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African & Oceanic Art


The Egon Guenther Family Collection of African Art


10:15AM and 2 PM, respectively, Nov. 18, 2000

Sales 7556 and 7557

Southern Fang male reliquary guardian figure with container box

Lot 118, a Southern Fang male reliquary guardian figure seated on a cylindrical hollowed bark box, 24 3/4 inches high

By Carter B. Horsley

This season the African & Oceanic Art department at Sotheby's is again publishing its catalogue with the Pre-Columbian Art department. This policy unfortunately relegates the latter department to not having a cover illustration, which is given over to the other department. This season has even more confusion for collectors as there is also a separate catalogue for African Ar5t from the Egon Guenther Family collection for an afternoon auction Nov. 18, 2000. The African & Oceanic Art auction is that morning and the Pre-Columbian Art is 10:15AM, Nov. 20, 2000. While separate catalogues help auction houses get major consignments, in the past, the main catalogue has usually also included briefer material on the items in the separate catalogue. While these are minor inconveniences, it is surprisingly that Sotheby's this time did not incorporate the Guenther collection into the African & Oceanic Art catalogue and make the Pre-Columbian Art catalogue separate.

That said, the African and Oceanic offerings at Sotheby's are impressive and include some very major works.

In the morning, multiple-owner sale, the standout lots include a Southern Fang male reliquiquary guardian figure, lot 118, shown at the top of this article; a Dogon male figure, Lot 43; a Baule monkey figure, Lot 56; a Limba female figure, Lot 57; a Senufo equestion figure, Lot 63; a Baule portrait mask, Lot 71; an Egagham janiform headdress, Lot 88; Mumuye figures, Lots 95 and 105; an Owo-Yoruba ivory armlet, Lot 96; an Urhobo maternity figure, Lot 106; a Northern Fang female reliquary guardian figure, Lot 108; a Eastern Bangwa hermaphrodite figure, Lot 109; Songe power figures, Lots 119 and 160; a Vili zoomorphic figure, Lot 128; a Luba neckrest, Lot 140; and a Kongo oath-taking and healing figure, Lot 141.

Lot 118, a superb and rare Southern Fang male reliquary guardian figure seated on a cylindrical hollowed bark box, shown at the top of this article, had an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $280,750 including the buyer's premium as do all the results in this article. The catalogue notes that this 24 3/4-inch high lot was formerly in the collection of René Buthaud, one of the first collectors of African art in France before World War I, adding that very few byeri figures have survived with their reliquary fins intact and that part of the magical function of the reliquary figures was associated with the bins as they held cranial caps that were brought out at initiations or healing rites. "The exceptionally definitive carving on this reliquary figure is characteristic," the catalogue observed, " of the Betsi substyle of the southern regions of Fang country in Gabon. Carved of a hard wood with a varied hard encrusted patina, the artist or atelier who sculpted this figure abstracted the values and lines to create a supremely harmonious form. The hands reaching forward at the front may be the carver's interpretation of a magical stick."

Many of the most famous Fang figures have a rich, lustrous and very dark patina while this figure's patina is relatively light in color. Many of the best Fang figures have a very stylized and abstract treatment of the figure's hair and this piece's head, which is best seen primarily from the back, is quite marvelously abstract and its face is quite memorably imposing.

Dogon male figure

Lot 43, Dogon male figure, 68 1/4 inches tall

This auction had numerous tall sculptures and Lot 43, a rare and magnificent Dogon male figure, 68 1/4 inches tall, was especially impressive and was formerly in the collections of René Rasmussen and Pierre Loeb, both of Paris. It has an somewhat ambitious estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 because weathering and erosion have taken a toll on the fineness of its features. It was passed at $320,000. The catalogue notes that the "monumental" figure can be placed in the Djennenke group of figures "based on the elongated attenuated form, and the scale of the head in relation to the body," adding that the "classical elongation of the body, the fine features, the panels of raised scarification markings and the graceful oversized, elongated hands are all characteristic o works from the western Bandiagara Plateau." The work, it added, may date to the 15th Century or earlier.

Karawari River figure

Lot 18, Karawari River figure, 64 inches tall

Lot 18, a fine Karawari River figure, 64 inches tall, that was deaccessioned from the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem in 1966, is very distinctive with its spiked coiffure and spindly form that has no arms but quite bold markings on the torso and strong face. It has a conservative estimate of $7,000 to $10,000. It sold for $7,800.

