By Carter B. Horsley
The Spring 2008 auction of
and Pre-Columbian Art is highlighted by several excellent works
including a male ancestor figure from Indonesia, a Baga serpent,
and a Songye Community power figure.
Lot 32 is a very good male
holding a vessel and wearing an elaborate crown with three crests
from Nias, Republic of Indonesia. It is 26 7/8 inches high and
is property from the estateof Ralph and Patricia Altman. Born
in Mannheim, Germany, Ralph C. Altman (1909-1967) emigrated to
the United States in 1937. In 1946 he opened Altman Antiques,
a gallery for "primitive art" in Los Angeles. In 1956,
he joined the University of California as a lecturer, and in 1963
was appointed the Founding Director of the Museum and Laboratories
of Ethnic Arts and Technology, later to become the Fowler Museum
at UCLA. He was instrumental in acquiring the Sir Henry Wellcome
Collection, which became the foundation of the Fowler's extraordinary
The lot has an estimate of
$40,000 to $60,000.
It sold for $157,000 including the buyer's premium as do all
results mentioned in this article.
The auction was quite
successful with a
sale total of $10,165,325, well above the pre-sale high estimate
of $6.7 million. Jean Fritts, director of African and Oceanic
Art, said after the auction that "we saw significant crossover
interest from collectors of Impressionist and Modern and Contemporary
Art who entered the field at the very highest levels of qualty,
seeking to collect great masterpieces."
Lot 132 is a "superb" frog
from warthog tusk from Lega, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It is 3 1/2 inches long and has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000.
The catalogue entry notes that another example is in the Musée
Royal de L'Afrique Centrale in Tervuren and that the work is
"The Tribal Arts of Africa," by Jean-Baptiste Bacquart
and "Belgium Collects African Art" by Dick Beaulieux.
It failed to sell.
Antelope headdresses are among
the most popular
works of African Art and Lot 106 is an unusually abstract design
of one from Bamama, Mali. It is described in the catalogue as
"superb" and described as sitting upon an aardvark and
having been in the collections of Everett Rassiga and Stephen
and Regina Humanitzki of New York and Pace Primitive and of having
been exhibited at the Museum of African Art in New York in 1995.
It is 15 inches high and has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000.
It sold for $61,000.
Many knives, especially from
Republic of the Congo, are spectacular sculptures. Lot 72 is a
pair of such knives, one 19 1/4 and the other 23 inches long,
the smaller in the form of a bird and the larger in the form of
two birds facing each other. The lot has a very modest estimate
of $4,000 to $6,000. The lot sold for $13,750.
Lot 7 is a superb hunting charm
from the Karawarari
River, Papua, New Guinea. Only 7 inches high, it was once it the
collection of Joop M. Felius of Deltft. It has an estimate of
$7,000 to $10,000. It sold for $12,500.
Lot 58 is described by the
catalogue as a "magnificent
and highly important Baga Serpent" from the Republic of Guinea.
It is 65 1/2 inches high and has an estimate of $1,500,000 to
$2,000,000. It sold for $3,289,000.
The catalogue description is
of vertical dynamically undulating form, the serpent rising from
a cylindrical base, with bulbous convex abdomen below the concave,
elegantly tapered neck surmounted by a protruding crescent lotos-shaped
head, decorated with triangular design in relief; exceptionally
fine aged patina with red, white and dark brown pigments."
The work was collected insitu
and Henri Kamer, 1957, who had a gallery in New York and was acquired
from them by Pierre Matisse who exhibited it in his gallery where
it was acquired by the present owner in 1967. It was subsequently
exhibited at the National Museum of African Art in 19987-8, the
Museum for African Art in New York in 1994-5, and the Metropoitan
Museum of Art in 2002-3.
The catalogue entry notes that
was one of eight similar figures collected on their only field
trip to Guinea in 1957 and that several from this group are now
in the collection of the Musée du Louvre, Pavillon des
Sessions (formerly the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, and the Menil Foundation in Houston.
