‘This could be one major private collection’: exceptional works from Africa and Oceania
Highlights of the June auction at Christie’s Paris
‘We are presenting a very tight selection of high-end works from various private collections, but of such quality, each in its own type, that it feels as if they were coherently assembled for a single private collection,’ says Victor Teodorescu, a specialist in African and Oceanic Art at Christie’s Paris.
The nine works of art featured in the Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie sale on 29 June rank among the best of their type in terms of aesthetic quality, rarity and provenance. ‘Most are very important rediscoveries, either because they haven’t been shown on the market or because they are resurfacing after decades in the same private collection.’
Here are six highlights from the sale.
Moai Papa figure, Easter Island
Carved in the 19th century, this figure comes from Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the south-east Pacific Ocean. A moai papa is a female figure characterised by a fully modelled head contrasted with a flat body.
Moai papa are harder to find than their male counterparts (moai kavakava) — there are only a handful in private and public collections, including a comparable work in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. Although little is known about these figures, some believe they played a role in worshipping ancestral spirits. Teodorescu says its elongated torso and the ‘subtle flatness of its volumes’ gives this sculpture an elegance that sets it apart.
Yipwon figure, Papua New Guinea
This finely carved and well-balanced yipwon, formed from curved and pointed hooks, represents a hunting spirit. It was made by the Alamblak people from the Korewori River region in northeast Papua New Guinea. Men presented offerings to yipwon before hunting expeditions in the hope of a successful outcome. Medium-sized examples might be taken on hunts, while smaller ones were worn as amulets. As this is a large example, it would have been kept in a ceremonial house, so is well preserved.
‘When you stand in front of works from Papua New Guinea you feel as if they are almost alive, because they’ve been carved in a very powerful way,’ says Teodorescu. It was included in a major survey of Oceanic art at the ING Art Centre in Brussels in 2008.
Nkisi nkondi figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Exceptional for its large size and skilful rendering of anatomical details, this is the first nkisi nkondi (power figure) of its kind to come onto the market in ten years. Made in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, such sculptures were vessels for spiritual forces that were activated by a nganga or ritual specialist. When brought to life they could heal the sick, provide protection and even punish wrongdoers. Nails or blades would be driven into the wood each time a statue’s powers were summoned.
The face of this example is serene and beautifully carved, and the anatomical details such as the ankles and buttocks are carefully modelled. ‘Normally with figures like these, the faces are meant to be expressive or strong. In this case the figure not only expresses power but also serene beauty, which is extremely rare for this type of nkondi. What is great about this figure is that you can take it out of its context, look beyond the nails, and admire it as a pure piece of great sculpture,’ says Teodorescu.
The piece once belonged to the pioneering African art dealers Henri Kamer and Hélène Leloup, and then to the French Egyptologist Jean Yoyotte and his wife Michèle.
Baule mask, Côte d’Ivoire
‘What is fascinating about this mask is that in a few very elegant curves it gives us a full expression of serenity and elegance,’ says Teodorescu. ‘One can see how art made by the Baule people influenced Modern artists like Modigliani.’
The mask would have been worn for ceremonies and dances, and its rich patina suggests it was used over a long period. It was probably once owned by Roger Bédiat, a timber merchant from Martinique who moved to the Ivory Coast in 1921, where he amassed a collection of high-quality works. He also supplied African objects to the French market. His clients included Charles Ratton, the renowned dealer.
This portrait mask is one of such excellent craftmanship that it can be ranked among the best still in private hands. It was likely carved by the same artist who produced the famous double mask from the Pierre Vérité Collection.
Mask, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea
Dating to the 1880s, this is a particularly old example — and a very rare survival — of a mask from the central region of New Ireland, an island in the Bismarck Archipelago north-east of Papua New Guinea.
Masks of this type were used for funerary ceremonies and then usually destroyed. Most New Ireland masks on the market come from the north part of the island, so it is rare to find the long, flat masks produced in the central region. Examples of this type are in several public collections in Madrid, Berlin and Dresden. The current mask is almost identical to, and possibly even carved by the same artist as the example in Madrid.
Bernard J. Reis, an American collector and accountant who moved in the same circles as Peggy Guggenheim and artists such as Mark Rothko, once owned this mask. A photograph from 1958 taken in Reis’s apartment shows it next to one of Modigliani’s portraits of his partner, Jeanne Hébuterne.
Sepik figure, Papua New Guinea
Coming to the market for the first time in 50 years is this impressive Sepik figure from Papua New Guinea, which has an equally remarkable provenance. It was formerly in a museum founded by J.F.G. Umlauff, a Hamburg-based dealer of ethnographic objects, and was then bought by Baron Eduard von der Heydt, whose large ethnographic collection was the foundation for Zürich’s Rietberg Museum.
The figure was shown in Berlin at the 1926 Südsee-Plastiken [South Sea Sculpture] exhibition staged by the German dealer Alfred Flechtheim. He was a major advocate for Cubism and the French avant-garde, and often displayed Modern works alongside African and Oceanic art.
Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), one of the central figures of the Dada movement, probably purchased the figure in Berlin, and included it in a ground-breaking exhibition at the Galerie Pigalle in Paris that he organised with the dealers Charles Ratton and Pierre Loeb in 1930. This figure has been in a French private collection since the 1970s.