By Carter B. Horsley
Chaim Gross was a well-known
sculptor who happened
to amass a very important collection of tribal art.
An essay by Irwin Hersey in the
the following commentary:
"Chaim Gross (1904-1991) was
of the first generation of great American collectors of Afri8can
art - a generation that included such famous figures as the
patent-medicine king Albert Barnes, Vanity Fair
Frank Crowninshield and the well-known Russian-American artist
John Graham. Chaim once told me that he became interested in African
art because of his friendship with Graham. Graham always bought
too much on his trips to Europe with Crowninshield in the 1920s-30s
and, since he was always broke and in need of money, he frequently
tried to sell some of his excess pieces. Early on, Chaim bought
a few of them, and he was hooked for the rest of his life. After
World War II, Chaim himself began to make periodic trips to Europe,
particularly to Paris. Since he had already become a steady buyer
Chaim soon knew all the major dealers and slowly but surely began
to built his great collection....In addition to building one of
the world's greatest collections, Chaim turned many of his friends
- and particularly his artist friends - into African art collectors,
among them the composer Harold Rome..., and the great American
photogaphers Eliot Elisofon...and Arnold Newman....."
Lot 55 is a "superb" Suku mask
the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is 12 1/2 inches high
and was acquired in the 1970s from Jim Camp of New York. It is
a fabulous mask and has a modest estimate of $20,000 to $30,000.
It sold for $43,750 including the buyer's premium.
The auction was quite
successful with 80.2
percent of the 81 offered lots selling for $4,88,316.
Another piece from the
of the Congo is Lot 58 is a strong Songye power figure. It is
17 1/2 inches high and has an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000.
It sold for $9,735. It has a water buck
horn on top
of the head, domestic goat hair on the head and two domestic goat
horns attached to the arms.
Lot 38 is a quite terrifying
mask from Cameroon. It is 13 1/2 inches high and has estimate
of $12,000 to $18,000. It sold for $27,500. It is
many pieces in the Gross collection that came from Frank W.
and John D. Graham.
Lot 9 is a "magnificent Soninke
figure from Mali. It is 30 inches tall and is dated to the 12th
to the 15th centuries. It has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000.
It sold for $530,500, an auction record for a Soninke piece.
The catalogue entry for the lot
"The magnificent hermaphrodite
from the Gross Collection is one of a small group of wooden figures
that were found in caves at the southwest side of the Bandiagara
cliff in central Mali. All figures appear to be of great age,
and several were tested by the C-14 method and produced dates
ranging from the 10th to the 15th century. The earliest known
date (975 A.D. +/- 45 years) comes from the large statue with
raised arms in the Musée du Quai Branly, previously in
the Hélène and Philippe Leloup Collection....Today
Soninke figures are found in major institutional collections,
including: the famous figure of a horse-rider in the Minneapolis
Institute of Arts...; a standing figure, wearing a skirt and holding
a ceremonial dolaba over its shoulder, in the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, New York...; a figure with similar posture in The Menil
Collection, Houston...; another standing figure in the Dallas
Museum of Art...; and a hermaphrodite figure with the same arm
posture as the offered lot in the New Orleans Museum of
in the style of the Gross Soninke are extremely rare. They are
believed to have been created by the population of the region
to the southwest of the Bandiagara cliff in Mali, at a time before
the current Dogon population settled in this area. While Hélène
Leloup...refers to the creators of these statues as 'Djennenke,'
Bernard de Grunne...calls them 'Soninke.' Apart from this titular
difference, both authors use the same criteria for identification
and have emphasized the close stylistic and iconographic links
between the wooden figures in question and the terracotta figures
commonly referred to as 'Djenne.' They both agree that the terracotta
figures and the wood figures are remnants of the same culture.
Leloup...notes: 'Djennenke wooden
slightly taller than the average Dogon sculpture and they are
rendered with greater virtuosity and realism. They resemble the
terra-cotta sculptures from the Pondori region....Their stylistic
similarities are certain for they share common morphological features:
elongated body, thin nose, protuberant eyes....Although these
statues are sculpted in different materials, they also share one
distinct common trait: tegumental scarifications, signs of membership
to one and the same clan.' Elsewhere Leloup...: 'The wooden statues
found on the [Bandiagara] Plateau are very different from Dogon-Mande
statues because of their realistic conception. Stylistically,
they are remarkably similar to the terra-cotta statuettes found
in archaeological digs in the Pondori region, especially in
these] two types of sculpture (wood and terra-cotta) can be attributed
to one and the same civilization because they have the same age
and display similar stylistic characteristics - especially the
scarifications - which are determinant in identifying the artists
but which are placed in different parts of the body.' As the lifespan
of wood depends on the climatic circumstances of its preservation,
it is uncommon for African wood sculpture to survive for centuries.
