By Carter B. Horsley
The extraordinarily bold, rare New Guinea Highlands ancestor plaque, shown above, was one of several highlights in the Nov. 22, 1998 sale of African and Oceanic Art at Sotheby's.
This thin wooden plaque, more than 54 inches tall, puts Mark Rothko's colorful geometries (see The City Review article) to shame!
Lot 148, it sold for for $65,000, not counting the buyer's premium, and had been estimated at $45,000 to $55,000. According to Sotheby's, it was an example of anthropomorphic boards that embody "symbols of the sun (the round head) and moon (the diamond shaped body)." Such boards are used in "great numbers at large-scale ceremonies during which the quantities of pigs are killed to feed the ancestral spirits and promote pig fertility," according to a expert quoted in the catalogue. Feathers are meant to be attached at the top. The reverse is painted in a red and blue palette.
The Maori sculpture from New Zealand depicted on the catalogue's cover, lot 162, shown at the left below, set a record for Maori sculpture and for Oceanic art. It sold for $1.1 million, including the buyer's premium and had an "Esimate on Request" estimate. The auction house presumably thought it would fetch an even higher price as the auctioneer took a very long time to knock it down.
This superb work dates probably to the early 19th Century.
The delicacy of its carving and its stunning visage, incised to indicate tatoos, combined with its magnificent finish and marvelous condition contribute to its status as an very important cultural icon, but it is its haunting face and pose that make it a world-class work of art.
Made as the four-feet-high center post of a temple, it is marvelously stylized with huge head and shoulders and hands grasping its torso. The face is mesmerizingly both ferocious and sensitive, the splayed fingers comforting yet fearsomely agile. With shorted legs and large feet, the composition is compressed, energetic and magnetic. Despite the intensity of the figure's rapt gaze and coiled strength, the modeling of the wood is extremely sensual and graceful.
It work came from an European private collection and comes originally from the East Coast Hawkes Bay area of New Zealand. William Fagg, the fomer drector of the British Museum and Royal Academy of Art wrote an essay on the work in 1979 in which he said that "A study of most of the literature on Maori art has revealed only a handful of works which stand on this elevated level of sculptural achievement, but none are so closely comparable to it and virtually all are in New Zealand museums."
Figures such as this were placed at the center of meeting houses and incorporated into the architectural structure and represented chiefs, or Tohunga, who were identified by tattooing on the face in patterns unique to each chief. "As Maori chiefs were also master carvers, it is theorized that this figure could possibly be a self-portrait," Sotheby's noted. "The lack of decoration on the body and powerful legs indicate a carving date around 1800, predating the highly decorated carvings of the 19th Century...The figure is representative of the high point of Maori sculpture which was later transformed by Western influence, tools and techniques resulting in an emphasis on surface decoration, rigidness and larger, flatter figures," it continued.
"A curious addition to the piece is a waist garment of coconut or similar fiber to cover the finely delineated genital region, most likely a missionary-inspired addition to appease the 19th Century ideas of decency which influenced missionary society and taught the Maori people to cease such representations. In traditional Maori belief, a such depicted penis was symbolic of power, prestige, fertility, prosperity and other such qualities," according to Sotheby's.
Correctly, the auction house did not exhibit the garment with the fine work.
It is interesting to reflect on the importance of missing pieces of a work of art and how contemporary perception is often distorted.
A clumsier, but more dramatic work, lot 328 , shown at the right, a very large Kongo ntisi figure, was the most expensive item to be sold in the auction. It sold, to a European dealer as did most of the major pieces, for $1,432,500, including the buyer's premium, well over its pre-sale estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000.
Nail fetish pieces, such as this, have long fascinated Westerners, and this lot was particularly striking because of the very long and large blades protruding from the figure's jaw. A naive Westerner might think that the blades are similar in function to the nails and smaller blades that cover much of the figure's torso.
