Revealed at last: Adolphe Stoclet’s African and Oceanic art treasures
Kept under wraps for almost a century, this superlative Belgian collection has long been the subject of conjecture. As specialist Bruno Claessens explains, its treasures came into the light with a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ sale in Paris
Adolphe Stoclet’s Collection of African and Oceanic Art, which will be sold at Christie’s on 30 October, has been kept under wraps for almost a century. ‘It’s an important rediscovery,’ says Bruno Claessens, Head of African and Oceanic Art at Christie’s in Paris. ‘There is great excitement about it because it was one of those mystery collections that we knew existed, yet nobody knew what exactly was in it. This sale, therefore, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’
Stoclet’s collection of African and Oceanic art was displayed in Stoclet House, now a UNESCO world heritage site. Designed by the renowned architect Josef Hoffman, the mansion, situated on the avenue de Tervueren in Brussels, is a landmark piece of Vienna Secession architecture, complete with ‘mind-blowing’ mosaics by Gustav Klimt.
Stoclet House in Brussels, commissioned by Adolphe Stoclet in 1905 without financial or aesthetic restrictions, and now a UNESCO world heritage site
Having inherited his father’s fortune in 1904 and become one of the richest people in Belgium, Stoclet gave Hoffman carte blanche to build him a beautiful private residence, in which everything would designed by the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), the community of architects, artists and designers that Hoffman had co-founded in 1903. The house, which was completed in 1911, is a gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) and is still intact to this day, down to the smallest detail.
Pieces from Adolphe Stoclet’s Collection of African and Oceanic Art on display at Stoclet Palace
Stoclet set out to to fill his new house with beautiful things that would match its grandeur, and embarked on what Claessens describes as a ‘collecting frenzy’. In just a couple of years he acquired an incredible collection of objects, ranging from quattrocento paintings from Italy to treasures from Africa, pre-Columbian America, Asia, Egypt and Greece.
A Yaka headrest, Congo. Height: 19 cm (7½ in). Estimate: €300,000-500,000. This lot is offered in Masterpieces of African and Oceanic Art from the Adolphe Stoclet Collection on October 30 2018 at Christie’s in Paris
Stoclet’s collection of African and Oceanic art features a number of pieces from Congo, a former colony of Belgium, including an archaic Yaka headrest, which Claessens likens to ‘finding a Leonardo da Vinci or an unknown Picasso’. Never previously exhibited or published, the headrest pre-dates European contact and is remarkable for its dynamism of form, exquisite carving and patina.
It was used as a pillow by a chief, who would have slept with his cheek on the leopard’s back to protect his elaborate coiffure. ‘The Yaka people did not really grasp the true nature of sleep and considered it to be a very magical time,’ explains Claessens, ‘so it was necessary for the chief to be watched over by the leopard at night.’
What makes this particular leopard so unusual, says the specialist, is the fact that it’s holding a small animal in its mouth. This references the belief in the chief’s power to transform himself into a predator in order to hunt down his enemies.
‘It is the best of its kind,’ states Claessens of the headrest. ‘It is of such an exceptional quality that it goes beyond African art to become a truly universal masterpiece — exactly the type of art that Stoclet was interested in.’
A Songye kifwebe mask, Congo. Height: 33 cm (13 in). Estimate: €200,000-400,000. This lot is offered in Masterpieces of African and Oceanic Art from the Adolphe Stoclet Collection on 30 October 2018 at Christie’s in Paris
Another object in the collection which has never been previously seen in public is the Songye kifwebe mask, which Claessens describes as ‘very Cubistic’ with its protruding mouth and arrow-shaped nose. ‘This is the type of mask that inspired avant-garde artists such as Picasso in the first decades of the 20th century,’ he says.
Masks from the Songye culture are prized by connoisseurs of African art and this archaic example, with its diagonal striations in the classic kifwebe style — designed to imitate the coats of wild animals — will be highly sought after by collectors.
A Ngombe stool, Congo. Height: 42 cm (16½ in). Estimate: €20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Masterpieces of African and Oceanic Art from the Adolphe Stoclet Collection on October 30 2018 at Christie’s in Paris
Similarly modernist in style is the Ngombe stool, which was copied by French designer Pierre Legrain in the 1930s. ‘Here, we have the original idea,’ says the specialist, ‘and it’s much better because you can feel it’s been used for decades. It’s a real object of daily life, used by an important man in Ngombe society.’
The piece is also notable for its use of brass tacks: ‘These would have been imported from Europe and were therefore considered highly valuable. So it was only chiefs who could actually afford to have so many decorating a stool in these beautiful abstract patterns.’
A Luba caryatid stool, Congo. Height: 46 cm (18⅛ in). Estimate: €300,000-500,000. This lot is offered in Masterpieces of African and Oceanic Art from the Adolphe Stoclet Collection on 30 October 2018 at Christie’s in Paris
The Luba caryatid throne (above) is another remarkable piece, which shows the figure of a woman literally and symbolically supporting the person sitting on it. According to Claessens, ‘the figure represented the first woman of the clan from whom the whole group would have descended. Thrones such as these were used by chiefs to legitimise their claim to power.’
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The composition of the throne is very striking, he notes. ‘If you see it from the front it has this pyramidal structure starting from the base that leads your eye up to the torso and the head. Additionally, you have this beautiful gesture of the raised hands supporting the base which is a universal theme, seen in the Parthenon’s caryatids and elsewhere.
‘It’s now very common to find collectors who combine modern art with antiquities and world art,’ Claessens continues. ‘But at the turn of the century Adolphe Stoclet was considered to be very avant-garde and eclectic in his taste. He paid attention to art that was not yet acknowledged by the general public. Stoclet was ahead of his time, a trailblazer whose collection would become a reference.’