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Important African and Oceanic Art


May 25, 1999

Lot 227, Fang female reliquary torso,

11 1/2 inches high

by Carter B. Horsley

Unlike some of the earlier major spring auctions this year in other fields, this one contains an outstanding group of masterpieces that should advance this field of collecting to higher, and more expensive, plateaus.

More than half of the 16 lots "from a private collector" in their own catalogue are world-class works of art. The cover of that catalogue is Lot 227, a Fang female reliquary guardian torso, shown above. All but one of these lots sold.

The 11 1/2-inch-high ebony statue was one of the few to be illustrated in the catalogue of the 1935 "African Negro Art" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and had been lent by Dr. Paul Chadourne, a French collector. Estimated at $500,000 to $700,000, it sold to a European dealer for $1,542,500 (including the buyer's premium as do as the sales results in this article), a world auction record for a Fang figure.

"This was an exceptional sale showing a great demand in the market for great quality African and Oceanic art. The performance of this single-owner collection shows that for very good and important works there is phenomenal interest. This is the most successful auction at Sotheby's in this field in more than ten years," noted Jean Fritts, the director of Sotheby's African and Oceanic Art Department.

Central African sculpture of monkey head

Lot 229, a Central African sculpture of monkey head, 7 1/4 inches tall

As successful as the private collector sale was, it is a bit surprising that some of the pieces did not achieve even higher prices given their fabulous quality. Lot 229, for example, shown above, is a "magnificent and rare" Central African sculpture of a monkey head that had an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000 and sold for $310,500, a world auction record for such a piece.

The work was formerly in the collections of René Lalique and Jay C. Leff. The catalogue notes that "this powerful monkey head has a long and prestigious provenance." "As far as we know," it continued, "it is the only known example of this type of head. A survey of its publication history eveals a number of pevious stylistic attributions including Gbekre (?) of the Ivory Coast as well as Central Africa. It was William Fagg who in the early 1980's firmly attributed the work to Central Africa....It is interesting to note that this head, with its highly abstract lines and evident power was amongst the works of African at which influenced the British sculptor Henry Moore....Moore's notebooks from 1922-24 reveal a sketch of this distinct part of a comprehensive study of the art of Africa, Oceania and the americas by moore in the 1920's....Of the impact of African at on his own work, Moore stated, 'to discover, as a young student that the African carvers could interpret the figure to this degree but still keep and intensify the expression, encourages me to be more adventuous and experimental.'"

The 7 1/4 inch high sculpture has a superb patina that is very close to black. The catalogue states that it is "of extremely dense wood, the hollowed head carved in the form of a ounded skull, with a flat triangular plane at the crown joning the medial ridge above the prominent asymmetrical brow, with a convex facial plane with raised rounded triangular nose and a large open circular cavity for the mouth, asymmetrical crescent ears held high on the head."

The piece is in superb condition although the large opening at the mouth appears to have been broken off or damaged over the years and according to Jean Fritts its exact design remains "a mystery." Indeed, the "cavity" adds significantly to the harrowing impact of the work as does the rather clumsy modeling of the nose in comparison with the magnificent quality of the rest of the piece. While many Fang works have similarly rich and wondrous patinas, here the wood's grain and the fine carving add an infinity of depth and complexity to another wise simple and almost abstract work that is very powerful.

Another great from the same private collection was Lot 228, a fine Fang reliquary guardian head that sold for $332,500. Such heads, the catalogue observed, "are believed to pre-date the moe widely known figurative sculptures....Both were used as guardians to protect the baskets containing the bones and skull of a venerated ancestor and both are highly abstract. The catalogue suggested that it might be by the same hand as one that was in the Helena Rubenstein collection and said it was likely to have been done "well back into the nineteenth century, if not earlier." Like Lot 227, the eyes are represented by circular copper disks. Here, the very dark patina is equally rich but the work is more worn and has acquired a fine reddish encrustration that adds greatly to its strong allure.

Still another masterful work in this collection, Lot 231, a superb Luba female figure, 11 3/4 inches high, which sold for $222,500, nicely over its high estimate of $150,000, had a notable patina. This work is attributed in the catalogue text to the "Atelier of the Master of Mulongo," which was active not far from the confluence of the Lovoi and Lufira Rivers. The woman is holding her right breast with one hand while the other rests on her left shoulder in a most memorable and moving pose. The extremely fine head has a high domed forehead and open almond-shaped eyes and a coiffure of multiple braided rows. The torso has highly detailed raised scarification and the figure sports a beaded belt below its waist and above the short legs.

A completely different aesthetic can be found in Lot 235, a superb Southern African, probably Tsonga, figure, shown below. The 11 3/4 inch high statue is remarkably stylized with great grace and wonderful sinuousness. The finely carved figure has an "exceptionally fine reddish brown patina" and sold for $167,500, a world auction record for a South African figure and well above its $70,000 high estimate.

A Superb Southern African, probably Tsonga, figure

Lot 235, a superb Southern African, probably Tsonga, figure,

11 3/4 inches high

Another superlative piece in this collection was Lot 223, a rare Guro heddle pulley, 6 11/16 inches high, depicting a monkey with his tail encircling the plinth, one hand holding his knee and the other grasping his mouth. Pulleys are popular with collectors because of their small size, but few are as charming and finely carved as this work which sold for $19,500, more than twice its high estimate.

The only disappointment in this section of the auction was Lot 232, a rare Central, or Eastern African, possibly Nyamwezi, female figure, 32 1/2 inches high, shown below. The impressive statue was passed at $ 775,000.

A rare Central or Eastern African, possibly Nyamwezi female figure

Lot 232, a rare Central, or Eastern African, possilby Nyamwezi,

female figure, 32 1/2 inches high

The remainder of the auction, which also included many lots from two other private collections, Dr. Kral-Ferdinand Schädler and Harry and Frieda Schaeffer, was not as successful with only 59.34 percent of the 369 lots being sold for a total of $2,347,753. Ms. Fritts noted that the auction saw "a number of new bidders enter the market" and more international buyers than recently.

Lot 206, a rare and important Fang male reliquary guardian figure, shown below, sold within its estimate for $409,500. Fewer than five such figures exist and this was owned by John Graham, the artist, who was an adviser to Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair and a prominent collector who also owned the work.

Rare Fang male reliquary guardian figure

Lot 206, an important Fang male reliquary guardian figure,

25 1/4 inches high

Lot 76, an important Benin Bronze head of an Oba, circa 18th Century, also sold within its estimate for $156,500. Lot 169, a superb Banama female doorlock, sold for $46,000, almost quadrupling its low estimate.

See The City Review article on the Fall 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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