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Bubble Artefacts Oceanic Tribal Art Gallery

Collector Series Interview


Stephane Duckett

Based in the UK, Stephane (or more widely known as Dr. Duckett) is an intelligent, wise and considered individual when it comes to New Guinea Tribal Art; and in particular Asmat. Stephane has been collecting for over 40 years and has a refined eye for choosing compelling pieces. A fascinating gentleman with a diverse background and a man after my own heart in appreciation for Malagan!

I also found this nice little blurb which I thought I'd add – “Dr Duckett is a clinical psychologist, currently working at the Royal Free Hospital in London. His academic writing has been published widely within his specialist field focusing on age discrimination and its impact on mental health. Having been born in Paris in 1958 and raised in 60s London, Dr Duckett studied at the University of Paris before completing his PhD at Temple University, Philadelphia, and gained a post-doctoral degree from the Free University of Amsterdam. His fascination with Hitchcock came out of a four-year study on how intensely creative people adapt to ageing. "Hitchcock in Context" is the offspring of that project.”

Stephane is a wonderful addition to our discussion group, I hope you enjoy the interview.


WC - In one word how would you describe yourself?

SD – Curious


WC - Approximately how many pieces do you have in your collection of New Guinea tribal art?

SD -If you include the Bismarck archipelago, 17 (I collect other tribal art as well).


WC - Can you recall the first time you came across Oceanic tribal art? If so, where were you, what artifact was it and what was your response -was it love at first sight or did it take some time to grab you?

SD - When I was six or so my mother bought Paul Saulnier’s Headhunters of Papua. She told me -presumably with Michael Rockefeller in mind- that a member of this expedition had been eaten by these people.I was both horrified and mesmerized by the nightmarish photographs of the Asmat and the shields being made. Many years later my wife, Norinne Betjemann, was photographing for Jane Steinsnyder Tribal Arts in Philadelphia. Here, for the first time, I saw an Asmat shield almost identical to the ones photographed by Saulnier. I fully remembered those nightmarish images and was blown away with how majestic this thing appeared.


WC - What was the first object you purchased and what made you want to buy it?

SD - I bought the Asmat shield from Steinsnyder’s. It had some spear holes in it and was crudely repaired with bamboo stripping. Steinsnyder told me about the newly opened Rockefeller Wing of the Met and so I wrote to them about my shield. They forwarded my letter to Tobias Schneebaum who was advising them with the curation for the Asmat collection. I sent him detailed photographs. He was enthusiastic and pointed to an identical shield in his book (Leben mit den Ahnen 1981). We got into quite a correspondence. I was hooked.

Prior to consignment to Jane Steinsnyder’s, my shield had decorated the CEO’s office of a recruitment firm (known as ‘Headhunters’ at the time) in Philadelphia.


WC - When did you realize that you had earned the title ‘collector’?

SD - Funny you should mention that; I never thought of myself as a ‘collector’ until very recently following a conversation with my wife when she gave me some much-needed insight into my collecting habits.


WC - What is your most treasured ‘find’ and where and when did you find it?

SD - Difficult to answer, but I guess it is a Kina my wife gave me from the Janet Fleisher Gallery. I recently discovered that they had bought it from Bobbi Nochimson (now better known as Roberta Entwistle) in NYC prior to 1972. She had field-collected it presumably in 1967.

They are quite delicate and chip easily; old ones like mine don’t always survive too well, so I treasure this modest piece. The gallery manager at the time proudly pointed out the sweat discoloration ‘like on an old pearl necklace’. Mentioning fashion accessories of High Society ladies alongside that of New Guinea highlanders always brings a smile to my face.


WC - What methods do you use to find pieces for your collection?

SD - I think it is very much about establishing a relationship of trust with whomever your source is. Jane Steinsnyder did this with me by talking me through my purchases and occasionally counseling against something. I am very grateful to her. I have bought through galleries (online and in person), Antique shops, auctions, Portobello road -you name it, but I can’t say I have been so lucky as to find anything at a charity shop or a garage sale.


WC - What mistakes have you made with collecting and what can your experience tell new collectors out there?

SD - I think this is where the trust comes into play. Mark Felix once told me that even he makes mistakes when buying at a distance. If whomever you are dealing with is willing to identify themselves and engage in an exchange, I find that helps build trust as does a willingness to share their knowledge online or through publications. How are they regarded by their peers? If you read enough, you’ll get to know.

I have found academics and museum staff often very willing to guide me as well but try to get yourself informed before approaching them.

