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African & Oceanic Art

Sotheby's

2 PM, May 19, 2000

Sale 7474

Hawaiian feather cape

Lot 170, Hawaiian feather cape, 27 1/8 by 16 1/8 inches

By Carter B. Horsley

The Spring 2000 art auction season has been remarkably strong, setting many records for individual artists, and with very high sale/buy-in ratios with the exception of the first evening sale at Phillips of Impressionist and Modern Art, at which only about 3 out of 5 lots sold, and this auction in which barely just more than half the lots were sold, the poorest sale of the season so far.

Tribal Art has generally not experienced as much escalation as some other major areas in recent years and its auction sales have been mixed. The disappointing results apparently reflect the still relatively small field of collectors, who have been highly selective and concentrating mostly on works of the highest quality, but even so, many of the best lots, have been bought in, possibly because the market is resisting some of the higher estimates. As a result, the field is one of the few that still affords many opportunities for the astute with some money.

The cover illustration of the auction catalogue, Lot 170, a Hawaiian feather cape, 27 1/8 by 16 1/8 inches, shown above, sold within its estimates for $335,750, which includes the buyer's premium as do all sales results in this article. It was one of several important lots consigned by the Niagara Falls Museum in Canada. It was acquired in the 19th Century by Thomas Barnett, the museum's founder. Captain James Cook collected about 30 similar capes, which are known as ahu'ula and cloaks on his visit to Hawaii in1778-9, the first Western contact with the Hawaiian culture. "Notwithstanding a shared repertoire of motifs, limited in number and simple in form, no two ahu'ula are exactly, or even superficially alike (except for late nineteenth-centuiry replicas made in quantity for pageantry). Most capes and cloaks were designed and made for specific individuals, it is often assumed, and in time became recognized as a unique representative of that individual....Cape and cloaks (and helmets) functioned primarily as battlegarb displayed in warfare, where their unique designs served to identify graphically and immediately a man of rank glimsped from afar during the heat of battle," the catalogue noted, adding that there are more than a 100 such capes in public collections.

Another item from the museum, Lot 171, a Austral Islands necklace with nine waisted "seat" pendants and six pendants carved as testicles,fashoned from twisted fiber bound with braided human hair, and a single ivory figure carved inthe form of a boar, sold for $313,750. It had a high estimate of $250,000. Such necklaces, the catalogue maintained,"are among the rarest and most mysterious of Polynesian artifacts" and less than 20 are known to exist and "the present example is unique in having so many ivory and bone elements."

Oceanic art faired somewhat better than African art at this auction. Lot 156, for example, a rare New Guinea, Karawari River, small wooden crocodile totem, 38 1/4 inches long, sold for $18,000 and had a high estimate of $12,000, and Lot 152, a New Caledonian wooden door jamp, 5 feet 2 3/4 inches high with faded black pigment decoration and old weathered patina, sold for $23,750 and had a high estimate of $8,000.

A quite remarkable, 11 3/4-inch-high, abstract stone sculpture believed torepresent a spiny anteater, Lot 144, described as "a rare and important prehistoric New Guinea stone carving," possibly dating back more than 3,500 years, sold for $27,200, just over its high estimate of $25,000.

Lot 129, a fine Coastal Sepik River mask, 20 inches high, sold for $38,125, almost four times its low estimate. Lot 130, an exceptionally attractive, "rare Upper Sepick River, Kwoma people, terracotta head, 12 inches high, however, sold for $9,600 and had a low estimate of $10,000. A 7 1/4-inch-high Marquesas Islands stone figure, Lot 165, sold for $8,400 and had a high estimate of $3,500 and a 17-inch-long Maori hand club sold for $9,000 and had a high estimate of $6,000.

One of the most abstract African pieces was Lot 181, shown below, a Dogon seated figure with, the catalogue noted, "opposing L-shaped limbs projecting from the columnar body with incised linear decoration, beneath a domed head with joined block hands covering the face, the right ear in relief; fine heavily encrusted dark brown patina." The 5 3/4-inch-high figure sold within its estimates for $7,200 and an nearly identical figure is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Seated Dogon figure

Lot 181, seated Dogon figure, 5 3/4 inches high

An impressive, crouching Djenne figure, 10 1/2 inches high, Lot 189, shown below, sold within its estimates for $69,750 and according to the catalogue testing by the Oxford University Laboratory dates the figure circa 934-1284 A.D.

Crouching Djenne figure

Lot 189, crouching Djenne figure, 10 1/2 inches high, circa 934-1284 A.D.

Lot 225, a "magnificent rare Grebo mask," 17 3/4 inches high, shown below, was consigned by the Collection of Mario Meneghini, Italy, who lived in Liberia for 22 years starting in 1963. The catalogue suggested that the lot "is probably the oldest Grebo mask known" and added that "Picasso was inspired by a related mask which he purchased in Marseille in 1912 when he created Guitare, 1912, nowin the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The lot sold for $225,750 and had a high estimate of $225,000.

Grebo mask

Lot 225, "magnificent rare Grebo mask," 17 3/4 inches high

Some of the finest African wood sculptures have fabulous patinas, such as Lot 246, shown below, a "superb" Yoruba Eshu dance staff, 15 inches high. The kneeling figure has his hands tucked underhis shins and wears "a striking backswept coiffure tapering to a point, adorned with gourd-like forms" and has faded blue pigment and ochre infilled decoration. The catalogue noted that "When the figures were kept in a shrine they are hung upside down in 'trickster' fashion. The lot sold within its estimate for $12,000.

Yoruba Eshu dance staff

Lot 246, a "superb" Yoruba Eshu dance staff, 15 inches high

The highlight of the sale was Lot 257, a rare and important Fang male reliquary guardian figure with his left arm grasping his right arm which is holding his cheek, 20 5/8 inches high, shown below. The catalogue noted that the piece "has an illustrious history" and was formerly in the collection of Georges de Miré in Paris and Frank Crowninshield. "It was the artist John Graham who was primarily responsible for the range and quality of Frank Crowninshield's collection of African Art. Graham purchased many of the works in Paris, and indeed the content of the collection expressed a strong emphasis on work from the French colonies....In keeping with his idea of naming individual African works in order to emphasize their uniqueness and their masterpiece quality, Graham wrote the following about the offered lot: " Child figure, Pahouin, holding its cheek. Unusual example as to posture and pose.'" The catalogue notes that the pose is quite rare and there are only three other known examples. The lot had an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000, but failed to sell.

Fang male reliquary guardian figure

Lot 257, a rare and important Fang male reliquary guardian figure, 20 5/8 inches high

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See The City Review article on the Fall 1999 African and Oceanic Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1999 African and Oceanic Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Fall 1998 Sotheby's African and Oceanic Art Auction

See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 Sotheby's African and Oceanic Art Auction

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