By Carter B. Horsley
Tribal art remains one of the least inflated of all major art categories and very fine pieces can be often obtained for not much more than the cost of some good prints or drawings.
The May 6, 1998 auction at Sotheby's has a couple of major museum quality objects, such as the Dogon statue at the right, but it also has a wide range of interesting and good works that carry quite reasonable estimates.
The Dogon statue, Lot 110, is 29 1/2 inches high and has an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. It is likely to go a bit higher as its condition is superb, the carving, especially of the face, marvelous and its provenance, literature and exhibition history excellent. The piece once belonged to James Johnson Sweeney, and was first published in 1927 and was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935 and the Musee Dapper in Paris in 1994.
The auction catalogue notes that "this exceptional example of Dogon carving is one of the true icons of African art." Apart from its "exceptionally fine encrusted dark brown patina," the piece is distinguished by its helmet-shaped head with pendant beard and notched lips framed by notched eyes and triangular ears, and by a torso "carved as a triangle with five pierced loops ascending the back." Including the buyer's premium, the piece, surprisingly only fetched $151,000, still a respectable amount.
An even more remarkable piece is Lot 100, a superb Mende female figure that is 35 inches tall and has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. Like the Dogon piece, this statue has a fine dark patina.
What is extraordinary about it is its extremely sinuous lines and pose. With her delicate arms held at her back above "shelflike buttocks," the work has an imperial grace and poise. The figure is bolt straight with large, full protruding breasts and a head tilted slightly back atop an elongated neck with four stacked rings. The face has a high forehead but a receding chin and small features beneath a highly stylized coiffure.
Elie Nadelman would have gasped at this spectacular work that is so much better than his best work! Indeed, its subtlety is astounding and makes one rethink many notions of tribal art.
The catalogue quoted a book on "Art of the mende from Sierra Leone" that large sculptures of women like this "are reputedly used by women diviners of the Yassi society." "The Yassi society, as reported by travellers at the end of the last century, was a secret society common to both the Mende and Sherbro," it continued. "These figures were already described by Volz in 1907 and by Alldridge in 1901. This Mende figure is part of the group which were undoubtedly carved feofre the turn of the present century," the catalogue maintained.
Half a million dollars would not be surprising for a work like this. It sold for $96,000.
Less elegant and of interest to those who appreciate the more fragile is a fine Baule Gherke figure from the Ivory Coast, where it was collected in 1958 by Franco Monti. With a huge monkey-like head topped by an elaborate headress of fiber, feathers and possible bark, this is a very powerful work and carries an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000. The figure's hands hold a cup and the work is not in pristine condition, which adds to its allure, especially its old loin cloth and traces of red pigment on the mouth. The work, Lot 143, is dramatic and magical and quite scary. It did not sell.
The highest estimates, $350,000 to $450,000, are for a Benin bronze plaque, Lot 163, from around the 16th Century that was collected on the "British Punitive Expedition to Benin in 1897" by an officer on the expedition. More than 17 inches high and more than 13 inches wide, the plaque shows two male court officials at the palace in Benin dressed in full regalia. It sold for $321,000.
Benin bronzes are exceptional for their craftsmanship and detail, although they are highly representational and not awesome art. Nevertheless, they are impressive and this is a fine example that should meet its estimate although it cannot compare in artistic quality to the above-mentioned pieces or many others in the auction, such as Lot 99, a rare Temne female figure holding her breasts with an spectacular head, that is estimated at only $20,000 to $25,000. It sold for $35,650.
Just as some intelligent collector/museum should acquire the Dogan and Mende statues, some other intelligent collector should get both of the fine Luba Kifebwe masks, Lots 217 and 218. The former, shown at the left, is the smaller of the two but carries the higher estimate, $40,000 to $60,000. The latter is much larger and is only estimated at $15,000 to $20,000. The former, which has a wonderful light brown patina, is notable for having nose hair, and the latter, shown below, is almost white and is interesting for the incised markings under both eyes. These are marvelous and should do very well.
Lot 217 did not sell, but Lot 218 sold for $18,400.
Other notable works in the sale at Lot 214, a Kwele mask that is ambitiously estimated at $80,000 to $100,000, Lot 215, a Fang female reliquary guardian figure with considerable amounts of "resinous areas" that is also ambitiously estimated at $300,000 to $400,000, and not really as attractive as another resinous Fang guardian figure, Lot 205, that is estimated at $70,000 to $100,000, and both are not as interesting as Lot 204, a non-resinous Fang guardian with many brass adornments that is only estimated at $20,000 to $25,000. or Lot 149, a fine Baule male figure that carries the same estimate. Lot 214 did not sell. Lot 215 sold for $310,000. Lot 205 sold for $68,500. Lot 204 sold for $39,100.
The auction has a good assortment of works at almost every price level and many traditional pieces are available.
The results were rather disappointing, which was unfortunate for the consignors and good for collectors. Clearly, this sector of the art market remains rather sober and a great opportunity for connoisseurs with a bit of money as they can still put together a world-class collection for not much more than a modest Impressionist painting.