The group of Soninke sculptures in question presumably owes its
preservation to the extraordinary conservatory conditions at the
site of their discovery within practically inaccessible caves
of the southeastern cliff of the Bandiagara Plateau in central
Mali. The figures were remote from insects and rodents, in a stable
and dry environment that allowed the wood to survive for centuries.
Leloup assumes that the wooden statues
inside the caves when the Djenne Empire was invaded by the Islamic
and iconoclastic Songhay in the 15th century. On January 18, 1469
the capital of the Djenne empire, Djenne-Jenno, was defeated in
'immense bloodshed'....The surrounding chiefdoms allied with Djenne
were pillaged by the invaders. To safeguard their religious carvings
from destruction by the Songhay, the Soninke leaders fled to the
Bandiagara cliffs, taking their most precious possessions with
them, including their important ancestor statues. There they seem
to have hidden the figures with the hope of retrieving them at
a future date. The Soninke, however, never returned, and it was
not until the 1930s that the caves and their contents were rediscovered
by the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule....The dates suggested
by Leloup correspond with the presumed settling date of the Dogon
in the area....Soninke figures are more naturalistic and elegant
in comparison with the more geometric and cubistic approach taken
by Dogon artists. The face is elongated and narrow, with a fine
nose, protruding eyes, and a rectangular block of multiple horizontal
lines of scarification marks leading from the eyes to the ears.
According to de Grunne..., this scarification motif identifies
the figures as representations of Soninke "aristocrats"
from the Kagoro clan, which, in the 13th century, had fled the
Dogon-Mande kingdom due to dynastic controversies, as well as
the increasing influence of Islam. De
a group of three hermaphrodite figures of a very similar style,
which he attributed to a workshop he called 'Master of Ireli,'
based on the name of the village in which one of these figures
was found. These figures share several features, including: the
general proportions of the body with wide pelvis and narrow shoulders;
the shape of the breasts with ridged nipples, possibly a ritual
scarification; a rectangular amulet suspended from the neck; the
vertical oval shape of the head, the form of the beard, the C-shaped
ears and the same amount of horizontal rows of scarification marks
between the eyes and the ears; and the oval protruding mouth with
the tongue between the lips. The Soninke Hermaphrodite from the
Gross Collection, showing these characteristics, can be attributed
to the Ireli workshop. While all four figures wear bracelets,
only three are wearing anklets....Different from the other comparable
figures is the hairstyle of the Gross Soninke, which displays
a shaved head with a long strand of hair on top tied into a bun.
According to Leloup..., this hairstyle, a 'bun on top of the head,
with the hair wrapped by ribbons (accentuating an elongated silhouette)
- was traditional for Nono [another Soninke clan] chiefs. It
to that on the oldest statues, whose style is the purest.'
The swollen abdomen, more or less
all four figures, can be interpreted as a sign of pregnancy....Little
is known about the precise meaning of the hermaphrodite figures.
Assuming continuity in oral traditions, however, between the
Dogon population and their territorial predecessors, the Soninke,
we can transfer our understanding of this iconography within the
spiritual belief system of the successors (Dogon) into the one
of the predecessors (Soninke). Hélène Leloup notes:
'Among the most spectacular sculptures, we find the mysterious
hermaphrodites. To understand these statues, one must clarify
the Dogon concept of perfection deriving from the re-union of
what was separated. For young initiates, these statues expressed
the necessity of the dualism existing in nature, the social
between men and women, the distinction between the sexes - dualism
one had to transgress in order to attain perfection and continuity
in life. We have here the illustration of a typical Dogon concept:
the male contains the female who also contains the male....These
atypical beings are said to represent the 'eight primordial ancestors,
born of the couple fashioned by God [who] could inseminate themselves,
each being double and of both sexes'..., principle that disappeared
after the incest and the birth of the human couple.' Based on
this interpretation, the Soninke Hermaphrodite from the Gross
Collection appears to be a likeness of a proto-human primordial
ancestor or a mythical hero."
