Phillip Keith, Bonhams senior valuer, talks Tribal Art and the collecting year ahead

Phillip Keith is a senior valuer at Bonhams, and a specialist in Tribal Art and Antiquities. We caught up with him recently to find out a little more about his work, and his views on the current collectibles market. 

How did your background lead you to this field?

Having lived in Southeast Asia as a child, it seemed natural to study Anthropology at university and it was here that I fell in love with the art of indigenous cultures.

I started as a general porter at Bonhams in London, which was an excellent grounding in all the decorative and fine arts, but inevitably I wanted to become a specialist and the Tribal art job was firmly in my sights.

After running this department for several years I moved into a number of other departments including vintage cameras and toys, and when we were asked by an American client to sell a wonderful collection of fossils I pioneered the first serious Natural History sales in any major saleroom.

With my overall experience in slightly off-beat departments I was asked to join our Valuation department to undertake insurance and probate valuations. I now run the South Wales regional office as a general valuer.

Tribal art is often faked,
and can be difficult to

What does your typical day involve? 

There is no typical day in my job. As a general valuer in the UK regions I get to travel all over and winkle out works of art that are usually unrecognised by their owners, whether it's an informal inspection or a probate valuation.

On any one day I could be visiting a Tribal dealer in Rome, valuing the contents of a local museum for insurance, discovering a rare Nantgarw plate on a hill farm in the Black Mountains or bringing down the hammer on a Kyffin Williams oil in our Oxford saleroom.

The highlights are the same as most auction professionals I suppose, unearthing a wonderful object and selling it for a fabulous price.

What have been your recent successes?

I was heavily involved in securing and selling a fabulous collection in Australia earlier this year.

I flew over to Sydney three times in six months to first value, catalogue and then sell the Owston Collection. The owner had an unbelievable collection of Taxidermy as well as paintings, clocks, furniture, Japanese works of Art, silver, you name it.

It all had to be done at breakneck speed and against stiff local competition, and considering we only had one member of staff in Australia at the time it was a massive achievement. I think it was the most pressure I have been under at work, but when sale day finally arrived, it made it all worthwhile. We had re-launched Bonhams into the Australian market with a bang.

This rare adult Javan rhinoceros trophy head sold for
$104,169 (U.S) as part of the Owston Collection

Have you noticed any new trends in collectibles this year?

I wouldn't really say new trends, just changes in the markets.

2010 has seen the stratospheric rise of the Chinese art market. Everyone knows about the porcelain vase that sold for £43 million at Bainbridges, but all the major salerooms and some good provincial ones achieved amazing results for Chinese items this year. Jades, Qing dynasty porcelains and scholars objects have done incredibly well, many items selling for high five and low six figure sums. It's unprecedented really.

Have you been surprised by any sales in particular?

I was interested to see an Easter Islands dance staff sell well above its value in my opinion, especially as it had no concrete provenance and there are known to be very good fakes circulating. It made £220,000 in a small saleroom earlier this year in the Isle of Wight.

How can you be sure that the item is authentic?

One must look for signs that the item has been treated as one would expect for its age and purpose. Tribal art is notoriously faked, and it can be very difficult. It must feel 'right' to the eyes, nose and touch.

These objects were made for specific purposes, and knowing that purpose will help authenticate the item. It must be made in the traditional way using the appropriate tools in the correct style. It must also show evidence of use, in a traditional ceremony for example, and most importantly it should have provenance that is credible and that can be substantiated.

The £43m Chinese vase
sold earlier this year

How important is the quality of condition of collectible items?

It's very important in certain areas like vintage toys and rare coins. Small grades in condition can make massive differences in sale price and investment potential for that matter.

Other areas are less problematic though. One expects to see scratches on 18th century mahogany tables and Tribal items must show patina of use. In fact the lack of it is a negative.

Do you have any predictions for the collectibles market in 2011?

I think more of the same of what we have seen in 2010. Ordinary stock will struggle, but high quality items that are rare and have good provenance will sell well.

Some niche markets such as Antiquities, Scottish colourists, South African Art and Tribal Art are still performing and jewellery, watches and coins will continue to perform well bolstered as they are by the high price of gold bullion.

Having said that, there are still plenty of bargains to be had for savvy buyers. Particularly in areas which have struggled over the last 18 months like long case clocks, 19th Century furniture and watercolours.

Finally, what advice would you give to anyone looking to invest in collectibles?

Buy the best you can afford - much better to own one wonderful item than ten ordinary ones.

Do your homework, attend sales and get to know knowledgeable dealers. Buy things that appeal to you, and don't think about investment in the short term. Fashions change and you may end up losing money, but you might just out-perform the stock market over time.


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Images: Bonhams and Bainbridge

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