Didier Claes is one of the most important dealers of old African art and is known for his eye-catching stagings. In this interview, the Belgian talks about his wealthy clientele, counterfeits, price developments and how important a gallery owner’s public appearance is.
Monsieur Claes, When did you decide to become an art dealer? Already as a child?
Art dealer is usually a passionate profession that you discover for yourself at a very early age. It’s not something that just happens. In my case, it has a family background. My father worked for the National Museum in Congo. I grew up there and accompanied him on his search for artworks that he sold to the museum.
Is it very difficult to find exceptional pieces?
Finding works of art is the most difficult part of my job, because Africa has been empty for 40 years. With exceptions in the field of archaeology, there are hardly any opportunities left to find art objects, at least none of quality. I am not saying it is impossible, but it is like finding a painting in the attic. The small number is not enough to make a business out of it. So I buy a lot from collections, sometimes from the old stocks of families who have brought objects from Africa themselves as part of their jobs.
How much does one have to spend on the most beautiful works?
It depends. Small everyday objects can be had for a few thousand euros. Top works cost several million euros.
What do customers prefer, sculptures or masks?
Some pieces are naturally more successful than others. For example, anything that is reminiscent of modern art like Picasso is successful today. For a Modigliani exhibition in Lille in 2016, I lent a mask to the museum that belonged to Modigliani. If you know that all these artists of that time were inspired by African art, then as a collector of modern art you naturally add a bit of history when you collect such pieces.
The wealthy clientele of Didier Claes
Who are your clients who are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of euros on African art?
The aesthetics of African art are not accessible to everyone. It’s difficult to assess because the clients often don’t have the references like in painting, where there are all these references by epochs and periods. African art requires more knowledge. Definitely more interest and more time to develop expertise. Most of my new clients already have experience with another collecting field, e.g. contemporary art. In addition, they also take a liking to African art. There used to be collectors who exclusively collected African art, almost like stamp collectors. Completely disappeared since 15 years are the German collectors. Bernd Muhlack, Schmidt-Luprian used to be big names, but now many are dead.
Are your clients as young as you are?
Actually, there are more young collectors now. But you also need the financial means to build up a collection and that needs time. For example, some of my younger customers come from the financial world.
It is mainly men who collect African art. Why is that?
That’s right. And it’s a good question. I can’t explain why either, but I think it’s a pity. However, there are more and more couples where both the man and the woman are interested in it. If both like it, that’s the perfect combination for me as a dealer. Because women and men end up blessing each others purchases. There were pioneering women like Héléna Rubinstein, who were among the biggest collectors of African art in the 1930s to 1950s.
Art buyers are also increasingly coming from Qatar and the Emirates. Do you also have customers from Arab countries?
Muslims are generally not collectors of figurative African art, because their religion forbids any image of God. So it’s already complicated on that level. A counter-example is one of the biggest collectors of African art in the world, Sheikh Saud Al-Thani. Prince Aga Khan is also one of them. These were very strong personalities with high visibility.
The Louvre in Abu Dhabi wants to collect African art like the original Louvre in Paris. Have you also sold to the sheikh?
I personally have not sold anything, but obviously the Emirates have acquired a lot of African art. I want to be frank with you. I’m not very keen on selling to museums. I prefer to sell to collectors, because for me they are like my bank, to whom I sell, and from whom I can also get pieces back, eventually. Because an object that has been sold to a museum is withdrawn from the market forever.
The development of the art market
Prices for masterpieces of African art have risen sharply in the last ten years.
The entire art market has developed strongly. African art is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
But will prices like those of modern art ever be achieved in old African art?
Only masterpieces will be able to. But we are still far from the prices of modern art. To give an example: A Picasso or Gauguin costs 200 to 300 million euros. For an absolute masterpiece of African art, 30 million euros are asked. Only good works cost 20 to 30,000 euros. That’s nothing compared to prices for contemporary art, where even young artists attain incredible prices.
Two years ago, you left your gallery at the Sablon and moved to the gallery district of Ixelles. Why?
I’ve been at the Sablon for 15 years and I’m someone who wants to reinvent himself. I think that in today’s business world we have to reinvent ourselves all the time. If we stagnate, then we miss out on a lot, while the world keeps spinning at breakneck speed. The Sablon started to bore me a bit, although it is still the main place in Brussels for old African art.
