Traditional African art is one of the least traveled byways for collectors these days—not because these objects aren’t stunning and complex, but because they are rare and too often overshadowed by flashier contemporary art.
The collectors who do exist tend to be over 50, which is one of the reasons that 27-year-old dealer Cole Harrell stands out in the field. The Texas native works out of his home in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, specializing in late-19th-century and early-20th-century pieces from sub-Saharan peoples.
Tribal art dealer Cole Harrell at home with African art, including this sculptural nkisi power figure.
“I’m the youngest person by 15 years,” jokes the baby-faced Harrell of his fellow dealers. He studied theater along with art in college, and something of the dramatic remains with Harrell, certainly in the striking way he has arranged pieces from the Dan people, from the Ivory Coast area, in his large apartment. Precisely lit, uncrowded, and possessing glowing patinas, they would make a convert out of anyone.
“I give people a Triple-A advantage,” Harrell says of his approach. “Age, authenticity, aesthetics.” Largely self-taught, Harrell interned with the noted dealer Ronald Nasser as part of his education and is relentless about sourcing high-quality, well-documented objects at auctions, estate sales, and other hiding places.
Harrell knows he has to work harder because of his relative inexperience. “Clients like older dealers because there’s a sense of trust with age,” says Harrell. “So I hit them with all the scholarship I can, and I only show them things that are a 9 or a 10.”
Wide-eyed Dan mask next to a sensational feast ladle carved by a Dan sculptor of the Ivory Coast.
Hearing him talk about a Dan mask of a woman with flowing “hair” of shredded palm fibers that was used for ancestor worship gives a sense of Harrell’s knowledge and his passion for African art. “Dan pieces are known for having a dark patina,” he says, taking the piece off a stand and turning it over. “You see, the handled areas are nicely oxidized. You want to see that it’s been used.”
There are deep awl-like divots on the inside of the mask, where it was carved. “This mask shows the Dan sense of beauty,” says Harrell. “It’s a female portrait. Look at the soft lines, rich deep-black surface. Ivory teeth, and the core is wood. If I were to show you a portrait of a Dan woman, you’d see the resemblance.”
Striking Songye power figure.
African art has its own set of rules—and the primary one is that the best pieces were made to be used, usually for ceremonial purposes. “They should have been manufactured by an African craftsman with indigenous use in mind and no intention for resale,” says Harrell. Fakes are a big issue—“they’re 98 percent of our problem,” he says.
But in-the-know dealers have their ways to ferret out questionable pieces, including being cognizant of the species of wood that certain tribes always used. Aged objects are good, but it’s the late 19th century that Harrell says is the “gold standard,” the sweet spot for the best works, before colonial changed the crafts and the societies. The items weren’t meant to last hundreds of years, and often don’t. (Sometimes the 18th century can still yield treasures, but that’s about the oldest.)
Harrell recommends art fairs as a good way into the field for beginners because you get to interact with different experts and see multiple pieces. “You should be a mountain of questions,” he says.
A sculpted nkisi power figure from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nkisi were used in divinatory and healing rituals. Early 20th century.
In this very complicated arena, Harrell has some fans in high places, including the new European director of the African and Oceanic art department at Christie’s, 30-year-old Bruno Claessens, another of the young vanguard working to raise the profile of African works.
Claessens, formerly a writer and blogger, had met Harrell and liked him, but his admiration was set watching Harrell in action at the Parcours des Mondes fair in Paris. “I was very impressed,” Claessens says. “If I was a dealer at the time, I would have immediately hired him. He’s a true people’s person and a natural-born seller, with a profound love for African art.”
Later, he attended a function at Harrell’s New York apartment. “The rooms were full of people: collectors, dealers, curators, and most of all new faces,” says Claessens. “And that for me might be Cole’s real strength, the fact that he’s able to attract new people to start collecting African art.” He adds, “A great future awaits him.”
Harrell is committed to doing his homework to find quality pieces—and sleuthing is required, since as Claessens puts it, “all dealers have difficulties finding great objects these days.” Many of the greatest works were sold off in the early and mid-20th century and reside in European collections.
It figures, then, that Harrell was thrilled to discover a circa-1910 Dan rice-scooping spoon in a catalog for an auction in Spain. “The price was heinously low. I thought it had to be either a fake or a masterwork,” says Harrell, who became convinced it was the latter and bought it. “It has a very individual approach to form, and a voluptuous feel.”
Harrell knows that he’s just at the beginning of his career, and that his education has to continue to reach the top of the profession. “Passion carries me a long way, but there’s always something to be said for time,” he says. “Time means more learning.”
Photography: Matthew Benson
Produced by Doris Athineos