Lot 41 is a "rare and
Bete mask from the Ivory Coast. It is 15 inches high and has an
estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It sold for $31,250.
It was acquired from John D.
Graham of New
York in the 1940s who had got it from Frank W. Crowninshield who
originally acquired it prior to 1937 from Mr. Graham. It was exhibited
as the Brooklyn Museum in the 1937 exhibition "African Negro
Art: The Collection of Frank Crowninshield."
Lot 25 is a superb, "extremely
important Senufo kneeling female figure" from the Ivory Coast.
It is 11 3/4 inches high and was acquired from Merton D. Simpson
in the 1950s. It has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It
sold for $758,500.
The catalogue entry by
Professor Dr. Till Forster
of the Institute for Social Anthropology of the University of
Basel for the lot describes it "by virtue of its quality
and iconography, an extraordinary work of art," adding that
"the kneeling posture of this sculpture is very rare."
"The sculpture," according to
catalogue, "shows the typical style of the Fodombele (Fodonon)
villages in the central region of Senufoland in northern Côte
d'Ivoire. The region is mainly inhabited by Tyebara-speaking Senufo,
who also produced most of the artworks that were collected in
the area after World War II. The late 1940s and early 1950s were
a time when a movement of religious revival - the cult of Massa
- rocked Senufo culture and society. The priests of the cult urged
many owners of such artworks to abandon them in favor of the new
and iconoclastic cult. They also penetrated the villages that
were inhabited by the small minority of the Fodombele, who spoke
another dialect and still maintained a rural culture with sacred
forests, to which very few Tyebara had access. The famous sculptures
of Lataha, now in major international collections, were also abandoned
at the time and then 'discovered' by a missionary and subsequently
collected by art traders. It is likely that this kneeling figure
was collected around the same time and probably in the same region.
The style of the figure, in particular its head and upper body,
comes close to the one of the standing figure now in the Rietberg
Museum, Zurich....Though the comb representing the hairdo is slightly
bigger and more dominating, the facial expression is very similar.
It shows the same protruding jaws, mouth, and lips. The fine,
gently-curved line that separates the cheeks from the frontal
part of the face is also similar to the one that present scholarship
associates with the so-called workshop of Lataha. The style of
this workshop is also visible in the treatment of the arms. Though
the lower arms and hands do not show the same grace and downward-bound
shape of the most famous Lataha sculptures, they are still close
to how the carvers elaborated the hands of their figures. The
long and straight ornamental scars on the cheeks and also on the
upper arms, however, do not belong to Fodombele culture. Since
the Fodombele had no carvers, they ordered their wooden figures
and masks from the neighboring Senufo groups, in particular from
the Kulibele, another Tyebara-speaking subgroup, which specialized
in wood carving. The Kulibele carvers possibly depicted what they
were familiar with and added scarification marks representing
their own cultural context. The backward bend of the body and,
in particular, the kneeling posture of the figure, make it a unique
example of Senufo art. Almost all Senufo ceremonies and rituals
demand upright figures, while the kneeling and forwardly-bent
body is a typical position in daily work. Women often do fieldwork
and housework in such postures. The figure is comparatively high
for an object that might have been part of a diviner's ensemble,
but it is also too small for an object of poro, the men's secret
society. The figure, however, shows clear signs of use, and it
has a fine patina that points to a long integration into ritual
practices. It may have been part of the female sando'o society,
which was a complement to the male dominated poro. This secret
society had paraphernalia that were kept undisclosed to men, and
later to researchers, which may explain why no other example with
similar iconography was ever recorded."
Lot 73 is a "superb and rare"
figure, either Ngbandi, or Ngbanka or Mbanza from the Democratic
Republic of the Congo. It is 15 1/2 inches high and has chicken
feathers attached around its neck and waist. It has an estimate
of $100,000 to $150,000. It failed to sell.