The Baga live along African's
in what is today the Republic of Guinea and the catalogue mentions
that "Oral traditions recall how the ancestors of the Baga
and of peoples of related cultural heritage – Pukur, Bulunits,
Landuma, and Nalu – were driven out of their homeland in
the highlands of the mountainous Fouta Djallon region in the interior
of Guinea. According to this tradition, the Baga were expelled
by the Islamic Fulbe people because of their refusal to convert
to Islam, and also because their farming lifestyle was incompatible
with the destructive cattle-herding practices of the intruders.
Written history and archaeology confirm the historic validity
of these accounts and place the beginning of the Baga Diaspora
sometime before the fifteenth century." They brought along
their sacred masks included a serpent spirit headdress called
a-Mantsho-na-Tshol, "which is credited is credited with
guiding the ancestors toward new lands and protecting them by
inspiring fear in outsiders."
"Each Baga subgroup and each
its own account of the historical migration, describing the origin
in Fouta Djallon, the itinerary, and often the names of individuals
who led them. These accounts played a preeminent role in the hierarchic
organization of Baga society and continue to the present day.
Villages are divided into two to four sections, sometimes called
'tribes' among the Baga themselves. They are ranked according
to the order in which the respective ancestors are said to have
arrived from Fouta Djallon. Each section is subdivided into five
or six clans, ranked in the same manner. The clan of the founding
ancestor of section or village is preeminent. The Serpent Headdresses
are clan insignia, each representing one section of a village....
As incarnations of the spirit a-Mantsho-na-Tshol, they appeared
'at the end of the first level of the initiation for boys and
girls among certain Baga subgroups, and just before the actual
circumcision at the beginning of the boys' initiation among others.
In this context the headdress was sometimes identified as rainbow,
which the Baga and their neighbors associate with the beginnings
and endings, life and death, and the continuation of lineage –
all essential themes of the initiation cycle.' As to the challenges
of performing while wearing the tall figure, Lamp...elucidates:
"Sometimes but not always there are nail holes or grooves
in the base [as the case with the Dinhofer Baga Serpent], indicating
some way of securing the headdress to an armature. But it is hard
to explain how such a tall vertical column could be secured by
simply tying or even nailing the small basal support to anything.
The evidence suggests that the main support for these headdresses
was a cylindrical receptacle in the top of a conical armature
worn on the dancer's head. This and some kind of reinforcement,
such as nailing, pegging, or wrapping with cloths and twine at
the base of the column, would have aided the skillful dancer;
but rigorously careful balance would still have been the essential
force against gravity....Baga Serpents vary significantly in size,
the smallest measuring around 55 in. (140 cm) in height and the
largest up to 100 in. (254 cm). As the challenge of balancing
the headdress...increases with the figure's height, most of the
tall sculptures were carved to enable the dancer to keep the center
of gravity close to their vertical axis. As a consequence, the
carver emphasizes the frontal view and extends the serpent's abdomen
and head to the sides while at the same time reducing the figure's
curvature in profile.....While the surface decoration of the Dinhofer
Baga Serpent, an interlinked diamond-shape pattern in relief
with red, white and dark pigment, is classical and can be found
on other serpents, a special feature is the design of the face
with two triangles of nearly Pythagorean outline and a circular
eye mirrored by the figure's frontal ridge. This feature closely
relates to the aforementioned figure in the Musée du Louvre...and
another small serpent in The Cleveland Museum of Art, comparable
also for the elegant tapering of the neck."
Lot 170 is described in the
catalogue as a
"superb and highly important Songye Community power figure"
from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is 35 inches high
and has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for
The work was collected in situ by Gaston Heenen, Governor
of Katanga, before 1937 and was included in the 1999 exhibition
at the University of Iowa Museum of Art exhibition, "Kilengi:
African Art fromthe Bareiss Family Collection."