Are the Sablon galleries too traditional?
The galleries at Sablon are very traditional, like a kind of old miner, renewal didn’t happen much. And it’s true that by approaching Brussels‘ area for contemporary art, I want to be in the vicinity of the big contemporary art galleries like Reich, Tavi, Weekend. The energy there is different, it’s more dynamic and caters to the contemporary taste.
Modern and contemporary art as a door opener
Your gallery is right next to that of Almine Rech, the wife of one of Picasso’s grandsons.
That was a coincidence. It’s hard to find spaces in that neighbourhood. And at the same time, it wasn’t a coincidence. I saw it and it was a perfect fit.
In your gallery, you combine classical with contemporary African art.
Yes, I often do that. I collaborate with other galleries that present contemporary artists. The combination creates attention. And often people say, „Oh, that goes well together!“ Modern art can also be a door opener to get customers to visit your stand at an art fair or come into your gallery.
Do you manage to raise the prices of old African art and attract new customers through the combination with contemporary art?
The time of dusty galleries and antique dealers is definitely over. My customers are people who work hard and earn a lot of money. They don’t want to search, they want to find. In the past, collectors wanted to discover for themselves, scouring warehouses and galleries. Today we have to make a small exquisite selection, present it in a modern way and show people what is beautiful.
You have also decided to sell contemporary African artworks. Have your interests shifted?
First of all, I entered this field because I am a contemporary art lover. But I don’t want to replace other established dealers.
Is it easier to find high-quality works in contemporary African art?
Yes, but it is not as easy as you might think. Dealers of antiques think that contemporary art is easy to trade. In fact, it’s not that easy. It is difficult to find good artists who can still develop in quality and price.
Why do Africans prefer to buy contemporary rather than old African art?
You need to have an eye for it. But there are almost no galleries in Africa, no exhibitions. There are not many museums for traditional African art like they are here. Collectors also buy a bit of the dealer’s sympathy and personality. We dealers create the collectors, but as long as there are no big African dealers, no collectors can emerge there. I try to attract African collectors, but it is very complicated. It takes time and trust. And there is also a spiritual problem: many African natives still believe that objects have an inherent spirit. That is why they find it difficult to collect them.
One of your best-known clients from Africa was Sindika Dokolo. He and his wife, the ex-president’s daughter Isabel dos Santos, were involved in a corruption scandal. In retrospect, do you regret the business relationship?
Sindika Dokolo, who like me is of Congolese origin, was someone who loved art, contemporary art, African art and who made a lot of difference. But in the business world it is always difficult to look behind people’s wallets. All the signals were green. Sotheby’s, Christie’s – everyone was selling to him and buying from him. He exhibited his works everywhere. He was an honorary citizen of the city of Porto. But if they embezzled money, they have to answer to the justice system of their country. I can’t stand people who pursue policies that plunder their country and the people.
The problem with counterfeits in old African art
Are clients increasingly concerned about fake art? Is that a big problem with tribal art?
Whenever art and money come together, there are problems with forgeries. As far as African art is concerned, many people are a bit naïve. They think they can go to Africa and bring back authentic art from there. And then they come home and find it’s fake.
The expertise is lacking?
I’ve been doing appraisals for auction houses for 20 years. Every time I’ve seen fake objects, they came from people who bought them by themselves in Africa, on the street or in markets. Seriously, if I want to buy a painting or a piece of furniture, I’ll buy it in a reputable gallery. I’m not going to buy a contemporary art painting at a flee market.
In the galleries you will also find fake objects from time to time.
There are obviously less reputable galleries. If you buy from a gallery, be sure to ask for a certificate of authenticity, a certificate of age signed by the gallery and ask for an invoice. That way, if there is a problem, you can take legal action against the gallery.
Have you ever bought a counterfeit item?
I admit that it was very rare, because in the beginning I couldn’t afford to make a mistake. If you can’t afford to make a mistake, you don’t make a mistake. If it does happen, it hurts. The problem of collectors, however, is not so much that they could buy a fake, but that they might pay too much.
