Money: Potted history up for sale

Collect to invest: John Windsor goes tribal
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The Independent Online
These five terracotta loop-handled vessels were modelled by the Vicus people of North Peru between the second and seventh centuries AD. How much are they worth? pounds 50,000? pounds 5,000? pounds 500?

I fell in love with them at Bonhams' auction of tribal art a year ago and bid for them against two British collectors of pre-Columbian art. My winning bid was pounds 300 (pounds 352.88 including buyer's premium and VAT).

Sure, one of them, the pop-eyed monster, had been restored. One of the collectors had accidentally toppled it from a shelf before the sale, knocking its head off, and I had not spotted Bonhams' warning - "one vessel damaged on view".

But it was not just the damage that lowered the price. There are very few British collectors of pre-Columbian art. So, despite its age, it is cheap. The pre-sale estimate was only pounds 300-pounds 500.

When I show the five eight-inch-high vessels to my friends, they look puzzled when I say they are not a good investment. To me, they are no more than friendly, humorous little characters. I kid my friends the simian figure and the duck are America's first Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Mickey Mouse is not only a pot but a whistle. You blow across the spout and get the sort of note you get from blowing across the lip of a bottle. If you inhale too close to it, you also get a mouthful of centuries-old gritty dust. When I explain that they were dug up from graves, my friends stop blowing.

Prices for pre-Columbian art dipped even lower in April when a collection of 145 equally delightful pots, spanning 2,650 years, came up at Bonhams. A loop-handled Vicus vessel, in the form of a feline bearing its teeth, was estimated at pounds 150-pounds 250. A bid of pounds 35 secured it.

The collection, representing all the main pre-Columbian cultures - from Peru, Ecuador and Columbia, through Panama and Costa Rica, to Mexico and Puerto Rico - had been assembled by the late Alan Kalenberg, an American who bought them at auction in New York between 1979 and 1987 and thought the world of them - as I do mine.

Sotheby's New York had proposed creaming off for sale only the best 20 lots in the collection, worth $1,000 each or more. And Christie's New York does not sell pre-Columbian pottery. So the entire collection ended up at Bonhams, which, apart from Phillips, is the only big London auction house still selling tribal art.

Americans provide 60 per cent of London auctioneers' income from tribal art - and Germans, Belgians and French regularly outbid Brits.

But London, the leader in tribal art sales in Edwardian times, is now a backwater. Sotheby's and Christie's have transferred their tribal sales to New York, which now leads, with Paris close on its tail.

What this boils down to is that although there is big money competing for connoisseur-quality tribal art at the top of the international market - whether in New York, Paris or London - London is the place to snap up, cheaply, charming but run-of-the-mill pieces.

A connoisseur's collection of pre-Columbian art could be expected to have no more than a representative half-dozen of this particular type of homely, unsophisticated pots.

But thousands are still being dug up and smuggled abroad, glutting the market. A third of the Kalenberg collection failed to sell. But Bonhams was satisfied. Usually only half the pre-Columbian lots sell.

There are half a dozen pre-Columbian lots in Phillips' tribal art sale on Monday 9 June (2pm), most estimated under pounds 200.

If you wish to invest, go for Australian aboriginal art. Prices have quadrupled in the past five years and are still rising, inspired by the discovery of aboriginal culture by guilt-ridden Australians.

Wooden shields 2-3ft high, boomerangs, woomeras (spear throwers) and bark paintings are selling near top estimate, or above, at sale after sale in London.

At Bonhams in April, two shields from the Western Desert incised with zig-zag grooves went for pounds 2,400, double top estimate. But the less discriminating collector might still have picked up a group of 11 aboriginal killing sticks, barbed spears, woomeras and a boomerang for not much more than the hammer price of pounds 130 (estimate: pounds 200-pounds 300).

The 9 June Phillips sale has a boomerang (estimated pounds 100-pounds 150), a shield (pounds 400-pounds 600), a spear and clubs.

London tribal art dealer Peter Adler (son of the harmonica player) offers shields from pounds 400 to pounds 1,200. He reports that bark paintings, of kangaroos and birds, are fetching up to pounds 30,000 in Australia now scholars are identifying the artists.

He expects the bark painting he bought for pounds 200 at a London auction five years ago, and sold recently, in a moment of weakness, for pounds 2,800, will turn up at an Australian auction estimated around pounds 10,000.

For a first look at tribal art, visit the annual Tribal Art Fair at Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, Flitcroft Street, Soho, London WC2, Sunday- Monday 8-9 June (11am-6pm): 0171-836 6747. Peter Adler: 0171-262 1775. Bonhams' next sale: 4 December, 0171-393 3946. Phillips: 0171-629 6602.

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