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African and Oceanic Art


November 19, 1999

By Carter B. Horsley

Benin "bird of prophecy" clapperThis auction of African and Oceanic Art at Sotheby’s, November 19, 1999, abounds in many very choice works of art, many with relatively low estimates.

The sale total of $3,088,212, however, was not too spectacular, nor was the fact that only 63.71 percent of the offered lots sold, a very low percentage.

"There was extremely active bidding..., both in the room and on the telephone," Jean Fritts, specialist in charge of the auction, said after the sale. "There were old buyers as well as a presence of new collections. Collectors are informed and educated and they know what they are looking for. The percentage sold was quite typical of how the market has been in the past several years," she said.

While masks and statuettes comprise most of the lots offered, many of the more interesting items are ritualistic or utilitarian.

Lot 91, for example, is a very handsome Benin "bird of prophecy" clapper that was meant to be played at the Benin court by striking the bird figure on its beak with a metal rod and the sound was interpreted as a good or bad omen.

The 12 ¼-inch-high bronze piece, shown at the left, is cast in a hollowed cylindrical form with a waisted section decorated with repeating dots and circles, encircled by a band of cast coral beads beneath a perforated section for resonance a secondary row of coral beads, beneath the circular platform supplanted by a "bird of prophecy" with outstretched wings, long tail feathers and an elongated curved beak holding a small round element, "a morsel" that the catalogue, which contains numerous typographic errors, noted is "purported to be a bundle of magical substance." Although the catalogue remarks that this type of "clapper" was "first made in the sixteenth century," no date for this work is given. This is a fine example of Benin craftsmanship and has a conservative high estimate of $9,000. It sold for $10,925 including the buyer's premium as do all sales prices in this article.

Dogan ritual vessel with equestrian figureLot 17, shown at the right, is a large, Dogon ritual vessel with an equestrian figure on the lid and the vessel supported by a horse. The horses are quite abstract with large triangular heads but the rider’s head is finely carved. The 33 ½-inch-high wooden object has a high estimate of only $10,000.

Another Dogon piece is Lot 25, a 39-inch-high, two-panel, granary door decorated with five rows of figures. It has an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $9,200.

A far more impressive "door" is Lot 128, a fine and rare Yoruba door, 20 7/8 inches high by 13 3/8 inches long. Rather than the simple archaic multiple figures of the Dogon doors, this very finely carved door depicts only an equestrian figure in very high relief with "an exceptionally fine patina of dark ochre red with remains of camwood and indigo on the hat." The rider is holding elaborate reins and has a large sword in a scabbard.

The catalogue describes this as an "exceptional example of virtuosity at the highest level of Yoruba carving" and supplies the following description of it by William Fagg:

"This superb carving of a small door on which is sculpted a figure of a mounted warrior, is clearly seen to be complete and not, for example, cut down from a large door; the ends of the horses’ tail, obviously not retouched are shown passing onto the outer edge of the door. The degree of the disengagement of the figure from the door, amounting almost to all-around relief, is, in my opinion without parallel in Yoruba art, exceeding even that on the famous doors of the great carver Olowe of Ise. In fact, if the piece, as I think possible, is [sic] was done somewhere in the Oshogbo-Kobu-Erin area, the carver must have been familiar with Olowe’s door at the palace at Kesha (50 or [sic] miles from Olowe’s home town.). The carving is exceptionally fine and bold and is carried on right around to the back of the figure facing the door. The warrior appears to be the chief hunter (Ashipa) of hi[s] village, as is shown by the long pendant from his hat. The door may have been an ‘honorific’ door, for example, to a small compartment used for housing a precious or sacred object, rather than an effective form of protection. The latter part of the nineteenth century seem[s] a possible date…"

Yoruba door with equestrian figure

Lot 128, a Yoruba door,

20 7/8 inches high by 13 3/8 inches long

The lot, which is shown above, has a conservative high estimate of $60,000. It was passed.

Another interesting Yoruba work is Lot 133, a "rare and superb" 34 1/8-inch-long oliphant surmounted with a carved lioness of considerable style above the embouchure and a stylized crocodile in high relief beneath the embouchure. An ivory disk attached to the stand is inscribed "Carved tusk said to have been taken from King Kosoko’s town/Brought to England from Lagos by the Expedition of 1851 (?)." It has an estimate of $35,000 to $45,000. It was passed.

A very interesting and impressive work is Lot 357, a "fine and rare" Tshokwe tobacco container, 17 ½ inches high. A male figure supports a flat panel carved in high relief with numerous figures against a background of alternating incised triangles and the panel is surmounted by the cylindrical tobacco container that is carved in high relief with the figures of five woman. The carving is superb and the work has a fine dark brown patina. What is especially striking is the variety of poses that give great animation to the piece and the fact that the front of the panel, which is decorated on both sides, has a diagonal rather than a horizontal line separating the two rows of figures. The base of the piece is a thin metal spike. This lot, which is shown below, has a conservative high estimate of $35,000. It was consigned from the collection of Joseph and Doris Gerofsky and the catalogue quotes a 1980 letter from Marie-Louise Bastin that it falls in the tradition of such objects in the 19th Century and that she did not doubt its authenticity or age. It was passed.

Tshokwe tobacco container

Lot 357, a Tshokwe tobacco container, 17 ½ inches high,

back view at the left, front view at the right

Lot 189 is a "magnificent" Solomon Islands canoe prow ornament, or figurehead, 14 inches long, in the form of a male head with inlaid shell eyes beneath a massive domed crown with elaborate raised markings on the face inlaid with sections of shell. The lot came from the collection of Adolf Hoffmeister of Prague, who acquired it from Charles Ratton in Paris. The lot, which has an encrusted black patina, has a high estimate of $70,000. It sold for $123,500, a world record for such a piece.

Lot 190 is a "fine" New Caledonian house finial, 8 ½-feet tall, that was once in the collection of the Museum dür Völkerkunde in Dresden. The top of this striking piece has a tapering finial with 15 opposing triangles ascending and the center of it is an abstract janiform figure whose head is inset in an openwork circular frame. This has a rather conservative high estimate of $10,000. It sold for $11,500.

Lot 195 is a "fine and rare" Middle Yuat River, Biwat (Mundugamor) sacred flute-stopper figure, 23-inch-high figure of a man with a small body and a very large head with a beard of mudpack overlaid by hair and shells who is wearing a crown overlaid by a mudpack with feathers and shells. The catalogue notes that "The Biwat carved elaborate flutes, sometimes up to eight or ten feet in length, and considered the flutes their most important and sacred objects" and that the stoppers fit the terminus of the flutes, which were "considered to be the children of the mother crocodile spirit that performed creative deeds in primeval times and let the initiates be reborn by symbolically swallowing and throwing out the candidates." This lot has a conservative high estimate of $50,000. It sold for $40,250.

Lot 202A is a nicely carved, 18 4/4-inch-tall, stilt footstep from the Marquesas Islands with a reddish-brown patina that has a high estimate of $7,000. It sold for $5,750.

Lot 74 is a "magnificent" Dan female wooden spoon, 18 ¾ inches high, with a black patina that is the cover illustration of the catalogue (an illustration that is quite artsy with multiple shadows).

The catalogue waxes at some length over this lot:

"While the and symbolism of the Dan spoon has been well established, the level of sculptural sophistication and abstraction which the carver of this spoon has reached in the working of this superb example is almost without parallel in African art. The suggestion of a human form in the muscularity of the leg is here combined with an elegant use of hollowed spaces on the back of the torso and reverse of the spoon. In addition, the surface decoration in the form of scarification and incised notches serve to highlight the overall form."

While there is no question that the luster of such pieces and their form are marvelous, there are, of course, many other even more impressive and dramatic and wondrous examples of "sculptural sophistication and abstraction…in African art." This piece, which is missing part of the left foot, is nice with a very fine patina and has an estimate of $70,000 to $90,000. It sold for $129,000, a world record price for such a piece.

