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Robert Berg

The Robert V. Berg Collection

Bob Berg began collecting African art in the 1960s, when the pursuit of a graduate art degree led him to examine the work of artists such as Picasso, Brancusi, and Modigliani. He spent time in Paris as a post-doctoral Fulbright grantee, and there discovered an emerging community of collectors and dealers who gravitated toward traditional African sculpture as pure forms, rather than simply anthropological artifacts. For some thirty years he was a professor of art at San Diego State University, with an academic focus on a purely Western art form, print making. But his knowledge and love of African art would influence his own work as well as generations of his students.

Always an avid traveler, Bob and wife Pat made frequent trips to New York, London, and Paris, where he attended auctions and networked with collectors and dealers. I first met Bob in 1979, when I moved to Los Angeles to become a sort of apprentice to an active dealer in African and other "primitive" art. We quickly became friends, and I developed great respect for his knowledge, taste, and determination to form his own assessment of a work's merits, rather than seeking to collect only classic examples which were "just like the one in the book." Although I left Los Angeles in 1984 I would see Bob often at London and New York auctions, where we were not infrequently rival bidders --- albeit friendly ones. In the 1980s a large volume of African art was still emerging from the estates of individuals who had been missionaries, businessmen, and colonial administrators during the era between the world wars. Much of this material ended up in small arcade auctions, and Bob made some wonderful acquisitions there. Sadly, this golden era ended abruptly in the late 1980s, when those sources of supply suddenly dried up as the last survivors of that era were gone.

Bob was also fortunate to make the acquaintance of German dealer Peter Loebarth in the mid- 1970s. Peter had business interests across Central Africa and had found himself drawn to the masks and figures he encountered in his travels. Bob loves to tell the story of one of Peter's most significant field acquisitions. An Angolan village owned an important 19th century statue of a Chokwe chief, the significance and value of which they were even then well aware. Every year Peter would visit the village, and every year he would be warmly received, but would be told once again that the statue was not for sale. One year, however, his timing was perfect. The village owned one tractor on which they were dependent for their agriculture, and it had just broken down beyond repair. The village elders inquired: would Peter be willing to trade a new tractor for the figure? Finally his perseverance had paid off! A number of Bob's Central African pieces were purchased from Peter Loebarth in the 1970s - 1980s.

Selections from the Berg collection have been exhibited several times, including the 1988 "Values made Visual" show at the art gallery of San Diego Mesa College (curated by respected scholar Barbara Blackmun), the 1998 "Traditional Arts of Africa" show in the Boehm Art Gallery at Palomar College, and the 1987 "Functional Forms in African Art" show (curated by Bill Boaz) at Chapman University.

I am pleased and honored that Bob Berg and his family have asked me to assist in preparing this auction for Heritage. Many of these pieces are "old friends" I have known for several decades, and, now that Bob has decided the time has come to share his collection with a new generation of hobbyists, I'm glad to be able to help in finding these pieces appreciative new homes. It has brought me great joy to work with Bob in presenting these items for your consideration, and I hope that you will derive equal enjoyment from perusing these pages.

View the Robert V. Berg Collection here.

Tom Slater
Director of Americana Auctions
Heritage Auctions