Christies Paris tribal sale raises the roof … and a few other issues.

 Sotheby’s tribal auctions have been going through a grey patch lately, with a disappointing gross turnover of around €3.7 million at their two most recent  Paris sales , but the sun continued to shine brightly on Christies. Their recent (June 219th) tribal sales, which grossed an impressive €7.89 million, presented one of the strongest tribal offerings we have seen in Paris for quite a while and was led by two remarkable pieces which together accounted for around €4.8 million (more than half ) of this record total.

The first of these was an extremely rare Mundugumor (Yuat River) roof finial de-accessioned from the Jolika Collection by the trustees of the De Young Museum, (lot 10) which sold for €2.5 million. This piece, which used to feature prominently in the Jolika’s permanent display, is so rare that there are only three  other known examples of this quality in existence, one in Cambridge, one in the Barbier Meulller Collection, and one in The Australian Museum , Sydney. (The Australian Museum actually has three of these large Mundugumor guardian figures, acquired in 1938. One is very similar to the Jolika figure, the second has a similar face, but is carved in the stance of a figural flute stopper, and the third, unusally, is female.)

The Jolika Mundugamor finial has one of the most serendipitous provenances in New Guinea tribal art history. It was donated to the Savage Club in Melbourne, Australia, an exclusive gentleman’s club in the British tradition, by an ex-colonial administrator who was a member and it was part of their extensive collection of tribal artefacts for decades. In 1977, the Savage Club decided they would have to sell the entire collection to finance a new roof that was urgently needed and they called in a noted Australian tribal art expert to value it. To their delighted surprise, they were told that they only had to sell one item, the Mundugamor figure, to pay for the new roof, and they could keep the rest, and a deal was brokered with John Friede.

Obviously the De Young have the legal right to sell part of the Jolika collection and may have had good reasons for doing so. Like the original owners of this figure, the Melbourne Savage Club, they too may have needed to raise some money to keep going, since John Friede was unable to make good on his commitment to finance the upkeep of the Jolika artworks following a series of unhappy personal disasters. However, the question of why the De Young chose to sell this particular piece is a puzzle.

The De Young is an art museum, so if they were lucky enough to be donated one of the world’s rarest artworks – in this case a rare New Guinea artwork –why would they sell it rather than keep it, treasure it and display it? Especially when there were so many other lesser artworks in the Jolika collection which could be sold?Would they have done the same with an iconic Picasso, Rubens or El Greco? One hopes the Trustees are not going to treat one of the world’s greatest collections of New Guinea art as a handy cash cow to be plundered whenever they need a few bucks – because if this is the case, John Friede’s assertion that the Trustees of the De Young represent a “ Philistine encampment” who “don’t care at all about tribal art” may deserve to be taken seriously.

The other amazing artwork at Christies, which realised €2.33 million was the most impressive of the 19 artworks from the Bartos collection and the cover piece of the catalogue, a stunning Baga serpent dance costume (lot 58). This large dance mask – 75 inches/ 195 cm tall – was carried on the shoulders of the dancer, and covered him to the waist, while his legs were hidden by a floor length skirt. The carving represents the spirit of a snake which played a key role in the religion of the Baga people of the swampy interior of Guinea. Each section of the village had its own snake costume which appeared at all important ceremonies including initiations. The spirit it represented was the source of rain, and therefore of all fertility and of life itself.

When field collectors Helen Leloup and Heri Kramer visited Guinea in i957, they were able to acquire several snakes and Leloup has described their  canoe journey transporting the snake costumes on dangerously swollen rivers -  a memoir reminiscent of an episode of Indiana Jones. This dangerous journey was indeed timely, since Ahmed Sékou Touré who became the first elected president of independent Guinea year later, immediately banned local customary practices in an effort to ”modernise” the country. As a result, the snake cult fell into disuse and only a few more of these remarkable masks were found and exported between 1958 – 1961.

There are interesting issues that arise out of this astounding auction. The first, of course, being that Christies are now clearly top dogs in the Paris tribal art world and Sotheby’s will have to stage a remarkable sale later this year to catch up. As the Christies result shows, however, it is the quality of a handful of outstanding artworks as much as the abilities of auction house that determines the success of a sale, since the Friede figure, the Baga snake and the next two most expensive African lots, a superb Dogon crouching figure and a long lost Fang reliquary figure exhibited in 1935 by Ratton), generated almost €6 million of the €7.89 million total. So if Sotheby’s can wheel and deal a couple of amazing pieces into their next sale, suckh as  the €1.4 million Mudigamor flute stopper at their December 2012 Paris sale, the tables could conceivably be turned.

The second point of interest is that  a 20th century African artwork such as the Baga snake, collected in the 1950s,  has  commanded the kind of premium  price that  is usually reserved for 18th and 19th century masterpieces with long and noble provenances that are often attributed to known master artists. Patina and provenance freaks, eat your hearts out!

Thirdly, any wealthy collector who thinks they can perpetuate their collection and their name by presenting it to a museum or gallery had better think again. Once the collection is in the museum’s hands, the ex-owner has very little if any control over its future. This not only holds true for John Friede but for just about every other collection I can think off. The Fuller Collection is now mostly hidden in the storerooms of the Field Museum and never seen as a collection, while the Oldman Collection, sold on the understanding that it would be held in one museum as a single entity, is now scattered across half a dozen New Zealand museums. (Though it must be said that the Met still honours the Rockefeller legacy and the Borroughs Wellcome Collection  is given its due defference at UCLA’s Fowler).

 One final and quite sobering thought is that tribal art  now seems to be attracting the attention of investors seeking a high price tag trophy or a portable store of wealth rather than something powerful , mystical and beautiful in its own right. Wealthy collectors like Celeste and Armand Bartos bought tribal art because the loved it passionately and proudly displayed it in their homes alongside the works of European masters. By contrast, the ‘on dit’ in Paris was that the telephone bidder who won the €2.5 million Mundugamor finial was a Russian or Middle Eastern one off buyer rather than a tribal art collector. Too sad if it ended up locked away in a safe like the Van Gogh’s Irises, after being  purchased by a wealthy Japanese investor . (Once known as the world’s most expensive painting, it has been ransomed and is currently owned by the Getty Institute in LA).

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