The vanishing paths of African artefacts: Mapping the Parisian auction market for "primitive" objects in the interwar period

  • Léa Saint-Raymond ENS / Université Paris Nanterre
  • Elodie Vaudry


During the colonial conquests, the arrival of African objects on the European continent took place in a situation of asymmetry of military and economic power. To reconstruct the memory of these artifacts, it is essential to consider their circulation paths. While provenance researchers are familiar with looting and “exploration” missions, the commercial circuits are still poorly documented as a whole, due to the lack of account books and archives.

There is a document, however, that allows to consider an aspect of the market for these objects: the minutes of an auction sale, if the transaction took place in the Parisian arena. Thanks to this archive, it becomes possible to pinpoint the seller of each object, its buyer and its hammer price. Matched with the corresponding auction catalogue that gives all the information on the objects, the minutes provide a full picture of all the transactions at Hôtel Drouot. Based on a comprehensive database of all the Parisian auction sales of “primitive” artifacts, and a quantitative and spatial analysis, this paper aims at reconstructing the commercial paths of the African artifacts, in the interwar period. It will identify and map the private and public actors of this market, and cross this information with the origin of the items they sold or bought.

The paths of the African objects were also obscured by the tastes of European collectors. Indeed, our dataset allows us to compare the prices and symbolical value of the African artifacts, with those of the other “primitive” ones. African objects were at the bottom of the scale of preferences in the interwar period and achieved comparatively low hammer prices, with a notable exception: objects from the Royal Palaces of Abomey constituted safe haven values against the background of the 1930s financial crisis.

Author Biography

Léa Saint-Raymond, ENS / Université Paris Nanterre
Ph. D. Candidate in Art History. Alumna of the Ecole normale supérieure, agrégée in economics and social sciences.
How to Cite
Saint-Raymond, L., & Vaudry, E. (2020). The vanishing paths of African artefacts: Mapping the Parisian auction market for "primitive" objects in the interwar period. Journal for Art Market Studies, 4(1). Retrieved from