The Magic Flute Stopper and other stories from Sotheby’s and PNG.

The 'magic" flute stopper that recently sold at Sotheby's for €1.4 million, surely a world record?

It is not very often that an Oceanic artwork trumps the big African art names at Sotheby’s, but this time it did. €1.4 million for a Biwat flute stopper from PNG. I suspect that many of the African bidders at that sale had never heard of the Biwat (as opposed to the Fang, or the Kuba, or the Dogon), and maybe didn’t know what a flute stopper actually was, so let me explain:

  New Guinea society and religion is quite different from the non-Melanesian world. The social structure is very flat and democratic and the population is very fragmented. There are more than a 800 distinct languages, and people tended to live in large or small villages and in clans within the villages. There are almost no hereditary chiefs, and status had to be earned in one’s own lifetime. In many groups individual status is judged by how much wealth one gives away, not by how much one keeps.

This is a 'bare' version of a another Biwat wusear sold by Sotheby’s a year ago – even without the feathers and ornaments, it is an extremely powerful carving.

New Guineans were traditionally  animists and ancestor worshipers, and because their small social groups were surrounded by a hostile environment where a drought, fire or an enemy raid could wipe out your entire world, great emphasis is placed on controlling the spirits of ancestors and of nature which  can protect against these disasters. As a result, almost all knowledge, outside the skills of existence like hunting or canoe making, was concentrated in the knowledge of how to control these spirits.

Power therefore resided in the Men’s House, (Haus Tamburan or house of the spirits), and every village, and sometimes each clan within the village, built one. Every boy was automatically initiated into male society  at puberty and learned the secrets of summoning and controlling the spirits and carving the artworks.

Almost all New Guinea art springs from this source – statues, masks and other artworks are primarily carved as temporary homes for the spirits, who are summoned or enticed to live in them while the ceremony or ritual takes place. In contrast with Africa, where secret society masks and symbols were stored and treasured, New Guinea art was quite often burned after the ceremony to destroy traces of the dangerous spirits that had lived in it, and to let their power drain back into the earth.

This superb stone-carved flute stopper from the Iatmul people of the Middle Sepik was collected by a German ship’s officer in 1928

Any feminists reading this will immediately perceive that this was a very sexist social structure. The women did most of the work of gardening and producing food, but the men had almost all the magic power. This disadvantaged women, but was important for tribal art, for in addition to providing a temporary home for a spirit, these artworks also became the physical manifestation of the spirits which could be danced or paraded though the village and shown to the uninitiated – women young children and strangers, so they too could understand the power of the spirits and avoid actions that would offend them and harm the community.

Along the Sepik, PNG’s river of art, one common way of proving that the spirits were indeed attending ceremonies was to provide them with a voice, and this was the function of the sacred flute, called wusear in the Biwat language. The flutes themselves were ridiculously simple – just a  bamboo tube blocked or stopped at the bottom. They were played by blowing across the opening  like a bottle neck to produce one note only, and always played in pairs to perform plaintive two note melodies. When the flute was playing, usually out of sight behind a screen, the initiated and the uninitiated alike believed that the spirits were present.

The bamboo pipes probably had a short life, but the stoppers were often kept and reused for many ceremonies. The popular theory is that because they had the power to produce the voices of the spirits, the flutes had to be protected against evil spirits, hence the protective carving on the stoppers. In fact, John Friede, that great champion and evangelist of New Guinea Art, has a more convincing theory, which is that the bamboo tube was just that, a bamboo tube, but the real essence of the power of the spirit was incorporated into the elaborately carved stopper, which actually represented the spirit voiced by the flute. Certainly, if one regards carvings as abodes for spirits, this makes perfect sense.

Sacred flutes produce the voices of the spirits throughout the Lower and Middle Sepik.This ornate example was carved in the Middle Sepik village of Sawos.

So much for the flute stoppers – now for the Biwat, who Margaret Mead confusingly named the Mundugumor.  They live on the Yuat River which  flows into the Sepik system.  (The Biwat/Mundugamor are famous for hoodwinking Margaret Mead by making up all sorts of fairy stories about themselves  to entertain her). The Yuat river was also relatively accessible by canoe from the Government Control Post at Angoram on the Middle Sepik, and it was therefore explored by anthropologists and collectors , converted by missionaries and cleared out of most of of old artefacts a long time ago. In fact, Margaret Mead stated that the flute ceremonies were abandoned by 1930, so there are very few wusear flute stoppers around. That’s one reason why they are so expensive.

Add to that  scarcity  their power and beauty, and it is easy to see why they attract high prices at any auction, even without the embellishment of the cassowary feathers and shell valuables. In fact, it seems quite likely that the figures were stored stripped bare of ornaments and only dressed up for ceremonies. One excellent example of which only the wooden figure survived, was sold by Sotheby’s a year ago for  almost €290,000. By contrast, the Lemaire figure sold last week achieved 5 times that price, and it is interesting to ask why.

A powerful flute stopper from the Yangaru people of the Chambri Lakes, into which the Yuat River flows.

The Lamaire example was, of course, fully dressed with exception of the human hair beard, which seems to be missing in almost all collected examples and a missing nose decoration, and it is undoubtedly a superb carving. The aggressive stance  of the spirit figure, the staring shell eyes, the extravagant head dress of cassowary feathers and the lavish ear decorations of shell valuables clearly proclaim its importance and  power, but it is its watertight provenance that stakes its claim to a record price. It almost certainly originated from the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, then was owned by two generations of the Spayer family before being acquired by the famous Dutch collector Louis Lemaire, and passed down to the vendor, his granddaughter.

Congratulations to the new owners, be they an individual or a museum, who have purchased the equivalent of a Ruebens or a Goya of the world of Oceanic art at a fraction of the cost of a European masterwork.

P.S. Did you play the million euro virtual bidding game before the auction, and how did you go? I am gratified that my first pick, the beautiful Cameroons atal stone monolith, sold for three quarters of a million, almost twice its estimate, but to me the real sleepers were the Pende ivory whistles collected by Emilee Lejune, estimated as low as €3,000, but  selling at between €32,000 – €74,000 each. A great sale totalling €7.3 million – take a bow Sotheby’s!

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