Bruno Claessens, Head of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s, with a mask from the Republic of Benin once owned by a French Cubist, shown at the first MoMA exhibition of African art in 1935, and now being offered at auction in Paris on 10 April
Many Christie’s specialists who work with paintings routinely look at the back of frames for labels that can provide clues to provenance or exhibition history. ‘That reflex is much less common for an African art expert,’ explains Bruno Claessens, Christie’s European Head of African and Oceanic Art.
‘When I was appraising a private collection in Paris last month, in a beautiful apartment filled with art, this piece — a vibrant polychrome mask from the Republic of Benin — immediately caught my eye,’ Claessens says. ‘I lifted it from its base to feel the weight of the wood and to check for signs that it had previously been worn. Intuitively I also examined the inside of the mask, and to my amazement I discovered several old paper labels stuck to the wood.’
One of these, an old French customs stamp, was proof that the mask had at one point left the country for an exhibition. Finding that stamp was a real ‘eureka moment’, Claessens says, ‘because it was proof that the mask had not always been in France, and had had a long life before it arrived in this collection in Paris.’
The label of the shipping company that transported it (Poittier, from St. Ouen) was even more telling. Although the label was partly damaged, Claessens was able to decipher on it the words ‘A. Lhote – Exp. Art Négre – New York.’ This was a significant discovery, for it revealed that at the time of its shipment to New York, the mask was owned by French Cubist painter André Lhote (1885-1962), who had begun acquiring African masks in 1906.
What’s more, Claessens knew that in the first decades of the 20th century, only a few African art exhibitions had been organised in New York. The ‘Exp. Art Négre’ reference thus quickly brought to mind the Museum of Modern Art’s much acclaimed 1935 exhibition African Negro Art. Checking the exhibition’s extremely rare, un-illustrated catalogue, which listed all 500 works in the show, Claessens discovered this mask, listed as lot #242: the ‘Polychrome mask – Dahomey – Coll. André Lhote, Paris.’ (Dahomey being the kingdom that existed in present-day Benin from around 1600-1900.)
‘It had a long life in Africa, impressed crowds at the first major exhibition of African art in New York, and was immortalised by one of America’s most important photographers’
‘The 1935 exhibition was key because, rather than presenting these works in an ethnographic museum, as was the usual practice at the time, here we had masks and other pieces exhibited in an art museum. And not just any art museum, but the Museum of Modern Art,’ the specialist explains. ‘It was a real game changer, because from that moment on people started looking at these works as art and started to appreciate their sculptural qualities.’
What’s more, most of the objects exhibited in the African Negro Art exhibition — including this mask — were photographed by Walker Evans, the pioneering American photographer who not long afterwards would travel throughout the country documenting the effects of the Great Depression. ‘Evans’ photos from this exhibition are very well-known, and are already valuable and well-collected,’ explains Claessens.
This mask therefore represents an extremely exciting rediscovery: ‘Not only did it have a long life in Africa, but once it left the continent it continued to impress crowds at the first major exhibition of African art in New York, and was immortalised by one of America’s most important photographers.’
Further sleuthing would reveal that it was sold at auction in Paris in 1943, and acquired by well-known French publisher Jean Aubier. From Aubier it passed to Pierre Vérité (whose collection was offered in November 2017 at Christie’s in Paris), and finally from the Vérité family to its current owner, who was unaware of its earlier provenance. Indeed, it was after the Vérité sale that the current owner approached Claessens to tell him that she had another piece, which once belonged to the Vérité family, and that he might like to see.
The mask itself is one the specialist describes as ‘a very classic Yoruba style. It would have been used in a Gelede performance, a ritual display featuring masked dancers and music that was intended to amuse but also to educate and inspire worship. In particular, Gelede dances celebrated the power of mothers and female ancestors, and the important role of older women in the Yoruba community.’
Because the mask was intended for wear in these performances, it was carved from a very light wood. ‘What you see here is just a fragment of the larger elaborate costume that would have been worn by a Gelede dancer,’ the specialist explains.
The rediscovery of this Yoruba mask was a reminder of the key role that visual memory can play for a specialist. ‘Whether in African art or in other categories, one of the things Christie’s brings to the table is a vast mental encyclopaedia of all the iconic pieces we know from photographs and books,’ says Claessens. ‘The moment we view a collection these objects should immediately jump out. From there you just have to connect the dots and do the research to figure out where you’ve seen it before.’
When he explained the result of his investigating to the present owner, she was ‘amazed, and very grateful’. All she had known was that the mask had once been used in the 1950s to illustrate an entry on African art in the Larousse encyclopaedia. She did not know that it had travelled to New York or been photographed by Walker Evans.
On 10 April, the Yoruba mask will be offered in the African, Oceanic and American Art sale at Christie’s in Paris — and Claessens is keen to point out that this mask is a perfect example of African art being a category in which even a new collector can acquire exceptional pieces. ‘You can still find great objects with a fantastic history at an affordable price,’ he says.