A blast from the past lifts Sotheby’s N Y Sale.

Is  Sotheby’s two year dream run of tribal sales in Paris and New York coming  to an end? Or is the latest (May 16) New York sale a temporary hiccup? It is certainly fairly safe to say that with the exception of a thin layer of cream at the top, this catalog offers much less in the way of excitement than other recent sales .

Lot 42. Statue of a mythical heroine or ancestor (Telum), Austrolabe Bay, PNG. 38 ½ inches / 97.8 cm. $600K - $900K.

In fact the whole catalog is something of an anomaly. It is not often a that a piece of Oceanic art eclipses the African and South American  offerings at Sotheby’s, but that’s the case here, with the piece de resistance being  a northern New Guinea Telum female ancestor figure from Astrolabe Bay which has a top estimate that would take the full price over a million dollars (lot 42).

The example at Sotheby’s, one of only five known examples in existence and the only one in private hands, was collected by the German explorer Hugo Zöller in Bogadjim village in 1889. These figures are thought to have originated in the proto-culture that preceded contemporary Huon Gulf and Sepik cultures. One of the other four known examples, which is ex-John Freide and currently in the Jolika Collection at the De Young, was collected by Zöller in the same village and has been carbon dated to between 1490AD – 1670AD.

Zöller was obviously able to collect several (possibly all surviving?) examples of these figures on his 18889 – 90 expedition, for he recalls how “‘with patience and friendliness we managed – by walking back from the Finisterre Mountains –  to buy a number of these old ancestor statues, which are often erroneously thought to be gods”.  Zöller, however,  was definitely not the first European to see or sketch a telum figure. Russian anthropologist, Nikolai Mikloucho-Maclay was the first European to actually live among the natives of Astrolabe Bay (between  1871 – 1833) and learn their language. He describes seeing several telum figures in the coastal villages of Bogadjim and Bongu and sketched at least one of them.

Mikloucho Maclay''s sketch of a telum in the mens house at Bongu Village

   Telum figures were apparently rare and no longer made by the end of the 19th century, but from the casual way in which Mikloucho-Maclay mentions them in his diaries he obviously expected to find them there, and the fact that they were all carefully installed inside mens houses indicates that far for being obsolete or abandoned relics of an older civilisation, the telums actually had an ongoing role in the life of the villagers. Each telum had a name, and they were apparently used in initiation and other clan rituals The example sketched by Mikloucho-Maclay at Bongu Village has a quite different face from those of the Sotheby’s example and the one in the De Young, both of which are from Bogadjim Village and presumably depict the same ancestor.

Mikloucho-Maclay was a strong opponent of colonialism, and petitioned Tsar Nicholas of Russia to annex the Astrolabe Bay region to prevent the Germans from claiming it and usurping native sovereignty over their own territory. This attempt failed, of course, and this is why Zöller was able to march in to the interior in 1889 and march out again with the telums.

It is quite a step down form this million dollar telum figure to the next major piece in the Oceanic section of this  auction – a Gara ritual hook figure from the Behinimo people of the Hunstein Mountains, East Sepik, (lot 39), described as 17th – 18th century and estimated between $150K – $250K. These abstract figures were held between the legs of initiates during coming of age rituals  and also served hunters as spirit helpers . This example has a bird’s head at one end (I would have thought this was the the top?), and  possibly – from other examples I have seen – a snake’s head at the bottom, both well weathered. Unfortunately the top (or bottom?) hook has been broken short.

Eket Ogbom headdress, Nigeria, height: 28 ¼ inches /72 cm. $400K - $600K.

Tuning to the African entries, we see the above pattern repeat itself. There are two magnificent sculptures heading the list, both estimated at between $400K – $600Kand then quite a falling off.

The first  is a wonderfully elegant Eket Ogbom headdress consisting of  a superb abstract  curved  torso  supporting a powerful human head.  It comes from the collection of the French tribal art authority Jacques Kerchache (lot 98) and was exhibited at the famous MOMA Primitivism in 20th Century Art exhibition. The Eket are a subgroup of the Ibibio of Nigeria and these headdresses are worn and danced during the Ogbon rituals which honour Ala, the earth spirit.

The second is an equally impressive Mambila female ancestor figure from the Cameroons which once graced the collection of the legendary US tribal dealer, Harry A Franklin (lot 118). In addition to its sculptural qualities, there are two other factors which add interest. The first is that this piece was sold to Europe in 1990 when the Franklin collection was dispersed, and it is now making a reappearance at Sotheby’s New York, 23 years later. The second is the suggestion that because these figures are always carved in pairs, it is the male half of a pair

Mambila female ancestor figure, Cameroons. Height 19 inches, 48.3 cm. $400K – 600

collected by Philippe Guimot before 1970 – since the Guimot figure has the same cubistic rendering of the legs and similar ears and facial features. (‘Married couple from Africa reunited by millionaire tribal art bidder’, what a Hollywood ending that would be!)

The  Pre-Columbian Art on offer includes several very attractive objects, but nothing that could stand next to the New Guinea ancestor figure or the Nigerian headdress. The highest estimate is for a rare greenstone Olmec seated figure (lot 9) estimated at $150 K– 250K, but most interest seems to be focussed on a large ( 47 inches / 119 cm) tall Veracruz standing figure of a royal personage dated between  to AD 500 – 1200, (lot 29).  This well known piece was last seen in New York at the Met’s  1970 “Beyond Cortes” exhibition. It is estimated at $80K – $120K.

Are there any conclusions we can draw from a perusal of this catalog? Judging by their photographs, many of the objects on offer seem to be unspectacular  examples, true to type but in some cases  far from the best of their type. At the same time, this does not mean that it does not contain many objects that  collectors with want and bid for, and with 120 of the 150 or so lots estimated at less than  $100K, there may be good buying to be had.

Large Veracruz standing figure, AD 500 – 1200, height 47 inches, 119 cm. $89K - $120K.

For tribal art auction watchers, however, the question is whether or not the torrent of fabulous tribal pieces at fantastic prices which flowed through Paris and New York  auction houses in recent years is slowing down? How much of it was given momentum by the large quantity of ex-Jolika pieces offered in both New York and Paris, a source which has now apparently dried up?  How much of it was due to the Euro crisis, which must have dislodged some previously  firmly held artworks form the reluctant hands of their ex owners? I suspect we will find out in the next few months.


See tribal beadwork catalog at  www.tribalartbrokers.net/beadProducts.asp 

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