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Collector Series Interview
If you have ever read the book “Land of the Unexpected: short stories, anecdotes and memoirs of Papua New Guinea” then you will be familiar with my next wonderful interviewee – Peter Comerford.
Peter comes from Sydney, Australia and went through the Australian
School of Pacific Administration in 1968-70. His first posting was to New
Ireland, PNG. After four years he left Papua New Guinea but came back in 1980
and worked in both Popondetta in Oro Province and at Panguna on Bougainville
before being forced to leave by the civil war in 1990. If you want to read more
about a dedicated teacher or ‘chalkies’ as they were known and his wife working
as a nurse in PNG then please read Peter’s book. Peter is also an avid collector with a specialist refined eye for the unusual. Although, I think people may have a few questions on the moustache collection!
Peter is a wealth of knowledge, an all round nice guy and a fantastic addition to our discussion group, I hope you enjoy the interview.
WC - In one word how would you describe yourself?
PC - I would describe myself in one word as a ‘gatherer’. Although my wife would regard me a hoarder. I would also add ‘fortunate’ as if I hadn’t been trained at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, in the late 60’s, specifically to teach in what was then the Territory of Papua New Guinea, my collecting journey would have been quite different.
WC - Approx. how many pieces do you have in your collection of New Guinea Tribal Art?
PC - Hmmm. I have never really counted the number of pieces as they are in many ways different and quantity has never been part of the equation. I have some stone axes and adzes, some gourds, several carved wooden pieces, masks including two Malangans, fishhooks, kap kaps, traditional necklaces, billums, arm bands, tapa cloth, shell money and a couple of pieces of pottery. Unfortunately, when the island of Bougainville was evacuated due to the Bougainville crisis many of my artefacts were lost.
WC - Can you recall the first time you came across Oceanic Art? If so, where were you, what artefact was it and what was your response – was it love at first sight, or did it take some time to grab you?
PC - I remember while still very young being taken to the Sydney Royal Easter Show and visiting a side show, possibly run by Jimmy Sharman, which had Kukukuka warriors from Papua and New Guinea performing. I was terrified when they approached me menacingly, waving their spears but after meeting them after their performance, developed this fascination for people and wild places. While in primary school I was a regular visitor to the Australian Museum in Sydney which had a fascinating display of Oceanic art. I was particularly intrigued by the men’s house complete with displays of human skulls, decorative shields and weaponry. Perhaps it was love at first sight but possibly a juvenile, imaginative and morbid fascination. I read and was fascinated by stories of patrol officers and desert islands and adventure. This fascination has remained with me throughout my life.
WC - What was the first artefact you purchased and what made you want to buy it?
PC - My first purchases were in 1970 on my first visit to PNG. I purchased a Trobriand intricately decorated, ebony lime spatula and a beautifully traditionally carved face which I was told was a missionary. The face is reminiscent of a Picasso, African influenced piece, with a stylized, oval face. The facial features being simplified with smooth lines with ghostly eyes that had once been inlaid with lime. The hair style is stylized and carved with traditional linear patterns and forms a flat border on the perimeter of the face with two simple bobs below the ears. This is in contrast to the smooth oval shaped face. It still remains very special.
WC - When did you realise you had earned the title of “Collector”?
PC - I think the first time I accepted the fact was a few years ago. I collect or ‘gather’ a range of different things. Before being posted to Papua New Guinea I had started collecting moustache cups and saucers. This urge to collect them was placed on hold until we finally left PNG in 1990.Consequently, over the succeeding years it then included moustache spoons, moustache brushes and combs, moustache curling irons and moustache waxing sets. I appeared on the now defunct ABC Collectors program some years ago. While in PNG I also collected insects and shells as well as artefacts and was also involved in collecting reptiles and amphibians for the Australian Museum. Yes, on reflection I have always been collecting.
WC - What is your most treasured ‘find’ and where and when did you find it?
PC - I was in New Ireland and was returning home after butterfly collecting in the jungle behind the school.I have always considered myself to be quite observant and while crossing the newly graded road I noticed an odd-shaped piece of stone on the side of the road. It was triangular in shape with a smooth finish, with approximately six cm sides and a neat hole drilled in one corner. It was and made of a type of igneous rock which was not found in the north of New Ireland. When we next went on leave, I took it with me and showed it to Dr Jim Specht at the Australian Museum who identified it as an old sinker or weight for a fishing net. It is pure functional simplicity and is both aesthetic in its shape and feel.I have always pondered how long it took for the craftsman to shape and smooth this sinker and then to drill in it a perfect hole and without metal tools. Truly amazing.
WC - What methods to you use to find pieces for your collections – i.e. charity shops, online, auctions, garage sales?
PC - I will always haunt antique and charity shops when the opportunity arises but these days online auctions and online sales have made collecting much easier. However, having said that there is nothing better than actually seeing a special piece, holding it and satisfying oneself that it is just what is needed to add to a collection.
WC - What mistakes have you made with collecting and what can your experience teach new collectors out there?
PC - With online auctions it is important to set a specific limit on what you feel comfortable spending and stick to it. I have been burnt by my enthusiasm to outbid all bidders and pay far more that in reality the item was worth. Buying from overseas, particularly America is an expensive process postage and customs wise. Trying to import an artefact that has any lizard or animal skin incorporated in its manufacture to Australia can result in disappointment.
WC - What other advice would you give to new collectors?
PC - I think knowing about as much as one can about a specific artefact not only increases your knowledge but also allows a more discerning eye when considering purchasing the piece. It is important to also balance the reasons to purchase the item. Keeping a balance between good investment, an appreciation of the aesthetic uniqueness, how it was made and its cultural function and how a particular artefact will enhance a collection through its beauty and uniqueness.
WC - What are your three top tips for getting a good deal on a piece you love?
PC - Budget to buy quality pieces, know as much as possible about the artefact, research a possible and realistic cost.
WC - What are you most passionate about collecting now?
PC - I think it is the journey of discovery. One never knows what is out there waiting to be discovered by a collector. My expenditure on collecting has reduced considerably but I am always searching and focusing on a different area. Presently I am focusing on fishing hooks from Oceania.
WC - Where do you see the New Guinea Arts industry going in the future?
PC - Papua New Guinea is an expensive place to visit and stay. There are strict laws about the export of antique artefacts in particular stone artefacts. This of course will be restrictive to collectors who will then rely on the auction houses.I feel that the online auction houses have already become the way of future in regard to collecting.
WC - Has the use of technology made it easier or harder to buy pieces? If so, how?
PC - Technology has certainly made the search for artefacts a lot simpler but doesn’t always guarantee the quality and how genuine an artefact may be. Postage and shipping from overseas also make larger and heavier, objects, in some cases, quite prohibitive.
WC - Give 5 words that describe the emotion when you sit in a room with your collection?
PC - When I sit down, in the company of my artefacts with a glass of red wine, I become reflective and reminiscent on my years in Papua New Guinea, not just the artefacts but the stories that are glued to them, as it were, and most importantly the Papua New Guinean friends I have made.I published a book about 5 years ago ‘Land of the unexpected...Short stories, Anecdotes and memories of Papua New Guinea’.In it I have said ‘Anyone who has ever been to Papua New Guinea and spent some time travelling and working there will have been touched for life.” I am grateful to have had the opportunity to have been in PNG both pre- and post-Independence and what I have learned. And I feel humbled by the hospitality and wonderful friendship my wife and I have been shown over the years. That is how I feel.
Many thanks to Peter for this wonderful interview. I look forward to many more conversations soon!
Bubble Artefacts Oceanic Tribal Art Gallery