Lot 106, a superb Urhobo maternity figure, 57 inches high, was collected by John Hayes Hammond before 1910 and has an estimate of $60,000 to $100,000. The sculpture depicts a seated woman holding a suckling baby and she wears anklets and bracelets and has a very elaborate coiffure, called ibgetou, that was worn of women of titled rank through Urhoboland in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the catalogue noted. The women's face has an "aggressive" countenance, the catalogue continued, and the sculpture is notable for the large curved element around her shoulders that may represent a large amulet or garment. The lot sold for $75,500.

Lot 109 is perhaps the most dramatic work in the auction as it is a 55-inch-high Eastern Bangwa hermaphrodite figure whose erosion due to the elements has removed its patination but left a marvelously imposing figure with an animated and "aggressive" facial expression and a greatly extended stomach that is meant probably to represent pregnancy, but from the site also conjures a great "beer belly." The catalogue quotes one expert as noted that this piece "does not come from the well known Bangwa tribe, but rather from the Kingdom of Bangwa…founded three centuries ago by the great hunter called Njongvum."

"Before the great fire of 1958 in the Bangwa Kingdom, one could still see the commemorative statues of the old royalty at the palace. Unfortunately, the fire destroyed the whole treasure except the present great hermaphrodite figure which had been carved in the 19th Century by Fotcheka. In the Bangwa Kingdom hermaphrodite figures have the same function as for the Bangwa peoples of the Fontem Basin. They were exhibited in a public place on specific occasions, and were believed to cause infertility to the men or women who had transgressed the orders of the King/God." The lot has a conservative estimate of $70,000 to $100,000. It sold for $1,050,750, which brought forth a round of applause in the medium-size auction room.

Lot 87, a rare Ibo Ikenga figure that is very dramatic with large curved sculpted horns and an elaborate geometric base has a conservative estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. The sculpture is 55 inches high. It sold for $8,400.

Lot 160, a superb Songe power figure is a large and most imposing work incorporating a great many adornments that of considerable importance but are often missing from many works in the market. The women depicted in this 39 1/2-inch high sculpture has a thick skirt of fiber and her upper torso is "encased in animal skin with a large magical bundle in the abdomen and other implements encircling the waist…and fetish elements beneath an elaborate magical pack with iron pikes, fur and horn inset in the crown. The figure, which has a resinous deep brown patina, has a conservative estimate of $70,000 to $100,000. It sold for $75,500. The work was formerly in the collection of Jay C. Leff and Dr. Wally Zollman of Indianapolis. The catalogue provides the following commentary on the work: "This fearsome mankishi, is highly distinctive within the Songe pantheon for the incorporation of fur covering the entire torso, the naturalism in the carving of the face, and the attachment of fur to the face and head. The mankishi are traditional figurative sculpture which primarily serve to effect benign magic, and serve a range of social needs such as encouraging procreation, protecting against illness, sorcery, witchcraft, war and the preservation of territorial claims." This is a wonderful work of art.

A somewhat similar, 13-inch-high, Songe power figure, Lot 119, has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $18,000.

Fetish sculptures with nails have become very popular with collectors in recent decades and Lot 141, a superb Kongo oath taking and hearing figure, 21 inches high, has an estimate of $350,000 to $400,000. It was passed at $320,000. The work was collected before 1903 by Robert Visser, the head of a Dutch trading company in the Lower Kongo region and given by him in 1903 to the Linden Museum in Stuttgart. In 1961, the museum deaccessioned the work to Ludwig Brettschneider in Munich and it was subsequently acquired by Edwin Janss, Jr., and sold at Sotheby's Nov. 14, 1989, to its consignor, a private collector in Connecticut. The sculpture depicts a warrior whose body is covered with nails

Lot 128, a fine and rare Vili zoomorphic figure has an elongated body with animal heads at either end and virtually the entire work covered with large protruding nails. The work has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It was passed at $30,000.

Mumuye figure

Lot 95, Mumuye figure, 36 1/2 inches high

Lot 95 is a good Mumuye figure with a dark patina that stands 36 1/2 inches high. It has the traditional helmet-like coiffure with a singe crest and large square, pierced lobes at the sides of the head and the abstract arms at the sides of the columnar torso. This lot is distinctive for the vertical white markings below the eyes and its very long neck. It has a slightly ambitious estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It was passed at $15,000.

