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).
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
See tribal art catalog at http://tribalartbrokers.net/artnew.asp
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