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Meet the Expert: Alexis Maggiar, Christie’s Head of African and Oceanic Art

Get to know Christie’s recently appointed International Director of the Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas

Known for his expertise and aesthetic sense, Alexis Maggiar started his career in 2001 with noted African and Oceanic art specialist Alain de Monbrison. Since then, he’s contributed to significant discoveries in the field, set numerous auction records, and participated in the success of collector’s sales in his category in both Paris and New York. Here, he talks about his love of art, career highlights, and why he moved to Christie’s in July 2020.

Alexis Maggiar of Christie's
As Christie’s new Head of African and Oceanic Art, Alexis Maggiar will oversee the department’s sales, held two to three times a year, and will lead its strategy and develop the category in Europe and the United States.

How long have you been interested in African and Oceanic art?
My first encounter with the art of Africa and Oceania was in 2001, when I interned for the photographer at Christie’s Paris, whose studio is in the basement of the Christie’s building. I was, of course, surrounded by art, but one day, I opened a door and discovered some pieces displayed on a table and thought, “This is art!” It was a love at first sight. I will remember that moment forever; the incredible emotion I felt on that day has never left me. To be back 20 years later where everything started is really special.

The best works transcend cultural metrics; they speak to common humanity

What attracts you to this kind of art?
I had no education in this field, but the genius of those unknown artists struck me. I’ve been exposed to art from a very young age and to me, the best works transcend cultural metrics; they speak to common humanity. When I realized that African and Oceanic art were the soul of 20th-century art—from German Expressionism to Cubism and Surrealism—it was impossible not to pursue this search of beauty. My bedside book will remain “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art by William Rubin, published for an exhibition in 1984 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It refers to the interest of modern artists in African, Oceanic, and North American art, as evidenced in their thought and work.

Mbumba Bwete, a Sango reliquary figure from Gabon, which featured in Christie’s 2019 Splendors sale and fetched €346,000/$385,209.

Tell us about a career highlight…
I have participated in numerous legendary sales, contributed to significant discoveries in the field, and set numerous auction records in this category. It is difficult to mention a specific highlight, but what is key for me is all the wonderful stories behind all this: incredible people and human stories.

African and Oceanic art are the soul of 20th-century art—from German Expressionism to Cubism and Surrealism

What tempted you to move to Christie’s?
After 14 years at another major auction house, where I became European Director of the department, it was the time for a new challenge. But above all, my long friendships with [Christie’s CEO] Guillaume Cerutti and [President of Christie’s France] Cécile Verdier are key to this new chapter of my life, and I will never forget that.

This Mumuye figure from Nigeria is one of the oldest known examples of Mumuye carving and sold for €237,750/$224,457 at a Christie’s tribal art sale in 2002.

What do you hope to achieve at Christie’s?
To continue to increase the visibility of African and Oceanic art to a wide range of people; these include collectors and the general public. I want the classical masterpieces of the field to be viewed as all other art is viewed. I want those unknown artists to be seen as equal and as respected as other known occidental great masters. I want to change perceptions. I hope that my commitment will largely favor the recognition of this field at the top of the art market.

Tell us your plans for 2021…
In June 2021, we’ll showcase a major African and Oceanic art collection in Paris; one of the best in the world. The collection of masterpieces is a total knockout and is sure to make auction history. I have the privilege to lead this momentum and I am already very excited to be part of this landmark auction.

Banner image: Traditional wooden African tribal masks at an itinerant African exhibition in Tenerife, Spain. Alamy