Yaka headrest from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sold for €1,207,500 on 30 October 2018 at Christie’s in Paris

‘My highlight of 2018’ — A Yaka headrest from the Congo

Bruno Claessens, specialist in African and Oceanic art, on why this headrest from the collection of Adolphe Stoclet drew bidding from three continents before selling for €1.2 million

‘In September 2018, when Christie’s first exhibited this 200-year-old African wooden headrest, it caused a huge sensation,’ says Bruno Claessens, specialist in African and Oceanic Art. ‘Collectors and curators flocked to our Paris saleroom to see it, and while the estimate of €300,000-500,000 already represented a world record price for this type of artwork, we began to think it might sell for much more.’

The headrest in question was an extremely rare and previously unknown wooden example in the shape of a leopard, decorated with metal studs and with prey in its mouth. It was originally made to rest under the ear or neck of an important chief of the Yaka people from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which founded its kingdom between the Kwango and Wamba rivers sometime in the 17th century.

There are only a handful of known zoomorphic Yaka headrests in public and private collections across the world. ‘This discovery is without question the best’ — Bruno Claessens

The headrest had spent the last century hidden in the ‘Palais Stoclet’, the Brussels home of the late financier and art collector Adolphe Stoclet, which was filled with Greek marbles, Chinese bronzes, Italian Old Masters, walls inlaid with mosaics by Gustav Klimt, and a collection of Classical African sculptures never before seen by the public.

The specialist explains that there are only a handful of known zoomorphic Yaka headrests in public and private collections across the world, and that, ‘This discovery is without question the best’.

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Besides its rarity, the object’s deep-brown patina and indigenous restorations both suggest a long history — something that enhanced its appeal to would-be buyers.

On the day of the sale the headrest attracted bidding from three continents and sold for a record-breaking €1,207,500, including premium. ‘It pushed our total annual turnover for the African and Oceanic Art department to more than €20 million,’ says Claessens, ‘which confirms Christie’s as the go-to place for this collecting category.’