"In the 20th Century, a better knowledge of African traditional culture, and in our case Kongo culture, in conjunction with an increasing awareness of the artistic quality of African works of at, have deeply modified our notion of the nature and purpose of Kongo sculptures. Our subsequent reevaluation of the supposed 'ugliness' of these large disturbing figures has in fact made them among the works of art most sought after by museums and private collections for their high formal qualities. A Nkisi Nkondi, 'thing that do thing,' is 'multi-functional, serving as a representation of a chief, doctor, priest and just all at one time,'" the catalogue quoted one expert. "Each figure is made effective through the addition of carefully combined ingredients, the 'medicine,' by the nganga...who is its caretaker and operator. The action of a Nkisi Nkondi is ambiguous: it protects the community against the criminals and witches and indissolubly seals pacts and agreements; contrarily, it can also cause illness and death. The Nkondi is invoked by driving nails or blades into it; all done by precise protocol. The result gives the sculpture the aggressive final look which so much impressed the first collectors of this genre," the catalogue continued.
The 47 1/2 inch-high statue has inset porcelain eyes with brass tacks for the pupils and has a large oval fetish bundle inset with a massive cowrie shell and attached to the torso, and traces of red, white and block pigment on the face. According to the catalogue the figure is one of about 12 such large pieces, most of which are in European museums. Most nail fetish statues are much smaller and are covered with more nails.
The figure has quite a thick neck, but perhaps it would not appear quite so prominent if the resinous medicine bag was present, but then, of course, it might not be so striking because the long blades would be covered up.
While both these major pieces are quite specific, the more abstract pieces have a wider appeal. Lot 355, for example, a 27-inch tall, Maagascar sculpture of a couple facing, and touching, one another, is a fine example. The piece, shown at the left, which has a weathered and eroded look, had been estimated at $18,000 to $22,000 and sold for $23,000.
A Maori bugle flute from the collection of Adelaide DeMenil, lot 161, was one of the big surprises of the auction, selling for $180,000, far exceeding its estimate of $25,000 to $35,000. The piece, slightly more than 17 inches long, had a fine brown patina and delicate carving at both ends and in the middle.
The auction, which was standing room only, was not a complete success as only 151 of 265 lots sold. The total sold amounted to $4,497,212.
Sotheby's also held a smaller auction the same day of property from the Foundation of Dr. Edmund Mueller in Beromunster, Switzerland. It fared a bit better with 102 of 123 lots sold for a total of $1,578,025.
Its star item, lot 86, a Fang male reliquary guardian figure, sold for only the low end of its estimate of $400,000 to $600.000. The black statue was not as spectacular as others that have been up at auction in recent years.
Lot 107, however, an extremely rare Benelulua, or Southern Kete, mask, was a huge success, selling for $167,500. The black and white striped mask had been estimated at $15,000 to $25,000. Kongo figures holding mirrors did very well. Lot 105 sold for $63,000 and had been estimated at $25,000 to $35,000 and lot 115 sold for $57,500 and had also been estimated at $25,000 to $35,000. On the other hand, some fine Baule figures, lots 70 and 71, that had great patina and fine carving had trouble reaching their low estimates, although a fine Baule mask, lot 66, sold for $16,000 and had been estimated at $7,000 to $10,000. Good Marka, Dan and Malinke masks failed to sell, surprising since they generally had fairly low estimates.
The auction included some very striking New Ireland Malagan pieces that were highly colorful with delicate workmanship. Lot 54, in particular, shown at the left, sold only for its low estimate of $3,000 despite the fact that it was one of the most beautiful lots in both auctions.
A very large and bulky New Ireland Uli figure, lot 52, sold for $62,500, just over its high estimate of $60,000.
Lower Sepik River figures did well, especially lot 24, which sold for $67,500 and had been only estimated for $25,000 to $35,000. Other fine pieces that exceeded their estimates were lot 25, a fine Biwat mask, that sold for $26,000 and had had a high estimate of $15,000, and lot 39, a fine East Ramu Coast, probably Hausa Bay, mask that sold for just over its high estimate of $25,000.