Adventures with Billy Gibbons

Billy Gibbons discusses African art with fellow collectors at Sotheby's.
Billy Gibbons discusses African art with fellow collectors at Sotheby’s.

Look. I admit I don’t know shit about art beyond that I like Vermeer and Turner, like everyone else. And Richman’s “Pablo Picasso.”

And when it comes to African art, well, I very much appreciate the Sugar Bar décor—very African village and full of fabulous art collected by Nick Ashford—but I can’t tell you the difference between a $700 piece and a $700,000 one.

“Seven hundred thousand dollars for a statue!” said Billy Gibbons. “Can you believe it?”

Billy F Gibbons, unbeknownst maybe to you and most ZZ Top fans, is a major collector of African art.

I’ll never forget years ago when he was in New York and called me up and told me to meet him at the hotel and walk over with him to Christie’s for a preview of a major auction the next day. We got on the elevator and everyone was excited—but not because he was Billy Gibbons, rock superstar. To them he was Billy Gibbons, African art maven.

Everyone there knew him and loved him, just like the rest of us. We got off the elevator and everywhere you looked there were waiters in tuxes holding trays of champagne among the most amazing—and expensive—pieces of African art. And again, everyone knew Billy, African art maven.

He told me once how he got into it. Way back in Dallas, when he bought a loft and didn’t know how to decorate it. A friend took him to a flea market and they found some African pieces, and that started it; he made more African art acquisitions to place in the doorway of his recording studio “as an energy booster.”

Of course it all made sense. Billy pointed out that Picasso picked up his concepts for cubism from African art—and a hasty perusal of the heavy In Pusuit of Beauty–The Myron Kunin Collection of African Art catalog of the big Nov. 11 auction at Sotheby’s included an article that bore this out. Billy, of course, became one of the top Africa-derived blues-influenced rock guitarists. Like art, like music.

Billy was in town for a veterans benefit at the Highline the night before, with the solo band he brought to B.B. King’s and City Winery earlier this year. He and the band would play again that night at Brooklyn Bowl.

He had found out about the Sotheby’s auction after he arrived here, and decided to go in order to “show face.” No surprise how many were so happy to see it.

“Billy!” It was an ecstatic Indian man in the back of the auction hall, who hadn’t seen him in a long time. Then again, nobody had.

“See the guy in the pink pants?” Billy whispered to me. The gentleman was hard not to see.

“He’s from France. He sold me an unusual piece.”

It was an unusual and rather frightening Nigerian female Boki tribal mask. Billy, shall we say, leans toward the visual extremes, and came to the poor gal’s rescue and spared her from a certain life in the closet.

Two African men came over to say hi, then another took him aside and slipped a tiny bronze African whistle in his hand. Billy courteously declined it.

“I don’t really like bronze, or ceramic,” he told me afterward. But he did like the four and a-half inch Kneeling Power Figure carving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo–one of a handful of pieces enclosed in glass display cases in the room.

“I got a guy that’s quite similar, an interesting two-sided one,” he said, then went downstairs to buy the $55 catalog.

I just sat and observed the action while he was gone. The auctioneer was behind a lectern, and flanked by phone banks staffed by Christie’s executives taking orders from out-of-town clients. There were two more banks on the right side of the hall, and on the floor above them, private skybox-type rooms shrouded, unless the inhabitant opened a window, by curtains–though you could see through them enough from the floor to recognize movement, a phone and a computer.

The bidding was done in person, by phone and online.

In between the auctioneer and the phone bank on his right was a pedestal with an abstract wooden sculpture of a woman that was really quite striking.

Billy returned with the catalog. It had plates for each of the 164 pieces in the auction, along with their provenance, previous owners and exhibitions. It also had scholarly features on the nature of the works within the context of their regional and tribal origins, as well as an essay on the late Minneapolis hair-salon magnate Myron Kunin, whose African art collection was among the world’s best.

“Each plate is frameable,” Billy pointed out, paging over to the Kneeling Power Figure. “I just had to to have that little guy.”

That little guy eventually went for $480,000. But the big prize was the Senufo Female Statue, a late 19th Century/early 20th Century sculpture from the Ivory Coast—the one on the pedestal next to the auctioneer. The catalog said it was one of the most iconic and widely recognized African sculptures, and the bidding accordingly began at $4.9 million.

Senufo Female Statue
Senufo Female Statue

“It’s going so fast!” marveled Billy as the millions mounted. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars every 30 seconds.”

Indeed, each wave of the auctioneer’s hand signified another $100,000 bid.

“I’m severely tempted to raise my hand for everyone,” Billy said, “but I’m afraid the bidding will stall as soon as I do.”

I reminded him that his wife had told him befrore we left to keep in mind that he was trying to sell a warehouse full of stuff back in Texas.

As he explained it later, “An autograph-seeker distracted me at the last second, and I missed the $10.1 million closing bid by a mere quarter-mill.”

But Billy was kindly taking the fall.

“No, Billy,” I interjected, fessing up to my responsibility.

“We’d have made it if I hadn’t blown $250,000 yesterday at the track—and if I’d gotten paid on time for my last bio.”

“Fucking record companies!” I sniffed.

“What’s a record company?” Billy asked.