By Carter B. Horsley
This auction of African and Oceanic Art at Sothebys,
November 19, 1999, abounds in many very choice works of art, many
with relatively low estimates.
The sale total of $3,088,212, however, was
not too spectacular, nor was the fact that only 63.71 percent
of the offered lots sold, a very low percentage.
"There was extremely active bidding...,
both in the room and on the telephone," Jean Fritts, specialist
in charge of the auction, said after the sale. "There were
old buyers as well as a presence of new collections. Collectors
are informed and educated and they know what they are looking
for. The percentage sold was quite typical of how the market has
been in the past several years," she said.
While masks and statuettes comprise most of
the lots offered, many of the more interesting items are ritualistic
Lot 91, for example, is a very handsome Benin
"bird of prophecy" clapper that was meant to be played
at the Benin court by striking the bird figure on its beak with
a metal rod and the sound was interpreted as a good or bad omen.
The 12 ¼-inch-high bronze piece, shown
at the left, is cast in a hollowed cylindrical form with a waisted
section decorated with repeating dots and circles, encircled by
a band of cast coral beads beneath a perforated section for resonance
a secondary row of coral beads, beneath the circular platform
supplanted by a "bird of prophecy" with outstretched
wings, long tail feathers and an elongated curved beak holding
a small round element, "a morsel" that the catalogue,
which contains numerous typographic errors, noted is "purported
to be a bundle of magical substance." Although the catalogue
remarks that this type of "clapper" was "first
made in the sixteenth century," no date for this work is
given. This is a fine example of Benin craftsmanship and has a
conservative high estimate of $9,000. It sold for $10,925 including
the buyer's premium as do all sales prices in this article.
Lot 17, shown at the right, is a large, Dogon ritual
vessel with an equestrian figure on the lid and the vessel supported
by a horse. The horses are quite abstract with large triangular
heads but the riders head is finely carved. The 33 ½-inch-high
wooden object has a high estimate of only $10,000.
Another Dogon piece is Lot 25, a 39-inch-high,
two-panel, granary door decorated with five rows of figures. It
has an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $9,200.
A far more impressive "door" is Lot
128, a fine and rare Yoruba door, 20 7/8 inches high by 13 3/8
inches long. Rather than the simple archaic multiple figures of
the Dogon doors, this very finely carved door depicts only an
equestrian figure in very high relief with "an exceptionally
fine patina of dark ochre red with remains of camwood and indigo
on the hat." The rider is holding elaborate reins and has
a large sword in a scabbard.
The catalogue describes this as an "exceptional
example of virtuosity at the highest level of Yoruba carving"
and supplies the following description of it by William Fagg:
"This superb carving of a small door on
which is sculpted a figure of a mounted warrior, is clearly seen
to be complete and not, for example, cut down from a large door;
the ends of the horses tail, obviously not retouched are
shown passing onto the outer edge of the door. The degree of the
disengagement of the figure from the door, amounting almost to
all-around relief, is, in my opinion without parallel in Yoruba
art, exceeding even that on the famous doors of the great carver
Olowe of Ise. In fact, if the piece, as I think possible, is [sic]
was done somewhere in the Oshogbo-Kobu-Erin area, the carver must
have been familiar with Olowes door at the palace at Kesha
(50 or [sic] miles from Olowes home town.). The carving
is exceptionally fine and bold and is carried on right around
to the back of the figure facing the door. The warrior appears
to be the chief hunter (Ashipa) of hi[s] village, as is shown
by the long pendant from his hat. The door may have been an honorific
door, for example, to a small compartment used for housing a precious
or sacred object, rather than an effective form of protection.
The latter part of the nineteenth century seem[s] a possible date
The lot, which is shown above, has a conservative
high estimate of $60,000. It was passed.
Another interesting Yoruba work is Lot 133,
a "rare and superb" 34 1/8-inch-long oliphant surmounted
with a carved lioness of considerable style above the embouchure
and a stylized crocodile in high relief beneath the embouchure.
