19th-Century Airport Art
by Ezio Bassano
It was with the greatest interest that I read the April 1976 issue of African Arts discussing the complex problem
of fakes. Although the difficulties in defining what is genuine African art were dearly revealed, I do feel that the
definition put forward by J. Cornet can be accepted: "Authentic African art is that art which is produced by a
traditional artist for a traditional purpose and conforms to traditional forms." I wish not to re-open the argument
but merely to draw attention to an early case in which the existence of non-traditional sculptures, or what now is
called airport art, was discovered by the director of an ethnographic museum.

In 1889, what is now the Museo Nazionale Preistorico ed Etnografico Lnigi Pigorini in Rome acquired an
important collection of ethnographic objects assembled by the explorer Gtuseppe Corona in 1887 in West
Africa, mainly in Calabar, and near the mouth of the Congo River. These objects, stored in Antwerp, were
bought on the basis of photographs (which, alas, have disappeared), and the objects were later declared
unsatisfactory by the buyer, Luigi Pigorini, founder and director of the museum. In a letter dated July 12, 1889,
he asked the Minister of Public Instruction to interrupt negotiations on the museum's behalf and oblige the
seller to either refund expenses or reduce the price that had been fixed for the acquisition. Pigorini stated the
situation as follows:

"Since there was no possibility of examining the collection before we agreed to buy it, when asked whether I
considered it suitable to acquire it for the museum I direct, I answered in the affirmative, on the condition, of
course, that we receive all the objects documented by the photographs presented by the Cav. Corona, and on
condition that
each object bear un- equivocal signs of having been used [my italics] by the natives from whom it
originated, thus excluding the possibility that it [the collection] might consist of materials produced along the
coast to be sold to those who hunt for curios ... Of such objects, which the Cav. Corona had guaranteed the
number given and the condition of having been used, only a few reached us, or the items appear utterly new.  
Instead of forty-four, there are only twenty-five figures, and of these, eighteen cannot be accepted because
they have never been used, so that only six can be shown in the Museum. The catalogue of the collection,
which I am sending you, drawn up with the greatest possible accuracy, shows all that Corona has delivered to
the Museum against that which, as shown in the photographic plates and as described in the printed notes
accompanying each of them, he was bound to deliver. From this same catalogue it appears that out of 664
objects sold, 117 are missing, and precisely those that constituted the value of the collection. One hundred
forty-five must be refused because they are not authentic, and, further, 32 are useless because they are either
broken or incomplete. The collection is thus reduced to 471 items, most of slight importance or none at all. If
you do not decide to refuse the collection outright, it should not be paid a lira above 2,000, that is, an average
price of four lire per object" [instead of 5,000 lira as demanded by the seller]. This letter reveals some
interesting information. Pigorini was not a specialist in African art but an ethnologist and museum director;
therefore, his concern was not so much with the aesthetic quality of the objects as with their rarity and
authenticity, that is, their having been used. One learns that the production of items "to be sold to those who
hunt for curios" was flourishing along the African coast. The search for ethnographic or art objects from Africa
must even in those days have been anything but negligible, and it may have precipitated the production of a
new handicraft, perhaps without the intention of bringing fakes onto the market.

It was during the last quarter of the nineteenth century that the great collections of Western ethnographic
museums were amassed, thanks to indiscriminate campaigns that completely stripped whole regions of Africa
of their art. The liveliness of the hunt for African "objects" on the part of explorers and merchants is expressed
in a letter from Romolo Gessi, the Italian explorer who traveled in 1874-1880 in the southern Sudan, defeating
the Arab slave merchants in the Bahr el Gazal. In a letter dated October 21, 1876, to a friend in Cairo named
Helios or Hellios, Gessi wrote: "You suggest that I should bring you curiosities. Is there a good market for them
in Cairo? I made a collection but it is still incomplete. It is very difficult to find these objects. Everybody here
wants to buy them, and the prices have been spoiled, especially by Englishmen who pay for this rubbish at its
weight in gold. There are also many Greeks, Jews, etc. who buy up everything. I have sent orders to the chiefs
of our military stations3 to find objects. There is a Russian doctor here who for 20,000 francs, has already
bought utensils, lances, arrows, etc. from the savages. You will easily understand that I cannot rival the prices
offered by these people, who are ready to pay whatever price is demanded so as not to return to Europe
without a collection. Therefore, let me know whether it is possible to sell these objects at a good price in Cairo
because, believe me, it is difficult to find any."

A few years ago, the Museo Civici, Reggio Emilia, received a group of objects from the Museo Nazionale
d'Antichita, Parma. They belonged to the Corona collection originally acquired by the Museo Pigorini and given
to the Parma museum in 1896, probably in exchange for archaeological material. These seven items (in the
inventory of the Museo Pigorini they are entered as numbers 40757, 40758, 40760, 40761, 40763,
40764,40766, with the description "wooden figure, West Africa") must almost certainly be among the eighteen
figures refused by Pigorini "because they had never been used."

The "fake" sculptures (I feel rather embarrassed to apply this term to African carvings about 100 years old) are
of hard wood with a natural, light patina, except for number 40766, which is poly-chromed. The seven figures
are clearly by the same sculptor, and they show morphological characteristics different from any known African
style. Although from a sculptural point of view they are not very impressive, their weakness of style should not
be a criterion for pronouncing them fakes. The heads show several common characteristics. The closed eyes
are semicircular, the arch of the brows is carved in relief, the nose is flattened and triangular, the lips are also
flattened and roughly modeled (in some figures the mouth is half open, showing teeth), the protruding ears are
high up on the skull, and the hands and feet are merely indicated by engraved lines. All of the figures wear
hats; three have the same round cap, flat at the top.

The objects in the Coiona collection were collected in Calabar (southern Nigeria) and in the Lower Congo, I
believe that the seven sculptures now in Reggio Emilia come from the latter area—not, as the Museo Pigorini's
inventory indicated, West Africa, The practice of representing figures in European coats was followed in
Nigeria, but in Yorubaland rather than in Calabar. In the Lower Congo, however, figures of Europeans have
been commonly found, often polychromed, and the models for Figures 1, 5 and 7 appear to have been
European. Figure 1 is portrayed with a raised leg, a pose rare in traditional African sculpture. The posture of
Figure 7 (no. 40758), however, who holds his chin, is typical of certain figures from the Lower Congo.
In the two unclothed figures, the sexual organs are exaggerated by the sculptor, as if in accordance with the
European sexual view of Africans. I have concluded that this unknown artisan must have worked on order,
creating sculptures for sale to foreign sailors and travelers who wished to bring back from Africa curios and
"typical" objects. These figures would have satisfied these requirements and, at the same time, reassured the
craftsman's customers of their racial superiority, a claim based on a superficial and distorted interpretation of
the evolutionary theories current in the second half of the last century.
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Fig 1 Inventory # 40764