How the price of an African work of art is measured
Is the price determined more by aesthetics or origin?
In 1910, there were two books on African art. Today we have thousands and thousands. There is an iconography that allows us to say: „There are 10 known of this type of work. This is the most beautiful, the least beautiful or the most important or the oldest. It has been mentioned, published and proven many times.“ We also have references through public sales. There are references to this and that object at this and that price. Some works of art are sold at auctions at too high prices, and we don’t know why. For me, with masterpieces, the true price is always the one that someone is willing to pay.
Many sales take place via auction houses. Is that increasingly threatening your business?
No, I think we as dealers have our own strengths. We dealers have a connection to the collectors and know where the masterpieces are. But I defend the public sale, unlike many of my colleagues. We need it because it is an important indicator of the mood in the art market.
There are not many people with African roots like you in the gallery scene.
That’s true, it’s quite rare.
Do you still face prejudice? Do you feel like an outsider?
I used to have to fight a lot of resentment. But today it’s different because I’m well-known in the business. My background is also my strength. I am someone who prefers to be envied than to be jealous.
Do you have more enemies or friends?
That’s a good question. In any case, I only have friends, but maybe for others, I am their enemy.
There are also confrontations in the gallery scene in Brussels, as one hears. Do some people envy your position at Brafa or your high prices?
Many blame others. But I am not responsible for the failures of others. I work much harder than the others. But you are absolutely right. It is a money business and there is envy.
The future of the Bruneaf art fair
You became president of Bruneaf, a tribal art fair, ten years ago. However, it is steadily losing exhibitors and visitors.
Brussels is a bit difficult today. I have to admit that it is not easy to continue this art fair and to continue to exist alongside strong cities like Paris. Many are disappointed, but we continue to exist. When some friends who are members of the Brueaf want to exhibit at the Brafa art fair but they are not good dealers, I refuse. And if people ask me who don’t like me but are good dealers, I let them in and only judge the objects, not the people. I never judge people. I judge their work, their objects and the way they work.
Do you want to become president of Brafa?
That’s funny, I’ve already been asked that question. I was thinking more about it this morning. I don’t think so because I guess I’m needed elsewhere. But Brafa has gone from 45,000 to 80,000 visitors in ten years. We have done a really good job. It is important that Africa is represented at the big fairs.
You like to present yourself in elegant suits or flashy clothes, you are always seen in the Brussels pubs with lots of pretty people. You like to go out and party.
That’s right. I like people and I like to be surrounded by them. I am someone who loves all the beautiful things in life. I love all forms of art. Maybe that’s my African side, but I like it.
Social media like Instagram are certainly important for gallery owners like you today?
It’s an incredible communication tool. But I still want people to keep going to the galleries. We will also go back to the basics. And what are the basics? That’s human contact. It can’t get more important than that. That’s for sure. I never trust just photos, but it can help me build a community.
In general, do you think that the old African market is not in decline?
No, I don’t think so. But we really have to be careful. It’s a tense time right now after the restitution debates. Some customers want to buy, but are hesitant because African art has a difficult image right now. Yet it is something beautiful and we should be careful not to stain it. It must not become something that is politically incorrect.
Thank you for the interview.
Who is Didier Claes?
Didier Claes was born in Congo as the son of a Belgian father and a Congolese mother. At that time his father was a scientific advisor and buyer for the National Museum in the Congolese capital Kinshasa. The young Claes accompanied the senior through the villages to find and buy exquisite pieces for the museum collection. Objects that the museum did not want to acquire, the father arranged for other dealers. At the age of 17, Claes left the Congo. After stints in Paris and New York, he opened his own gallery in Brussels‘ Sablon art dealer district in 2002 at the age of only 25.
As a younger dealer in old art, Didier Claes wants people his age to become collectors of tomorrow. The 43-year-old Belgian is present at the big fairs like Tefaf in Maastricht or in New York. Meanwhile, he is not only vice-president of Brafa, but also president of Bruneaf, the traditional fair for non-European art in Brussels, since 2014. Very self-confidently, he sees it as his merit that Brussels has been able to assert itself alongside Paris St. Germain as the magior marketplace for classical African art over the last ten years.
The original interview was conducted in French. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity.