Any fellow bead lover perusing the catalog for Sotheby’s upcoming tribal sale in New York would have immediately noticed Lot 85, described as “49 Northern Nguni (Zulu, Swazi and Transvaal Ndebele) and Southern Nguni (Xhosa) Beadworks and Jewellery, South Africa”. If you did, I wonder if it left you as perplexed as it did me?
The 49 pieces of beadwork are cataloged as the property of The Robbins Center For Cross Cultural Communication in Washington and are attributed to two different collectors – Grete Manheim, a professional photographer, and Caroline Wagner, both of whom collected them in South Africa during the 1930s.
The Robbins Center is a well known and highly respected organisation which donated its foundation collection of artworks to the newly formed Museum of African Art in 1964, (it became part of the Smithsonian in 1979), but these two collections were acquired relatively recently, in 1991 (Wagner) and 1994 (Manheim).
So far so good. But when I took a look at the large photograph and several close ups illustrating this lot, I noticed several of things that bothered me. First of all, modern museums keep formal records, yet the components of these two collections had simply been jumbled together, with no way of knowing what had been collected by Ms Manheim and what had been collected by Ms Wagner – since collection details tell you a lot about the collector as well as the collection, this was a disappointment. I was also disappointed that there were none of Ms. Manheim’s photographs included in the catalog – there would have been plenty to photograph in 1930’s South Africa.
Second, the objects on display simply do not look like a representative sample of South African tribal beaded body ornaments that might have been common pre-WW2 and both collections were acquired too recently to simply be 49 old pieces swept together from the dusty corners of some long forgotten museum drawer or storage box.
When I first started collecting in the 1970s, beadwork from 1930 – 1960 was still plentiful and authentic used pieces were stocked by almost all of the many “Curio” shops that could be found in the capital cities. They were also as cheap as chips. Authentic and beautiful old Zulu, Ndebele and Xhosa pieces could be purchased for less than $10, and $100 – $150 would have purchased museum quality – and you can divide those prices by at least 100 to get an idea of the buying power of the 1930s currency in the 1970s. Yet in spite of the ready availability of impressive pieces, almost all the objects in the main photograph are pieces of quite ordinary quality.
There are a few small Zulu pieces that are less common and more interesting, notably the two hair ornaments built on bicycle wheel spokes and the two beaded matchboxes used by Zulu dandies to light their ornate pipes (the Xhosa too decorated matchboxes, which were sold new and filled with safety matches for one cent a box when I was a kid and probably a fraction of that in the 1930s). A pair of Zulu horn earplugs is also if interest, as well as an old courting doll and there is one small necklace incorporating the old greasy butter yellow, pink and red white-heart beads that were favored in the 19thcentury. The relatively few Xhosa pieces are old and authentic, but not spectacular – a necklace, two leg bands (one with a goatskin fringe), a net-beaded gourd ad one or two other bits and piece. Of the rest, much of it seems to be in quite un-traditional colours and I can’t help thinking that it was made for sale to tourists outside hotels and at the docks where the cruise liners moored.
The catalog notes by Carolee G. Kennedy are accurate, but extremely generic and do not discuss the individual components of this lot individually or examine the past history of the collections. Were these two old collections donated to the Robbins Centre and therefore accepted out of politeness in spite of the quality? Or have the two original collections already had the eyes picked out of them by a tribal art dealer before or after they were donated, leaving the less attractive portion behind? We may never know. On the other hand, an auction is a very effective price fixing mechanism, and we will soon find out if these 49 pieces reach the estimate.
See tribal beadwork catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/beadProducts.asp
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