An ivory disk attached to the stand is inscribed "Carved
tusk said to have been taken from King Kosokos town/Brought
to England from Lagos by the Expedition of 1851 (?)." It
has an estimate of $35,000 to $45,000. It was passed.
A very interesting and impressive work is Lot
357, a "fine and rare" Tshokwe tobacco container, 17
½ inches high. A male figure supports a flat panel carved
in high relief with numerous figures against a background of alternating
incised triangles and the panel is surmounted by the cylindrical
tobacco container that is carved in high relief with the figures
of five woman. The carving is superb and the work has a fine dark
brown patina. What is especially striking is the variety of poses
that give great animation to the piece and the fact that the front
of the panel, which is decorated on both sides, has a diagonal
rather than a horizontal line separating the two rows of figures.
The base of the piece is a thin metal spike. This lot, which is
shown below, has a conservative high estimate of $35,000. It was
consigned from the collection of Joseph and Doris Gerofsky and
the catalogue quotes a 1980 letter from Marie-Louise Bastin that
it falls in the tradition of such objects in the 19th Century
and that she did not doubt its authenticity or age. It was
Lot 189 is a "magnificent" Solomon
Islands canoe prow ornament, or figurehead, 14 inches long, in
the form of a male head with inlaid shell eyes beneath a massive
domed crown with elaborate raised markings on the face inlaid
with sections of shell. The lot came from the collection of Adolf
Hoffmeister of Prague, who acquired it from Charles Ratton in
Paris. The lot, which has an encrusted black patina, has a high
estimate of $70,000. It sold for $123,500, a world record for
such a piece.
Lot 190 is a "fine" New Caledonian
house finial, 8 ½-feet tall, that was once in the collection
of the Museum dür Völkerkunde in Dresden. The top of
this striking piece has a tapering finial with 15 opposing triangles
ascending and the center of it is an abstract janiform figure
whose head is inset in an openwork circular frame. This has a
rather conservative high estimate of $10,000. It sold for $11,500.
Lot 195 is a "fine and rare" Middle
Yuat River, Biwat (Mundugamor) sacred flute-stopper figure, 23-inch-high
figure of a man with a small body and a very large head with a
beard of mudpack overlaid by hair and shells who is wearing a
crown overlaid by a mudpack with feathers and shells. The catalogue
notes that "The Biwat carved elaborate flutes, sometimes
up to eight or ten feet in length, and considered the flutes their
most important and sacred objects" and that the stoppers
fit the terminus of the flutes, which were "considered to
be the children of the mother crocodile spirit that performed
creative deeds in primeval times and let the initiates be reborn
by symbolically swallowing and throwing out the candidates."
This lot has a conservative high estimate of $50,000. It sold
Lot 202A is a nicely carved, 18 4/4-inch-tall,
stilt footstep from the Marquesas Islands with a reddish-brown
patina that has a high estimate of $7,000. It sold for $5,750.
Lot 74 is a "magnificent" Dan female
wooden spoon, 18 ¾ inches high, with a black patina that
is the cover illustration of the catalogue (an illustration that
is quite artsy with multiple shadows).
The catalogue waxes at some length over this
"While the and symbolism of the Dan spoon
has been well established, the level of sculptural sophistication
and abstraction which the carver of this spoon has reached in
the working of this superb example is almost without parallel
in African art. The suggestion of a human form in the muscularity
of the leg is here combined with an elegant use of hollowed spaces
on the back of the torso and reverse of the spoon. In addition,
the surface decoration in the form of scarification and incised
notches serve to highlight the overall form."
While there is no question that the luster
of such pieces and their form are marvelous, there are, of course,
many other even more impressive and dramatic and wondrous examples
of "sculptural sophistication and abstraction
art." This piece, which is missing part of the left foot,
is nice with a very fine patina and has an estimate of $70,000
to $90,000. It sold for $129,000, a world record price for
such a piece.
