A Q&A With Patric Didier Claes, Europe’s Hottest African Art Dealer
In 2011, Patric Didier Claes caused a sensation at the Brussels Antiques and Fine Art Fair (BRAFA). In the center of his 1,000-square-foot booth, the young dealer in African tribal art unveiled “Ngwadi,” a magnificent Nkonde nail fetish from the Lower Congo region. Discovering this unique and extremely rare piece was a revelation for the 38-year-old African art expert, who was born in Kinshasa to a Belgian father and a Congolese mother.
During this year’s BRAFA fair (which runs through Sunday), he is presenting a monolithic Nigerian Ekoi statue that measures 6’6.” The sculpture is the personification of an ancestor and was once kept in a sacred sanctuary. Like last year’s Congo piece, it is sure to turn heads.
Ever since his first exhibition of a hundred ethnographic African objects in 1998, Didier Claes has brought new energy to the Belgian art world. Presentation is paramount in his chic gallery in Brussels’s Sablon neighborhood, where the objects are shown in a museum-like installation, alongside Scandinavian furniture and black-and-white prints by Malian photographer Malike Sidibé. Claes sat down with BLOUIN ARTINFO France to talk about his youthful beginnings as an art dealer, discovering rare tribal pieces in European colonial families, and what the Chinese art market can tell us about Africa.
When did you open your gallery and what did you know at the time about becoming a gallerist?
I’ve been an art dealer for almost 20 years. I came to Europe as a teenager and I quickly started working with objects. When I was 19, I went back to Africa alone for the first time, to try to find pieces. For eight years, I sold to dealers and gallerists here, before striking out on my own and selling to individuals, to collectors. Now I’ve had this gallery for two years, but, before, I had another space near the Place du Grand Sablon. I went from 400 square feet to almost 4,000; today, I have the entire building.
Was art part of your childhood? What drew you to the world of collecting and selling?
I was kind of born into it. My father collected objects for the Institute of National Museums of Zaire [today the National Museum of Kinshasa]. I saw objects around me all the time, but I was surrounded by them without being aware — I only realized it later. To be totally honest, I started out just to get by financially, but my passion developed from my profession, unlike those whose passion leads them to the profession.
Did anyone advise you in your early years?
I learned on my own and I had the terrific luck to have a great education. I’m one of the younger dealers, but I had the same education as the old ones. I started at the beginning, by going to Africa, and I was lucky enough to find some objects that were still there. I learned by seeing forgeries, by seeing the forgers at work, and by seeing the last real pieces as they were created. The generation that is now 60 or 70 years old went to Africa, but most of the dealers that I know, the important French and American dealers, have never set foot there. Some of them know their profession really well, but others have big gaps.
Having sold art to dealers also taught me a lot about people’s personalities. I sold to Marc Félix and Pierre Dartevelle, who had already been in the business for 50 years, and I saw their choices. Marc Félix was a bit skeptical in the beginning and then started meeting with me. My relationship with older dealers allowed me to study the market and to understand what they were looking for, and what their clients were looking for — each personality and each taste. And books taught me a lot also. Now I have a huge library.
How did you choose your specialty?
I specialize in objects from Zaire, from Congo, because that’s where I’m from. Then, 12 years ago, I also started looking at West Africa, at other regions, such as Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon. But I have to admit it, Congo is the region that I know the best and it would be hard for someone to trip me up; it’s almost enough for me to see an object from 150 feet. I’ve even found I can recognize a piece that’s wrapped up by touching it. I’m so used to it. But for the rest, I do have some gaps.
What is your personal taste in African art?
Objects from Congo. In African art, it’s the most advanced field and the highest form of sculpture. In Africa you have court art, very noble statues representing kings and notables, like 18th- and 19th-century paintings in Europe. But Congo is 400 different ethnic groups, with 350 sub-groups and incredible diversity. That art, that inspired the great modernists of the past century, I call “the art of the forest,” because it came from very distant tribes without any social status.
Today I’m drawn to objects that remind me of Surrealism. African art is very well known for its masks and statues, but there are also all kinds of cultic objects. At its roots, African art wasn’t art, except at the court, where royal statues had to be made. In the art of the forest, common objects were turned into extraordinary pieces.
