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Paris Native Arts Website Creator: 'Items Have No Power: Just Beautiful Objects'

The 15th International Tribal Art Fair took place in Paris in September, which coinciding with that, Paris-based Native Arts archivist Aurelien Cuenot presented Artkhade, a website dedicated to Indigenous Arts he created in 2012.

Artkhade has a database of auction results and information for tribal art from all over the world. The new website now allows for instant searches by name, geography or culture as well as its sales history.

Aurelien sat down with Indian Country Today to explain how he views his website as a unique tool for professionals, but also anyone concerned with Native traditional arts.

What is the situation of the Indigenous art markets in Europe?

Paris is the center of Indigenous art for most of the collectors and dealers in the world. Historically, the first auctions took place in London, and then the Salle Drouot has been very active since the 50’s. Sotheby’s and Christie’s Indigenous art departments are in Paris; and not by accident, Paris being at the heart of Indigenous arts, and “Parcours des Mondes” the biggest fair for Native traditional arts.

How does your site work?

The site works like a tree with many branches, allowing a precise and extensive research, by continents, areas, villages, rivers…I write the name of the item in its original culture, and add the village it comes from, to be the most specific. Regarding the history of the sales, I follow the catalogues information.

Do the graphics showing the value of the piece over the years allow the collectors to carefully keep track of the financial history of apiece?

Yes; and, private museums. Not in France though, the only country not to sell art items since museums are public; so traditionally, museum pieces are not for sale.

Given the present debates about the sales of Native American sacred pieces and their claims, does this site complicate the work of some auction houses?

No. It facilitates the transparency. The auctions use my site: we have more information now than four years ago, the descriptions are longer, and experts more qualified. But there are less and less items of that kind.

The same goes for pre-Columbian art: the states calling justice have destroyed those markets, so those items are not sold anymore.

But a Tlingit mask starting at $56,000 in 2015, is sold for $378,400 one year later: does it not show the market still active?

Those prices apply for masterpieces in the top ten. It does not represent the average market, where 90% is worth less than $5,600.

Inuit art includes a lot of tools: would they be considered ethnographic, versus their masks, and in which category would a Native American bag or headdress fall?

Masks are more valued than daily tools, which should be more precisely defined, though. But a headdress would not be classified as art, because it corresponds to clothing, as well as Moccasins, bags…All ethnographic. A Katsina would belong to the art category.

Who does that categorization, and how does an item become classified as a masterpiece?

The market establishes the categorization: when a hundred persons agree on the unique beauty of a Tlingit mask, it is defined as a master piece. But such pieces are very rare.

How many Native American items are included in your site?

Six thousand; from Alaska, the Northwest Coast, and the Southwest.

Which criteria identify an item as authentic?

The pre-contact defines the authenticity: it refers to the time before the White’s influence on the culture, when an item loses its purity. A pre-contact item dated before the presence of the Western culture is more valuable.

Does the pre-contact concept apply to all colonized areas, or how is the pre-contact of an object defined?

Yes. But dates vary according to the geographic areas: so, what matters is the concept of pre-contact. It can be defined according to the materials, for example. Very few experts know how to define the pre-contact. But it is a common concept among art dealers, as the piece has lost its original style, and became westernized.

Some of the sacred indigenous items listed in Artkhade, created by Aurelien Cuenot

So, regarding the Native American items sold recently in public auctions, and the claim of Native American peoples who consider those pieces sacred and essential to their traditional rites: is the notion of sacredness, or rite, present among the buyers, together with the pre-contact concept?

No; as when removed from their original places, many of those items lose that dimension.

Moving an item from one place to another takes away its sacred dimension?

Probably…But I am not into that. I just look at the aesthetic of the piece. As for me, an item has no power: it is just a beautiful object.

Artkhade - The auctions database of ancient arts - www.artkhade.com