The catalogue entry notes that
(2007: 9, with a citation of Ludwig Wittgenstein) notes: 'In the
heart of Africa lies an area - known as Ubangi - in which the
arts share 'a complicated network of similarities overlapping
and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes
similarities of detail'.' The offered lot, a superb specimen of
Ubangian sculpture, is exemplary for the artistic production of
this melting pot, uniting characteristics of Ngbandi, Mbanza and
Ngbaka styles. The Ngbaka, Mbanza and Ngbandi are neighboring
peoples in the southern Ubangi region between the Ubangi and Congo
rivers. The vertical line of scarification on the forehead can
be found in statues from all three styles. According to Burssens
(in Grootaers 2007: 114), the 'sculpture of the Ngbandi has by
far the most recognizable characteristics [among the different
styles found in the Ubangi region]. For example, Ngbandi sculptors
certainly made fairly slender statues with a pointed, cut-out
hairstyle. At the time, the hair of both men and women was shaved
in an inverted 'V' above the forehead." However, while the
hairstyle of the Gross figure seems to match this description,
the legs resemble certain figures attributed to the Mbanza or
Banda...and the posture of the arms recalls several figures attributed
to the Ngbaka...."
Lot 79 is a "superb" Purari
kvoi board from Papua New Guinea. It is 45 1/2 inches high and
has an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It sold for $28,125.
The sculpture has a wonderful and very elegant form and
Another work from the
Democratic Republic of
the Congo is Lot 60, a Kongo-Vili power figure that is 12 1/4
inches high. It has an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000 and
for $31,250. This lot was formerly owned by Mr. Graham and
Lot 34 is a "superb and
Benin bronze plaque from Nigeria circa 16th-17th Century. It is
16 1/2 inches high. It has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.
It sold for $458,500.
The plaque was owned by The
in London from 1898 to 1952 when it was acquired by John J. Klejman
of New York who sold it to Gross in 1957. Sir Ralph Moor, Commissioner
and Consul General of His Majesty in the Niger Coast Protectorate
sent 304 plaques to Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquis
of Salisbury, Principal secretary to his Majesty for Foreign Affairs
and helent them to the British Museum where they were exhibited
in the Assyrian Room in 1897. After their exhibition 104 placques
were sold "to pay for the expenses of the [1897 British Punitive]
Expedition and to offer a pension to its participants or their
survivors," according to the catalogue entry for this lot.
"The offered plaque," the
notes, "depicts a finely-cast single figure, probably a war
commander and a chief, as suggested by the high coral neckband
and a leopard's tooth necklace. His clothes are a surcoat of leopard
skin, and a loin-cloth, presumably of the same material, a mark
of high status. He wears an unusual hat with a feather plume now
broken on the top. The shape of the hat is more than likely modeled
on a grenadier hat. In the late 1600s the wide brims of the traditional
military hats were at odds with the grenadier's throwing arm,
and a hat without a brim was devised, soon spreading throughout
the European military....The hat worn by the figure on the Gross
plaque was more than likely modeled on a Portuguese form of grenadiers'
hats. The Benin Kingdom had been in a trading relationship with
Portuguese merchants since the 15th/16th century, and influences
of this contact can often be seen in Benin art. The figure carries
an eden sword in his left hand, a marker of the status of a chief
in the court of Benin."
Lot 67 is a "magnificent, rare
important Ngbaka statue representing the mystical ancestor Sètò
from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is 19 inches high.
It has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for
It has been widely published
and was formerly in the collections of Mr. Graham and Mr. Crowninshield.
The catalogue provides the
"Until very recently, more
before Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers' important exhibition and encyclopedic
2007 monograph Ubangi: Art and Cultures from the African
Ubangian sculpture was the last major unstudied area of art from
sub-Saharan Africa. Notwithstanding this lack of information and
the general rarity of Ubangi art, the inventive and powerful aesthetics
particularly of statuary have always enjoyed the interest of
and in particular of the early 20th-century avant-garde....In
this context, it is interesting to note that the offered lot was
previously owned by another artist from Chaim Gross's circle of
friends, the painter John Graham who also knew Picasso. Gross
considered the figure a universal masterpiece and counted it among
the favorite pieces in his collection. According to the great
African art scholar William Fagg..., it is 'the finest from the
area.' The Ubangi region in central Africa spans three different
countries: the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic
of the Congo, and Sudan. It houses a cluster of societies with
strong historical, linguistic, and anthropological
to Meurant..., the Ngbaka (Ngbaka-minagende) 'are the largest
population group in the western Ubangi area, whose centre (Gemena)
they occupy. [...] The sculptures usually display the typical
scarifications found on Ngbaka faces: a vertical line dividing
the face from the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose,
lines (or chevrons) joining the ears to the eyes, and sometimes
a horizontal line at the bottom of the forehead.' Among the Ngbaka,
male and female human figures were placed at shrines as representations
of the mythical ancestor Sètò and his sister-spouse,
Nàbo. As Burssens...notes: 'The Ngbaka call their Supreme
Being Gàlè, and the cult dedicated to him was more
important than such cults were elsewhere in Ubangi. Gàlè
was the source of life and the bringer of fertility among women.
