An exceptional group of works from the collections of some of the most famous experts in the field is on sale at Christie’s Paris
‘We’re offering iconic pieces and many that are entirely fresh to the market,’ says Victor Teodorescu, a specialist in African and Oceanic Art at Christie’s Paris, referring to the exceptional works featured in the Arts d'Afrique, d'Océanie et des Amériques auction at the saleroom on 7 December.
African objects form the bulk of the 29 works in the sale, which are associated with some of the leading private collectors, including René Rasmussen, Hubert Goldet and Claude Vérité, but there are also key pieces from North America and Oceania. Among them is a multicoloured flute mask from the Lower Sepik region of Papua New Guinea (Lot 20) and a Tlingit mask from Alaska (Lot 14). The works will be on display at Christie’s Paris from 2 December, and here are six highlights.
It is rare for a pair of male and female Mano figures to come to market, but it is even more unusual to find a couple executed in this style. Their strong geometry is not typical of the naturalistic figures carved by the Dan or the Mano people of north-eastern Liberia. ‘No other pair comes even close in terms of geometry and quality,’ says Teodorescu.
They once belonged to Robert Rubin (1934-2009), a founding trustee of New York’s Museum of African Art (now the Africa Center), who collected only the most remarkable pieces during the 1970s and 1980s. ‘He amassed one of the most interesting collections in America at the time,’ adds Teodorescu.
This fine 12th or 13th-century wooden Soninke statue was acquired in 1958 by Anne-Marie and André Gaillard from René Rasmussen (1912-79), the renowned Parisian art dealer who popularised African artistry among collectors at the time. It stands out for the clarity of its composition, expressive face and excellent state of conservation. Initially thought to have been carved by the Dogon people of the Bandiagara plateau, in modern-day Mali, it can now be linked to the earlier Soninke diaspora, which inspired Dogon iconography.
These sculptures were placed at an altar as intermediaries between the gods and important people such as war chiefs or priests. ‘Serene, sensitive, but also conveying great power, he has survived the passage of centuries in order to bear witness,’ says Yaëlle Biro, associate curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. ‘He speaks to us of individual and collective history, of the great empires of the past, of his people on the move, but also of forgotten prayers and wishes.’
Most likely sculpted in the 17th or 18th century, this motherhood statue was originally part of a slit drum, or ikoro. These monumental drums, which could be more than three metres long, played an essential role in the life of the Mbembe people, who live along the banks of the Cross River in Nigeria. They were used to announce the death of an important member of the community, the beginning of a festival, or to call men to battle.
This delicate figure was one of 11 presented in 1974 at an exhibition titled Ancêtres M’Bembé in Paris by the famous art dealer Hélène Kamer. She noted the direction of the carving as being characteristic of Mbembe statuary: ‘The drums were carved from the Apa tree (Afzelia africana) and sculpted transversely, which explains why the growth rings of the tree are visible.’ A twelfth sculpture, which was acquired before the exhibition by the curator Pierre Meauzé, is now one of the jewels in the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre.
This mixed-media muzidi or reliquary figure, with a wooden head and soft body and limbs wrapped in European textiles, was made by the Bembe people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, who believed the spirit of their ancestors resided within such pieces. One of the finest examples of its type still in private hands, it was also collected by Rubin.
It was likely made by the same artist responsible for a muzidi from the collection of the German artist Georg Baselitz. ‘It is not identical, but it is very close. It’s what we would call a “master-hand” piece because its features show so much individuality that we can attribute it to a single artist,’ says Teodorescu.
Also from the Congo is this elegant, heart-shaped mask covered in kaolin. Its simplified, geometric facial features are characteristic of pieces carved by the Lega people for use in Bwami initiations. The Bwami are a semi-secret society who codify the Lega’s social networks and guide members’ moral development.
This piece is from the collection of anthropologist and African art scholar Daniel P. Biebuyck (1925-2019) and his wife, Laure-Marie (1927-2017). Biebuyck conducted extensive anthropological studies of the Lega and even completed several levels of the Bwami initiation process. ‘What makes this particularly interesting is its history of being in the collection of an academic who contributed so much to our knowledge of Lega art and culture in general,’ says Teodorescu.
This was the most important Lumbo figure to come onto the market when it sold at auction in 2001 as part of Goldet’s collection. That remains true to this day, says Teodorescu. It stands out for its skilful carving, as seen in the modelling of the female figure’s torso, coiffed hair and face with its inlaid glass eyes, as well as for its mbumba or ‘rainbow of colours’ – a characteristic of Lumbo art. Each hue has a meaning, with red, for example, symbolising power and maturity. The piece was used in rituals, with the figure representing the founder of the clan and guardian of the deceased.