iprobably don’t know how to do that, but I seem to get by with what I do. There are many people in their 50’s and 60’s who are the major buyersbut don’t use the internet to buy.
    I think I have an affinity foranything very very good!  The realcrux of the biscuit, when I think about what I really like, isvery beautiful objects.  Now, Istarted my South African collection ten or twelve years ago when I was still in London, when I didn’t have a lot of money and the things were beautiful and a littlebit affordable and available.  Allthose ingredients conspired to create an interest; if you can find nice thingson a pretty regular basis through sources. That’s how my collection gotstarted.  I’ve always liked SouthPacific material, coming from my surrealist sculptural interest. Also in England you tend to find more South Pacific items. For every quality African thing that came in, I had five South Pacificthings….now that maybe ethnography again, but there was an interest there.  Great African sculpture is also wonderful… hard to find, welleverything is hard to find obviously.  SeventyFive percent of my business is African Art, Pacific is less. In one sense at home I have a few things that are Pacific, but quitehonestly it is only because the African Art comes and goes much more quickly. So I have Pacific things I get noticed for.  I think I see people branching out as well.  There use to be a time when African Art Dealers were just “AfricanArt Dealers”.  Those days arechanging, now one has to perhaps have a bit of American Indian occasionally…something a bit interesting.  Iwould like to have more American Indian material, but I don’t really have theclients for it and it is quite expensive.  Ithink the middle quality for American Indian is expensive. An Eskimo mask for $35,000 is not always that wonderful to look at andyou can’t get it for much less than $32,500 so the margins are small too.
    I don’t have any philosophy on buying whatsoever, other than I look at a pieceand evaluate its aesthetics, figure out if there is money it, quite honestly,and perhaps what I think I can achieve.  I just tend to get the best piece I can buy. I love buying pieces.  If itis a great piece I’ll try to buy it.  Itend not to buy medium quality pieces.  Inoticed at Bruneaf (Tribal Show Brussels) this year there was more interest inmedium pieces and I didn’t have that many medium priced African Sculptures. A friend of mine is Steve Alpert, who I admire very much as a dealer,because he has a much focused eye.  Perhapsit is just the way he arranges things that makes it exciting, when in fact he isjust doing what we all do and buying beautiful things at the right price. But coming from an auction background if I see something inexpensivelaying on the ground and there is money in it I’ll buy that and move it alongor give it to somebody else to sell.
    Here in Santa Fe I meet a lot of people, astute collectors, new collectors who ask what I thinkthey should be doing.  Some peopleare at the end of their collecting, some people are at their beginning. I’ve often thought that the best thing any collector could do is to buythe best that their budget can allow.  Itis very simple.  It is not oftenfollowed because many collectors like to buy three things instead of one. Even people with all the money like to buy smaller objects and may not becomfortable with this idea.  A lotof it is subjective because what is a “masterpiece”? Why is one thing worth more than others? For instance, I have recently acquired an Arawe Shield from New Britain with the three bands and the circles.  I’vehad many and there are many around of all ages. As an object type it is quite interesting.  From the 19th century when the first ones werecollected, up until fairly recently in the 80’s and 90’s when the last oneswere collected.  I’ve sold about15, generally good ones.  I try tokeep the level high where the pigments are all natural. This one I just got, I’ve only had one other as nice. It is an old 19th century one but it has a "price".  Some people may find it hard to see the difference in this and one thatwas made in the 1960s.  Yes, theyall have the circles and all have the binding and painting on the back; sowhat’s the difference?   Wellthere is a difference, subtle differences, that’s what I’m talking aboutwhen I say:  doessomeone buy the best, or something which makes them feel comfortable on abudget, where you get just as much bang for the buck.
    I always say, try to buy thevery best, but I also recognize that very few collectors follow that rulebecause they all have different modusoperandi for buying.  In the end the collector is the winner, right?! I find my philosophy is much better to be supportive of the collector,and their ideas of what they are trying to do; rather than strictly impose myown perspective.  If I did this Iwould very quickly be out of business.
    To sit here and look at Santa Fe, with all of the shows, events, and galleries, I would say the market fortribal art is “exploding”.  Thereis an explosion not necessarily at the high end but for stuffand interesting things—a lot more interest. I see that also in Europe (Paris and Brussels); the marketplace has truly expanded in the last ten years. I’ve watched it across the board. There are more collectors and much more interest. Between Paris and Brussels there is a lot more going on exponentially than there was ten years ago. Quality wise of course is another thing. Masterpieces are harder to find, but they are out there. With a reasonable amonut of money, one can still built a great collectiontoday.  There are still in privatehands most of the great treasures, so there are many opportunities still there. People say it is not like the old days. Yes, I know the old days there was Webster, you could go there and he wastripping over stuff.  Now you haveto look a little bit harder… but it ispossible. 
   It is one thing to have Tribal Artkept for the connoisseurs and esoterica.  Exposure--I’ve seen this in exhibiting fairs.  Theyare a fairly recently phenomenon.  Fairsare quite good for this field because the public can go and see a lot ofmaterial under one roof in a fairly short amount of time. What it comes down to is how the material is presented. Thinking about how the material is displayed can quite honestly attractnew people.  Is it pleasing to lookat?  I find a lot of displays veryethnographic and old.  I’m notsaying it is bad, it is interesting, but a new person can be a bit more stymied by seeing thousands and thousands of things all looking similar, stackedup in groups.  You tend to find thatin American Indian events, that sort of material does tend to run into eachother (baskets, blankets, etc.).   It’sdifficult to give enough space to each object, so there is little chance forsomeone possibly new to focus on them.  Itis always ok for the connoisseurs; of course most of what we do is preach to theconverted.  If there is a way tofind new people it is “presentation”no matter whether you’re in a booth, a crowded fair, a hotel room, it alwayscomes down to presentation.
    I’ve just finished the secondweek of an exhibition of African Art with my friend Billy Siegal at his galleryin Santa Fe (135 Palace Ave. #101).  Hecame to me in Brussels and said “would you like to do something”. I had been coming to Santa Fe every year, but not really doing anything with my material. So I said, “okay this is great.” Normally my material is in storage in Europe.  He and I did some business, metnew clients and it was fun.  Then, I’m back to Europe.  I’ve worked on my Bernatzikphotographs, setting up an exhibition at the Linden Museum Stuttgart of South Pacific photographs. I acquired the archive of the photos from the heirs through a connectionin Austria.  It is a significant archive, theonly one left in the world in private hands, it is incredibly important. The books we’ve published have had a lot of interest. There is also the Paris “parcours des mondes” fair (starting on September 16th).  And then of course gosh knows what we’ll be doing… we’re doingsomething!    
    The most exciting thing I found wasthe thing I bought yesterday, this is always the case isn’t it. Quite honestly that’s the excitement. I’m not saying this was my most important purchase. As a dealer, to stay fresh the most exciting thing I bought was what Ibought last.   That’s how Ithink about it.  I have in my owncollection a Solomon Island inlaid shield, Mundugamors (Sacred New Guinea Flute Stoppers from the Biwatpeople, Yuat River); quite important material that was very exciting at the time they were bought. The latest things I’ve boughtare the most exciting things. When that stops, I will stop.