Lot 94 is a superb Akan terracotta head, Hemang-Twifo style, a 12-inch-high head of grayish-brown patina with considerable erosion of the large coiffure with most of its circular knobs eroded away. Despite the condition, however, this lot, shown below, is an exquisite sculpture of great delicacy and its arched brows would intimidate/inspire Modigliani. It has a high estimate of $30,000. It sold for $19,550.

Akan terracotta head, Hemang-Twifo style

Lot 94, a superb Akan terracotta head, Hemang-Twifo style,

12 inches high

In contrast to the serenity of Lot 94, Lot 142 is a dramatic and fearsome Bungain Peoples mask from New Guinea. The 16-inch-tall mask has a very long beaked nose with eyes defined by inset plugs encircled by elaborate concentric motifs. The catalogue notes that "masks like this were associated with a male mythical being called parak who played an important part in ceremonial life," adding that it "would have been worn along with a cloak of colored sago palm leaf fibers which concealed the dancer and that the small holes along the upper edge of the pierced nasal septum would have been decorated with fiber tufts and small shells." The lot has an estimate of $35,000 to $45,000. It sold for $85,000, a world record for such a piece.

A more powerful work is Lot 191, a "rare" Vanatu fernwood head with a large pig affixed to the reverse and a flat disc with tapering conical section overlaid with terracotta at the crown. This 58 ½-inch-tall work rises from a thick cylindrical base is related to a similar work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The face has large bulbous eyes and many ridges and the quality of the design’s abstraction is formidable. Pigs were highly valued in Vanatu culture and these fernwood pieces are fabulous as the texture conjures ghosts and the dust of the ages. This lot has a conservative high estimate of $25,000. It sold for $13,800!

A fascinating and stunning work is Lot 16, a fine New Ireland Malangan mask "of hollowed helmet form and pierced aound the rim with a fiber beard pendant beneath the open pierced beak-like mouth and the facial plane composed of two panels joining in a linear nose with a jagged ridge at the front...beneath a tapa cloth headdress...the face finely decorated with a linear motif of black, red ochre and white pigments," according to the catalogue description. The 17-inch-high mask has an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It failed to sell.

Nias ancestor figureOne of the handsomest sculptures in the auction is Lot 218, shown at the left, a fine and rare Nias ancestor figure, which is 22 inches high. The exquisitely carved work depicts a man with bent legs holding a cup. He has a very long ornament on his right ear as part of the carving and is wearing a tall spiked crown from which other ornaments might be attached. The lot has a conservative high estimate of $70,000. It sold for $85,000.

Other good lots include Lot 238 a "fine" Fang reliquary guardian figure, 22 ¼ inches high, that is holding a medicine stick and has a high estimate of only $50,000. It sold for $87,500. Another one, Lot 268, is several inches smaller but has a red ochre patina and hairstyle and no medicine stick and has a high estimate of $90,000. It sold for $71,250. A more traditional such figure is Lot 286, which has a high estimate of $120,000. It failed to sell.

Lot 324 is a good, 15-inch-high, Kongo figure with a large inset mirror on its chest and an elaborate mudpack medicine bundle on the head and a high estimate of $60,000. It sold for $79,500.

A very fine, 14-inch-high, Tabwa stool is Lot 278, which has a circular base that supports a crouching male figure with his arms held open and away from the body. The work has a very good patina and a conservative high estimate of $35,000. It sold for $85,000.

Lot 300 is a fine Songe figure, 30 inches high, with a necklace of leopard’s teeth and a studded face. It was formerly in the collection of Helena Rubenstein and has a high estimate of $22,000. It sold for $140,000!

Lot 231 is a 19-inch-high female figure with the head of a child beneath her abdomen from the Ku N’Gan Society in Cameroon, Bamileke that has a high estimate of $100,000. It sold for $90,500, a world record for such a piece.

Lot 373 is an eerie and beautiful Madagascar female torso, 38 3/4 inches tall, with sensational eroded and weathered wood with deep vertical grain. This ghost-like figure has a very conservative high estimate of $10,000. It failed to sell.


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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