by Carter B.
some of the earlier
major spring auctions this year in other fields, this one contains
an outstanding group of masterpieces that should advance this
field of collecting to higher, and more expensive, plateaus.
than half of the 16 lots
"from a private collector" in their own catalogue are
world-class works of art. The cover of that catalogue is Lot 227,
a Fang female reliquary guardian torso, shown above. All but one
of these lots sold.
statue was one of the few to be illustrated in the catalogue of
the 1935 "African Negro Art" exhibition at the Museum
of Modern Art in New York and had been lent by Dr. Paul Chadourne,
a French collector. Estimated at $500,000 to $700,000, it sold
to a European dealer for $1,542,500 (including the buyer's premium
as do as the sales results in this article), a world auction record
for a Fang figure.
was an exceptional
sale showing a great demand in the market for great quality African
and Oceanic art. The performance of this single-owner collection
shows that for very good and important works there is phenomenal
interest. This is the most successful auction at Sotheby's in
this field in more than ten years," noted Jean Fritts, the
director of Sotheby's African and Oceanic Art Department.
successful as the private
collector sale was, it is a bit surprising that some of the pieces
did not achieve even higher prices given their fabulous quality.
Lot 229, for example, shown above, is a "magnificent and
rare" Central African sculpture of a monkey head that had
an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000 and sold for $310,500, a world
auction record for such a piece.
was formerly in the
collections of René Lalique and Jay C. Leff. The catalogue
notes that "this powerful monkey head has a long and prestigious
provenance." "As far as we know," it continued,
"it is the only known example of this type of head. A survey
of its publication history eveals a number of pevious stylistic
attributions including Gbekre (?) of the Ivory Coast as well as
Central Africa. It was William Fagg who in the early 1980's firmly
attributed the work to Central Africa....It is interesting to
note that this head, with its highly abstract lines and evident
power was amongst the works of African at which influenced the
British sculptor Henry Moore....Moore's notebooks from 1922-24
reveal a sketch of this distinct head...as part of a comprehensive
study of the art of Africa, Oceania and the americas by moore
in the 1920's....Of the impact of African at on his own work,
Moore stated, 'to discover, as a young student that the African
carvers could interpret the figure to this degree but still keep
and intensify the expression, encourages me to be more adventuous
1/4 inch high sculpture
has a superb patina that is very close to black. The catalogue
states that it is "of extremely dense wood, the hollowed
head carved in the form of a ounded skull, with a flat triangular
plane at the crown joning the medial ridge above the prominent
asymmetrical brow, with a convex facial plane with raised rounded
triangular nose and a large open circular cavity for the mouth,
asymmetrical crescent ears held high on the head."
piece is in superb condition
although the large opening at the mouth appears to have been broken
off or damaged over the years and according to Jean Fritts its
exact design remains "a mystery." Indeed, the "cavity"
adds significantly to the harrowing impact of the work as does
the rather clumsy modeling of the nose in comparison with the
magnificent quality of the rest of the piece. While many Fang
works have similarly rich and wondrous patinas, here the wood's
grain and the fine carving add an infinity of depth and complexity
to another wise simple and almost abstract work that is very powerful.
great from the same
private collection was Lot 228, a fine Fang reliquary guardian
head that sold for $332,500. Such heads, the catalogue observed,
"are believed to pre-date the moe widely known figurative
sculptures....Both were used as guardians to protect the baskets
containing the bones and skull of a venerated ancestor and both
are highly abstract. The catalogue suggested that it might be
by the same hand as one that was in the Helena Rubenstein collection
and said it was likely to have been done "well back into
the nineteenth century, if not earlier." Like Lot 227, the
eyes are represented by circular copper disks. Here, the very
dark patina is equally rich but the work is more worn and has
acquired a fine reddish encrustration that adds greatly to its
another masterful work
in this collection, Lot 231, a superb Luba female figure, 11 3/4
inches high, which sold for $222,500, nicely over its high estimate
of $150,000, had a notable patina. This work is attributed in
the catalogue text to the "Atelier of the Master of Mulongo,"
which was active not far from the confluence of the Lovoi and
Lufira Rivers. The woman is holding her right breast with one
hand while the other rests on her left shoulder in a most memorable
and moving pose. The extremely fine head has a high domed forehead
and open almond-shaped eyes and a coiffure of multiple braided
rows. The torso has highly detailed raised scarification and the
figure sports a beaded belt below its waist and above the short
A completely different
aesthetic can be found
in Lot 235, a superb Southern African, probably Tsonga, figure,
shown below. The 11 3/4 inch high statue is remarkably stylized
with great grace and wonderful sinuousness. The finely carved
figure has an "exceptionally fine reddish brown patina"
and sold for $167,500, a world auction record for a South African
figure and well above its $70,000 high estimate.
Another superlative piece in
was Lot 223, a rare Guro heddle pulley, 6 11/16 inches high, depicting
a monkey with his tail encircling the plinth, one hand holding
his knee and the other grasping his mouth. Pulleys are popular
with collectors because of their small size, but few are as charming
and finely carved as this work which sold for $19,500, more than
twice its high estimate.
The only disappointment in this
the auction was Lot 232, a rare Central, or Eastern African, possibly
Nyamwezi, female figure, 32 1/2 inches high, shown below. The
impressive statue was passed at $ 775,000.
remainder of the auction,
which also included many lots from two other private collections,
Dr. Kral-Ferdinand Schädler and Harry and Frieda Schaeffer,
was not as successful with only 59.34 percent of the 369 lots
being sold for a total of $2,347,753. Ms. Fritts noted that the
auction saw "a number of new bidders enter the market"
and more international buyers than recently.
a rare and important
Fang male reliquary guardian figure, shown below, sold within
its estimate for $409,500. Fewer than five such figures exist
and this was owned by John Graham, the artist, who was an adviser
to Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair and a prominent
collector who also owned the work.
an important Benin
Bronze head of an Oba, circa 18th Century, also sold within its
estimate for $156,500. Lot 169, a superb Banama female doorlock,
sold for $46,000, almost quadrupling its low estimate.