So art came from the local culture and the needs of the people.
There is an incredible artistic creativity — in a world where art didn’t exist. It’s fabulous to find such artistic skill in the absence of an artistic movement.
What is your biggest challenge as a gallerist?
Finding pieces and treasures, most definitely. These objects are incredibly rare. I do four fairs per year over a ten-month period and it’s always hard to bring out quality pieces and surprise the public. It’s a constant challenge.
Especially since today Africa seems to have been emptied of all its rare art.
That’s part of history, and we can’t make the world over again. The subject of objects taken out of Africa is very important and it affects me, too. To be very frank, I think that if most of these objects hadn’t been collected by Europeans, by researchers, then they wouldn’t exist any more. Unfortunately, in the history of Africa, there are wars. Plus, many of these objects are made of wood, and they wouldn’t have lasted through the years. African beliefs aren’t around any more — and why protect objects that have no belief? Today, African art was saved because it was worth something. That’s something that’s hard to accept, but that’s the reality: there certainly was pillaging of African heritage, but above all it was saved.
Where do you find your pieces?
For 12 or 13 years I haven’t taken any objects out of Africa. I try to work with old collectors, people who bought pieces in the 1970s and 80s. Today the market moves fast, and people who bought pieces ten years ago can see that they have already changed. I’ve been able to buy from people who kept the pieces brought back by their grandfathers in the 20s, 30s, or 40s.
Like that famous Nkonde nail fetish that you showed at BRAFA last year?
That’s a piece that I never would have imagined finding in my life as a dealer: an unknown masterpiece that came from an old colonial family, which had never been seen and was really considered an icon of African art. The year before, my brother asked me if it would still be possible to find a nail fetish in an old colonial family, and I replied, “Never!”
The fetish belonged to the family of a doctor. His great-uncle had collected it in 1914, before giving it to his nephew, who kept it until his death. That’s when his wife and family sold it to me and I negotiated for over eight months to get it, even competing with Christie’s, though generally, in these cases, the auction house will prevail.
I had always fantasized about presenting a booth with only one piece. It’s as if a modern art dealer brought out, from an unknown cellar, a preparatory drawing for “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” I sold the work to a Belgian collector, one of my best clients, who kept it in Belgium. The price was significantly higher than one million euros ($1.3 million).
What is your favorite fair?
I’ve been participating in BRAFA for eight years — a fair that I love, and the nicest fair in Belgium. I’ve also done TEFAF, in the young gallery category. It’s an exceptional fair for Old Masters and modern paintings, much more business-oriented, and the myth is real that it’s the fair for all the American jet set. But for me, it’s really the Biennale des Antiquaires, in Paris. You’re at the Grand Palais with the biggest dealers, and, in my field, the Biennale brings together three of the best dealers in the world. They make an incredible effort and you find absolute masterpieces. Unfortunately there is no single African art fair at the top, like Art Basel; there just aren’t enough good dealers.
In China, the art market is experiencing rapid growth, and the Chinese are especially determined to buy back their heritage. Do you think that a similar development could happen in Africa?
The people of Africa are not yet ready for African art — but they will be one day. I really think that the future of the world, outside of Asia, is in Africa, which is finally coming out of its dictatorships. Today, the African collector has a different mentality than that of his Chinese colleagues; he says, “Our grandparents gave it away, and we won’t buy back their mistakes.” But some will do so, and I think that then there will be a turning point in African art, helped by education. Some already have the means. But when the people have enough to eat, it’s going to explode.
More info and some images :
Founded : 2001
Member : C.B.E.O.A(Chambre Belge des Experts en Oeuvres d´Art ), C.R.A.B./K.K.A.B.(Chambre Royale des Antiquaires de Belgique/Koninklijke Kamer van de Antiquairs van België)
Exhibitor : BRAFA, BRUNEAF, Grands Antiquaires de Bruxelles
Patric Didier Claes specialises in Central African art. Before opening his gallery in the Sablon area of Brussels in 2001, he travelled frequently to the Congo, then extending his interest throughout Africa before concentrating on the search for top quality works held in major collections. He is a member of the Belgian Chamber of Experts in Works of Art and participates in fairs such as the Brussels Antiques & Fine Arts Fair (BRAFA) and the BRUNEAF.