At the entrance to a dwelling, a fast growing kapok tree (gìlà)
would be planted in his honour. Yet, in spite of his significance,
in daily life other supernatural beings were more important. Ngbaka
myths reveal the existence of another Great Spirit, Gbògbòsò
(also spelled Gbaso), the creator of heaven and earth, water and
fire, plants and animals. People owed their existence to yet another
being, Sètò or To, who is visible nightly in the
constellation Orion and who is also the most important hero in
Ngbaka fables. He would have a shrine, a toa to, next to that
of the ancestors. Sometimes two wooden statuettes were placed
nearby, one male, one female, which represented Sètò
and his sister-spouse, Nàbo. Although Sètò
was considered the first - albeit mythical ancestor - the ancestors
themselves were never depicted.'.Henrix...adds:
Sètò, a trickster character, 'was believed to live
in the forest in the shape of a very tall human being. His sister,
who was also his wife, was called Nàbo. Sètò
managed to steal all creatures away from Gbògbòsò,
and for this reason was regarded by the Ngbaka as their ancestor.
They would say, 'It's thanks to Sètò that we exist.
Without him Gbògbòsò would have eaten us
all.' Sètò was invoked during certain ndábà
rites. 'As it was dangerous
to visit Sètò
in the bush, his statuette would be set up in the village. Soft
wood would be collected and one or two figurines made, representing
Sètò, or Sètò and Nàbo. These
were blackened and covered in red kúlà powder from
the camwood tree. A cola nut was then chewed and the fibers spat
onto the figures. The statuettes were kept in the homes of their
owners and sometimes taken out for [the] ndábà rites
[...] - the ndábà being an altar in the form of
a seat or a table which could be sat on, or where offerings could
be placed. The ndábà rite was addressed to either
Gàlè, Sètò or the spirits of the dead
(bòzo). But often all three were invoked in the course
of a single rite, sometimes all at once. [...] If someone had
a problem (sickness, sterility, an unsuccessful hunt), they would
consult a seer, who would try to find the cause by divination.
If necessary the seer would order the ndábà rite
to be performed and would prescribe certain aspects to be observed
[...]. The presence of other objects or constructions alongside
the ndábà would depend on the purpose for which
the rite was being performed. [...] As photographs show, kpìkìmà
(statuettes) of the mythical couple Sètò and Nàbo
were also used.' One of the
of its genre and widely published and exhibited throughout the
20th century, the Ngbaka Statue of Sètò from the
Gross Collection is a magnificent creation by an unknown artist
of outstanding skill. By virtue of its early provenance and deep,
multi-layered ritual patina, attesting to decades of ritual practice,
it can safely be dated to the middle of the 19th century or earlier.
It is a rare example of an archaic, pre-contact style.
The facial features of the Gross Ngbaka,
the concave eye sockets and the treatment of the half-open mouth,
can be compared to another male figure, presumably also a
of Sètò, with equally early history. Collected in
the village of Bogelima (Karawa) by Jacques Perlo in 1912, this
figure is today in the collection of the Musée Royale de
l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren....In its superb quality, its regal
composition and expression, with its alteration of swelling and
constricted forms, and the dry crust of multi-layered patina,
the Gross Ngbaka Figure is one of the quintessential Ngbaka statues
in existence and undoubtedly the most important example from this
region to appear at auction in recent history."
Lot 48 is a rare Fang-Mvai male
from Gabon. It is 20 1/2 inches high. It has an estimate of $150,000
to $250,000. It sold for $206,500.
It was acquired from Frank W.
who got it from John D. Graham.
Lot 43 is a "superb" Fang-Betsi
-Nzaman male reliquary figure from Gabon. It is 22 inches high
and has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for
It was acquired from Jack
Passer of New York
Lot 65 is a "fine" Hemba
male and female figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It is 13 inches high and has an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000.
It sold for $11,250.