The catalogue provides the
"In 1937 the City of Antwerp
Olbrechts, the noted African art scholar, to organise a large
scale exhibition of Congolese art. The show Tentoonstelling van
Kongo-Kunst gathered 1525 objects from the Belgian Congo alongside
a selection of contemporary art "inspired by the Congo"
as well as a significant number of historical documents attesting
to Antwerp's rank as 'the first African colonial market'....The
show became not only a monument to Olbrechts but also a landmark
for museum history. While Olbrecht's desire to present the objects
as art and not ethnographical material followed the approach of
other major exhibitions of African art during the 1930s, his scientific
method of classification, which was based on stylistic, rather
than ethnic or geographic differences, represented a significant
departure from earlier attempts at classification. Olbrechts
this new system in both the show and in his brief essay for the
exhibition catalogue, which presents many ideas later elaborated
in his influential Plastiek van Kongo....The Antwerp exhibition
sourced primarily from the large collection of Congolese art in
Antwerp's Vleeschhuis-Museum, home to no fewer than 1600 Congolese
objects which the City had acquired from Henri Pareyn in 1920.
However, the display also borrowed a large number of objects from
private collectors, an important change from the approach of previous
exhibitions. As Olbrechts notes, this allowed to 'bring to light
many completely unknown objects'....Two of these "completely
unknown objects" are today venerated as great masterpieces
of Songye sculpture, and both were lent by Gaston Heenen: the
community power figure now in the Mestach Collection....and the
present lot. Born in 1880, Gaston Heenen joined the Belgian colonial
government in the Congo in 1911, and over the course of the next
20 years established himself as one of the most prominent figures
in the administration of the Congo. Heenen spent most of his time
in the province of Katanga, and from 1922 onwards became perhaps
the dominant figure in the life of the province for almost a decade,
serving as Vice Governor General from May 1928 - September 1931,
and from January 1932 - September 1933. Noted for following liberal
policies which often ran counter to those advocated by the central
administration in Léopoldville, Heenen was interested in
the history and culture of Congo's native tribes, and formed an
extensive collection of Congolese art during his time in Katanga,
as well as writing a history of the Luba people....Roy...notes:
'This is a large and impressive example of a very public nkishi
power figure that once served to protect an entire community.
To the wooden figure have been added elaborate strips of copper
on the face, buttocks and abdomen; several collars of snakeskin
and lizard hide containing magical materials; a strand of costly
blue Dutch beads and iron points, which form the regalia of a
chief and reflect the status of the figure; a large horn container
for magical materials; and a wooden, club-shaped object which
must represent a weapon. The major container for the bashimba
medicine is a large recess carved in the abdomen and sealed with
a copper plate. The figure is in the Kalebwe style, from the central
part of the Songye country. Its size indicates that it was a community
Lot 181 is described as a "fine
Kaguru Throne" by Tanzania. It is 45 5/8 inches high and
has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $37,000.
The catalogue describes "it as rising from four interlinked
legs with openwork design, the circular seat with a rectangular
backrest decorated on the reverse with intricately carved geometric
design in relief, surmounted by a human torso with spherical head
and crested coiffure; metal pegs inserted into base; fine, aged
varied brown patina." It also was exhibited at the University
of Iowa Museum of Art in the 1999 exhibition "Kilengi: African
Art from the Bareiss Family Collection."
Lot 13 is a powerful and nicely
stone mask, Late Pre Classic, circa 300-100 B.C. It is 6 inches
high and has an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000. It sold for
$18,750. The work is, according tothe catalogue,
by the serrated ear flanges and puckered mouth, with prominent
brows, nose and rounded cheeks, a horn projecting from the forehead;
pierced in four corners for attachment; in mottled porphyry."
"The horn," the entry contyinued, "is considered
an insignia of shaman, as shown on numerous West Mexican figures.
Combined with the agitated expression, this mask may be showing
a transformative, ecstatic shamanic experience."