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
That said, the African and
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
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
This auction had numerous tall
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
Lot 71, another Baule mask, is
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
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
Lot 57 is a fine and rare Limba
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
Lot 63 is an exquisite, small
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
One of the auction’s more
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
Lot 66 is a 43 ½-inch fine and
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
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
a conservative estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for
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.
Lot 79 is a fine Northern Fang
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
set a world auction record for such an headrest.