Mumuye figure

Lot 105, Mumuye figure, 14 1/2 inches high

Another Mumuye figure is much smaller but must more animated in its pose, Lot 105, a 14 1/2-inch high sculpture from the collection of Doctors Nicole and John Dintenfass of New York. The figure does not have the elaborate "helmet-like" coiffure but its arms are bent and raised slightly at the side and the figure's knees are also bent, at about the same angle, giving the work much more dynamics than are usually seen in Mumuye works. The work was also formerly in the collection of Marcelle Riviere and Maurice Nicaud, both of Paris, and has a estimate of $7,000 to $10,000. It sold for $12,000.

Baule portrait mask

Lot 83, Baule portrait mask, 15 inches high

The auction also had a good selection of masks, most notably Lot 83, a superb Baule portrait mask of hollowed oval form, pierced around the recessed rim for attachment, the oval face with a finely incised beard extending to a thin braided ridge along the rounded jaw, the protruding circular mouth with flat rimmed lips beneath an attentuated nose dividing heavily-lidded downcast oval eyes, framed by bands of scarification, and wearing a coiffure with scalloped ribbon hairline, issuing thick faceted backswept horns." The 15-inch-high work has a fine glossy and encrusted blackened patina with traces of kaolin and red pigment. The catalogue notes that such masks were used for dances and that were meant to portray someone who "is not only physically beautiful, but one who emanates social grace, intelligence and dignity, qualities the Baule admire. The work has an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000. It sold for $58,250. The mask is in excellent condition and its distinguished by its finely detailed carving, and the interesting facial expression of downcast eyes and prominent open mouth.

Another Baule mask, Lot 82, manifested similar fine detailed of carving especially in the twin ridges of the coiffure, but the 10 3/4-inch high work had a lighter-colored wood. It has an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $23,750.

Lot 71, another Baule mask, is somewhat reminiscent of Modigliani faces. It has short horns rather the more traditional elaborate coiffure and an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. The dark patina work sold for $46,750.

A Baule figure of a monkey, 27 ¾ inches high, Lot 56, has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000, reflecting its heavily encrusted and blackened patina and fearsome head with large exposed teeth and his hands holding a vessel. It sold for $69,750.

Lot 57 is a fine and rare Limba figure with superb detailing. The 40 ½-inch-high statue has an almost Oriental feel to it with an elaborate coiffure and aluminum oval eyes, a long neck with amulets and a rather quixotic expression. It has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It was passed at $32,500.

Lot 63 is an exquisite, small Senufo equestrian figure with sceptre. The 8 ½-inch high stature has a magnificent patina and is nicely stylized with the rider’s arms extended from his sides and the front and back legs of the horse combined into two abstract stands and the horse’s head is radically stylized to almost conjure a large beak. The work has an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. It sold for $69,750.

The soft and smooth carving of Lot 63 is reflected and refined in Lot 140, a superb Luba neckrest that has a women supported the neck rest and a glossy reddish brown patina. The lot has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000. It sold for $81,250.

Lot 96, a fine and rare Owo-Yoruba ivory armlet, 7 ¼ inches high, may date to the 18th century, according to the catalogue. The armlet has three bands of intricate carving and an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000. It was passed at $47,500.

Lot 49, a 61-inch-high Bobo, Molo Society mask with two very tall horns and simple, but powerful visage is estimated at $20,000 to $30,000. It was passed at $16,000.

Among the more dramatic masks in the auction was Lot 88, a rare Egagham janiform mask, 15 inches high, that was once in the collection of J. J. Klejmann in New York. The very realistic mask has a front and a back face, each covered in leather, one blackened and one mottled. It has a conservative estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It sold for $28,350.

The sale total was $2,691,635 with only 55.23 percent of the 172 offered lots selling.

The Egon Guenther Family Collection

Egon Guenther started collecting African Art as a teenager in Germany and became an art dealer specializing in German Expressionism, many of whose artists were interested in African art. He subsequently moved to Johannesburg where he opened an art gallery that promoted contemporary art by Africans and continued to collect. His collection focused to a great extent on art from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the art of southern Africa and he is quoted in the catalogue as stating that his reason for selling now was "in the interest of educating six grandchildren" and carrying for his wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease "and who needs special care."

The star lot of this auction is Lot 154, a 12-inch-high Yombe figure, or nkisi, of a man with a "massive rectangular charge inset with a mirror" who is holding a stick to his mouth. "The Guenther nkisi is notable for the refinement in the carving of the face and body. The relevant medicines are sealed in packs on the abdomen, neck and head, probably designed to address the original ailments for which this figure was made. The traces of red ochre on the mirror and face probably refer to a threatening gesture…The stick this figure holds in his right hand and mouth is probably one of the most important medicines of Kongo chiefship, the bitter root, munkwiza, ‘which was used among other purposes, to test persons suspected of witchcraft,’" the catalogue noted.