Lot 94 is a superb Akan terracotta head, Hemang-Twifo
style, a 12-inch-high head of grayish-brown patina with considerable
erosion of the large coiffure with most of its circular knobs
eroded away. Despite the condition, however, this lot, shown below,
is an exquisite sculpture of great delicacy and its arched brows
would intimidate/inspire Modigliani. It has a high estimate of
$30,000. It sold for $19,550.
In contrast to the serenity of Lot 94, Lot
142 is a dramatic and fearsome Bungain Peoples mask from New Guinea.
The 16-inch-tall mask has a very long beaked nose with eyes defined
by inset plugs encircled by elaborate concentric motifs. The catalogue
notes that "masks like this were associated with a male mythical
being called parak who played an important part in ceremonial
life," adding that it "would have been worn along with
a cloak of colored sago palm leaf fibers which concealed the dancer
and that the small holes along the upper edge of the pierced nasal
septum would have been decorated with fiber tufts and small shells."
The lot has an estimate of $35,000 to $45,000. It sold for
$85,000, a world record for such a piece.
A more powerful work is Lot 191, a "rare"
Vanatu fernwood head with a large pig affixed to the reverse and
a flat disc with tapering conical section overlaid with terracotta
at the crown. This 58 ½-inch-tall work rises from a thick
cylindrical base is related to a similar work at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art. The face has large bulbous eyes and many ridges
and the quality of the designs abstraction is formidable.
Pigs were highly valued in Vanatu culture and these fernwood pieces
are fabulous as the texture conjures ghosts and the dust of the
ages. This lot has a conservative high estimate of $25,000.
It sold for $13,800!
A fascinating and stunning work is Lot 16,
a fine New Ireland Malangan mask "of hollowed helmet form
and pierced aound the rim with a fiber beard pendant beneath the
open pierced beak-like mouth and the facial plane composed of
two panels joining in a linear nose with a jagged ridge at the
front...beneath a tapa cloth headdress...the face finely decorated
with a linear motif of black, red ochre and white pigments,"
according to the catalogue description. The 17-inch-high mask
has an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It failed to sell.
One of the handsomest sculptures in the auction is
Lot 218, shown at the left, a fine and rare Nias ancestor figure,
which is 22 inches high. The exquisitely carved work depicts a
man with bent legs holding a cup. He has a very long ornament
on his right ear as part of the carving and is wearing a tall
spiked crown from which other ornaments might be attached. The
lot has a conservative high estimate of $70,000. It sold for
Other good lots include Lot 238 a "fine"
Fang reliquary guardian figure, 22 ¼ inches high, that
is holding a medicine stick and has a high estimate of only $50,000.
It sold for $87,500. Another one, Lot 268, is several inches
smaller but has a red ochre patina and hairstyle and no medicine
stick and has a high estimate of $90,000. It sold for $71,250.
A more traditional such figure is Lot 286, which has a high estimate
of $120,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 324 is a good, 15-inch-high, Kongo figure
with a large inset mirror on its chest and an elaborate mudpack
medicine bundle on the head and a high estimate of $60,000. It
sold for $79,500.
A very fine, 14-inch-high, Tabwa stool is Lot
278, which has a circular base that supports a crouching male
figure with his arms held open and away from the body. The work
has a very good patina and a conservative high estimate of $35,000.
It sold for $85,000.
Lot 300 is a fine Songe figure, 30 inches high,
with a necklace of leopards teeth and a studded face. It
was formerly in the collection of Helena Rubenstein and has a
high estimate of $22,000. It sold for $140,000!
Lot 231 is a 19-inch-high female figure with
the head of a child beneath her abdomen from the Ku NGan
Society in Cameroon, Bamileke that has a high estimate of $100,000.
It sold for $90,500, a world record for such a piece.
Lot 373 is an eerie and beautiful Madagascar
female torso, 38 3/4 inches tall, with sensational eroded and
weathered wood with deep vertical grain. This ghost-like figure
has a very conservative high estimate of $10,000. It failed