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Collecting African Art Can Be Ethical. Here’s What Dealers Know

A lot of important pieces were removed from the continent improperly. But many weren’t, and as enthusiasm for the category grows, dealers worry the shade of illicit history will scare off new fans.

Mumuye statues that were showcased at Tefaf.

Mumuye statues that were showcased at Tefaf.

Photographer: Frédéric Dehaen

On the opening VIP day of the European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf), an annual gathering in Maastricht, the Netherlands, there’s no such thing as a “packed” booth. The crowd is too genteel, the list too restricted. But at the back of the convention hall, six booths representing what the fair’s map has dubbed “Tribal Art” are humming with visitors.

The Paris-based dealer Bernard Dulon has brought an intricately carved Bena Lulua figure with a dull red patina that originated in central Africa in the 18th century. (Asking price: €400,000, or about $432,000.) Nearby, the Brussels dealer Bernard de Grunne has displayed a group of Mumuye statues from northeastern Nigeria. Tall, slender and lively, the figures carry prices ranging from €50,000 to €300,000. By the end of the fair’s second VIP day, all nine on offer have sold.