Who wants to be a millionaire at the Sotheby’s Dec 12 Paris sale?

This superb Biwat flute stopper is the cover piece of the catalogue and the most expensive estimate of the sale sale at €420K -€550K.

 Here’s an intriguing game for tribal art lovers whatever your income.

Open the Sotheby’s on line catalogue for the Dec 12 African and Oceanic Sale, deal yourself a million euros worth of Monopoly money, and then choose the six artworks you personally would buy at their lowest estimates. 

This could be fun for two reasons. First, this is an incredibly strong sale offering an amazing selection of rare Oceanic art, and an impressive depth of quality African art– so even with a spare million to play with, there could be some tough decisions to be made.

Second, this is an imaginary game so there are no winners or losers, but it can tell you a lot about yourself. Will you choose the most expensive items? Several items that fit in with your special collecting interests? Items you have always wanted to own and couldn’t afford? Items that are a good investment? Or just beautiful things that you like, regardless of the estimates? In other words, what pushes your buttons? Price tags? Investment shrewdness? An obsession to add to your collection?  An appreciation of beauty? Or simply following your emotional curiosity?

The crème de la crème – Estimates up to E550K.

The most expensive estimate in the sale is for a Melanesian object, an absolutely perfectly Biwat flute stopper (€420 – 550k),   a visual icon  of Oceanic art as familiar to most  collectors as the Mona Lisa (lot 84,  450k – 550K).

Ancient, rare and beautiful, the Atal stone form the Cross River region of the Cameroons

Personally, however,  if I were to spend up to half of my million euro on one object, it would be  the amazing Cross River (Cameroons) atal or akwansi  stone monolith, one of the most beautiful examples I have ever seen.(Lot 84 – €250K – €400K).  In fact,  it is so tactile that I would like to reach into the photograph and stroke it. These large  and ancient carved stones are 500 – 1000 years old and  were set in up in groups in the middle of the village to honour the ancestors. 

They are now mostly found in abandoned  villages and these sites are  strictly protected  as national  treasures. Sadly, of the only 400 known examples in the 1960s,  less than 190 remain – so more than half have been lost, legitimately removed  or looted in the last 50 years. (Fortunately, this one comes with a reliable provenance and publication history).

That’s my choice, but which of the rarest objects would you choose?   Would it be the superb Fang funerary figure, with its lustrous patina and illustrious  provenance? (Lot 99 , 250K – 350K). Or maybe  you prefer the rare Dogan female figure with upraised arms, which depicts Ya Signene, the only woman  represented in the masked ceremonies of the Dogon, ( lot 55, €220K – €500K). Or  would you find the beautiful and rare  Senufo Mask, covered in copper and pewter by a renowned metal smith of Duala more to your liking (Lot 52, €200K – €3000K).

How about the rarest piece?

The Pentecost Island Vanuatu Chubuan mask.

Actually, I personally have no doubts here. My pick would be the Chubwan or Tubuan mask from Pentecost Island in Vanuatu which has great age and is obviously stone-carved (lot 25, €60k – 90K). In a conversation some years ago , Kirk Huffman, founder of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, explained to me that the Chubwan secret society  ritual for which this example (and the 20 other known pre-1900 masks in existence) were carved, last took place in the 1920s and will never take place again. Why? Simply because the last of the old  initiated men qualified to perform the ritual died without passing it on – probably because there was no younger person on the island who was of a high enough initiation  grade to be entrusted with such sacred information. Most people think that only animals become extinct, but the secret-sacred elements of culture are just as vulnerable.

There are16 other very interesting masks in this sale – almost all African of course – and many are superb – so I don’t expect you to share my choice. Which mask would you choose?

And the piece I would most like to own?

Solomon Islands nuzu nuzu ornament for a head hunting or war canoe.

This is another easy one for me. When moved to Australia  from Africa 35 years ago and started to collect Oceanic art,  I started with canoe art because canoe making, navigation and sailing skills comprise the technology that enabled humans to conquer and settle the vast Pacific and canoes are full of magical art. The one piece I always wanted to own was the little toto isu or  nuzu nuzu canoe charm that protected the prows of the big , gondola shaped Solomon Islands head hunting canoes. (Lot 14 , €50K – 70K). This is a mouth wateringly perfect example with superb inlaid mother of pearl decorations, including the large ear plugs, eye outlines and intricate facial decorations.

I have to  confess, however, that if this piece was withdrawn from the sale, I would not know what to choose. Perhaps the superb Philippines bulul rice god from Luzon, one of the most elegant I have ever seen, with its slender limbs and well carved head (Lot 31,  €50k – 70K).

Or the delightful Maori box for small treasures  from  New Zealand ( lot 21 , €80k – €100K), which has an exceptionally well carved figure crouching over  a box he is holding,  with  his mouth  almost touching the feet of the smaller figure carved on its lid. Is it a legend? A founder and his descendent?  A chief devouring his defeated  enemy? We do not know, but it is beautiful.

Or, how about the powerful Teke seated magic figure  (lot 94, €50K – €70K) with the beautifully expressive face, who leans rather than sits onto his chair . He still has the magic charge in the abdomen which is the source of his power.

But the real fun may be in the lower price ranges.

This amazing Congolese Lele adze has a figural handle with a blade formed as an antelope projecting from its mouth.

On the other hand, the more I study this catalogue, the more my eye is drawn to the “cheaper” pieces under €25K because they are so beautiful and so meticulously crafted. There is a superb Lele adze from the Congo with a human figure terminal holding an elegant antelope shaped blade (lot 12, €8k. ) Or  a 19th century spear head from  Malekula in Vanuatu with a fantastic  janus head  holding the long bone point,( lot 24 €7k – 10K). Or the sabre from Nias in the Mollocos chain of Indonesia, with an intricately carved  handle depicting a battle between the snake-dragon Lasavra and an ape-like demon, (Lot 32). It is a perfect specimen with a good patina on the scabbard and the round basketry charm covered with wild boar tusks attached to the top of the scabbard is in perfect condition.( It seems to be incredibly good value at €2K to €4.5K).

Oops! My personality test is revealing that I am a rather a violent person, as so many of the pieces I like are weapons – as they say, “toys for the boys”, but they are so beautiful.

One of three delectable Pende ivory whistles collected in the Congo by Emil Lejeaune before 1920.

Let me redeem  myself by saying that if I  had a budget of only €25K for this sale, I would spend it all on the three  superb Pende Ivory whistles collected by colonial administrator Emil Lejeune between 1906 – 1914. The most expensive and the most abstract is lot 1 (€15k – 25K) , but the figural examples (lots 5 and 6) are estimated at  much less –  between €3K – €4k. These little beauties are like African netsuke – if you owned one, you would like to handle it all day!

That’s my choice, but  how about you? How would you spend your virtual  million Euro – very differently from me, I suspect. If you would like to  join in the game, please do. Email me your selection  of the six objects you would buy, (not just the lot number please, but a few words on why as well), and I will publish the most interesting in a future post . Please free free to post in English French or German if it is easier. Send your entry to dsaid@ozemail.com.au.

See tribal art catalog at  http://tribalartbrokers.net/artnew.asp

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