The impressive figure has an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000. It sold for $130,000.

The Guenther sale realized a total $1,491,760 with 77.71 percent of the 175 offered lots selling.

Songe female figure

Lot 133, Songe female figure, 23 inches high

One of the auction’s more striking works is Lot 133, a fine Songe female figure that is 23 inches high and was formerly in the Jack Cardiff Collection. The figure wears a fiber skirt and has an open upturned mouth and wears a cap-like coiffure with two holes for the insertion of fetishes. The figure’s facial expression shows an elderly woman apparently with no teeth who might be smiling except that her eyes are downcast and so she might be interpreted as speaking or giving advice. The lot has an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $69,750.

Another fine Songe piece is Lot 127, a "power figure," which has a much darker patina and a much larger skirt and a hore-like projection atop her head. She, too, has a somewhat quizzical expression with an open mouth that turns upwards at the sides. The 33-inch-high lot has an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000. It sold for $35,250.

Other important statues are Lots 66, 21 and 79.

Senufo male deble figure

Lot 66, Senufo male deble figure, 43 1/2 inches high

Lot 66 is a 43 ½-inch fine and rare Senufo male deble figure. Deble is a name reserved for the "exclusive se of poro initiates," according to an quotation in the catalogue from B. Holas in Artibus Asiae, which added that the "arms of the figures, and the base, are its ‘functional’ parts, since during the commemorative rites, the young initiates, in file, hold these statues by the arms and pound the earth in slow rhythm." "This act has a double meaning; on the one hand, the dull sound thus produced purifies the impure earth and renders it fertile and useful to humans; on the other, it is an appeal to the soul of deceased ancestors, an invitation for them to participate, forcefully, in the religious ceremony," the quotation continued.

The very stylized statue, a masterwork, has a conservative estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $115,750.

A smaller but equally impressive and beautiful work is Lot 21, a fine Senufo female seated figure, 22 inches high, which has a crown receptacle and a fine blackened patina. It has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $32,375.

Northern Fang male reliquary guardian figure

Lot 79, Northern Fang male reliquary guardian figure, 15 3/4 inches high

Lot 79 is a fine Northern Fang male reliquary guardian figure, 15 ¾ inches high, that has muscular arms holding a medicine in front of his slender torso. The statue has a fine and varied reddish brown patina with traces of encrustation. It has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000. It sold for $81,250.

The Guenther Collection also has many fine masks.

Fang helmet mask

Lot 81, Fang helmet mask, 20 inches high

Lot 81 is a fine Fang helmet mask with superbly abstract facial features and a boldly fashioned coiffure that has a dark patina in stark contrast with the light-color of the face. The 20-inch-high mask has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $69,750.

Gabonese mask

Lot 82, Gabonese mask, 12 1/2 inches high

Lot 82 is a fine and rare Gabonese mask, 12 ½ inches high, that is remarkably abstract and refined with an excellent light brown patina. The mask has a superb geometric quality and an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000. It sold for $75,500.

Eastern Nigerian Ijaw, water spirit mask

Lot 91, Eastern Nigerian Ijaw, water spirit mask, 15 3/8 inches high

Lot 91 is a superb Eastern Nigerian Ijaw, water spirit mask, 15 3/8 inches high, that is very strong with two sets of protruding eyes and has an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000. It sold for $29,500.

African art includes not only many statues and masks and weapons, of course, but aso many household elements such as stools, heddle pulleys, pot lids, and headrests and the Guenther Collection includes some quite extraordinary headrests such as Lots 155 and 169.

Lot 155 is a superb Tsonga/Shangaan headrest that is 6 ½ inches high and has a magnificent brown patina and a very sinuous design and superb detailing. Some headrests were buried with their owners, but others were retained, as the catalogue notes, "as vehicles through which the late owner might be contacted in the ancestral realm." The lot has an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. It sold for $32,375.

Tsonga/Shangaan headrest

Lot 169, Tsonga/Shangaan headrest

Lot 169 is another headrest from the same "culture" but it is more extraordinary because of its asymmetrical abstraction. It has the same estimate of Lot 155. It sold for $41,000, which set a world auction record for such an headrest.


See The City Review article on the Spring 2000 African and Ocean Art Auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Fall 1999 African and Oceanic Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1999 African and Oceanic Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Fall 1998 Sotheby's African and Oceanic Art Auction

See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 Sotheby's African and Oceanic Art Auction

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