In terms of ‘mistakes’, fortunately I’m happy with the tribal pieces I’ve acquired. I think I have benefited from a lesson I learned some years ago when buying an antique that I thought I ‘should’ buy which I subsequently realized was a mistake. It didn’t fit my aesthetic and I sold it on at a loss. The lesson was to only buy what ‘speaks to me’.


WC - What advice would you give to new collectors?

SD - Tribal art collecting is subject to fads and fashions. Avoid macho collecting.

Read, read, read and not just in your chosen area. My recent reads include Christopher Steiner’s African Art in Transit, Molly Hennen Huber’s Time, and Tide: The Changing Art of the Asmat of New Guinea amongst others.

Don’t be shy in contacting people. Guardedness or rudeness is usually a warning sign even with high-end galleries. Ask your seller about provenance. Scraps of information can sometimes prove very helpful.

Share your knowledge online. We all learn from it.

A well-known art historian once said there are two types of collectors: the opportunist and the systematic collector. I am an opportunist since it usually requires a lot of money to be a systematic collector or you’ll end up with a lot of poor-quality pieces that you might not have otherwise considered. Decide what you want from your collection, but whatever you decide...

Take your time! I’ve been collecting for forty years and I promise you there will always be another sale. This is particularly true when you are starting out.

Like what you buy. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. This might sound like a no-brainer, but it is easy to see something that might be a splendid example of a trophy head for instance, but you simply do not want to be looking at this or more importantly having it looking at you during breakfast. Incidentally, I would extend this rule to include whomever it is you are living with. Ask them whether they are prepared to live with it.

Sometimes even well-meaning dealers get it wrong, so whilst trust is important you should still get yourself informed.

Faking is getting very sophisticated now; Steinsnyder once showed me a Dogon mask she said she knew to be fake (i.e., made to deceive), but she told me she could not tell the difference. Be humble about your own expertise. If it looks too good to be true, then pause!

However, recognize that dealers and collectors in the past often liked to ‘tidy up’ their pieces (we like crud and dirt today) in a way that may sometimes make them appear ‘suspicious’. Be open to these pieces since occasionally something truly special is lurking beneath all the varnish.

This business can become addictive. Set yourself some parameters in terms of space and budget and do not stray from that. Or failing that get your partner, friend or spouse involved in decision making (do not rely on another collector -Folie a deux).


WC - What are your top three tips for getting a good deal on a piece you really love?

SD - Decide on your budget and stick to it (eventually you’ll learn to adjust it gradually to meet your goals)

Go online and research it. Many of the major museums that have very well documented collections are online. See what the real McCoy looks like.

Look at what else this person is selling. This may tell you something about the quality of what it is they are offering you.


WC - What are you most passionate about collecting right now?

SD - I recently bought a very old New Ireland mask, but not a Tatanua. Pre-WWINew Ireland carvings were far more inventive than they are today, I’m sorry to say. What we know about New Ireland carving has, to a degree, been dictated by what gets exhibited and reproduced in catalogues and books and this was largely governed by the tastes of colonials and traders when the object was first acquired.


WC - Where do you see the New guinea arts Industry going in the future?

SD - The amount of information available online and through publication is so much greater than it was, so I suspect it will tighten for quality exemplars. However, this may help open the market for materials that previously were not considered collectables.

The downside of this will be ever more sophisticated fakery which, as we have seen with the African market, has proved damaging. In this context provenance is becoming so much more important and you can see that in the way auction catalogues promote their product in contrast to say twenty years ago. Provenance can be misrepresented and sometimes auction houses are reluctant to challenge high-end vendors as I discovered recently. There will be a certain amount of correction to all this I’m sure.


WC - Has the use of technology made it easier or harder to buy pieces? If so, how?

SD - Historically, the biggest problem faced with buying Oceanic material has been accessibility; that, of course, has changed with technology. But whilst that has created opportunity you lose the principle advantage of the gallery and that is seeing the piece in person.


WC - Give five words that describe the emotion when you sit in a room with your collection.

SD - Knocks me out of the ballpark.


WC - Any final words?

SD - Modern publications are really good at telling you where pieces come from. Track down and visit these collections. Likewise, don’t be intimidated by the high-end galleries. I go to Paris twice a year to see what the very best has to offer. The owners are very rarely there anyway, and you’re faced with eager young assistants who will pull anything out of storage. Likewise, large museums almost invariably have under-utilized libraries... you’d be amazed what you can find there. Have fun!

Many thanks to Stephane for taking the time to do this fantastic interview.

Kind regards,

Warren Campbell

Executive Director

Bubble Artefacts Oceanic Tribal Art Gallery