Works of Art from Africa and Oceania Set Records at Sotheby’s

After a hugely popular four-day viewing – attended by 1300 people – Sotheby’s Paris sale of exceptional works of art from Africa and Oceania attracted a packed saleroom throughout, with ferocious competition between telephone bidders and collectors in the saleroom. The sale total of over €5 million ($7.9 million) represented a selling-rate of 83% by value. Most of the top prices were paid by private collectors and connoisseurs, predominantly European or American, all seeking exceptional items in a variety of specialized fields.

Marguerite de Sabran, Head of African & Oceanic Art at Sotheby’s Paris: ‘This evening’s results, and the success of the viewing, reflect tremendous enthusiasm for tribal art – not just among traditional connoisseurs, but increasingly among modern and contemporary art collectors. The talent of the great sculptors of Africa and Oceania are becoming more and more widely recognized.’

The highlight of the African section of the sale was a masterpiece of Bamana art: a Kono mask (height 48cm) which fetched €1,408,750 ($2.139.565) – a world record price for a West African mask. With its perfect volumes and pure, powerful forms, this is one of the most potent emblems of the Kono initiatory society (lot 58, estimate €300,000-400,000*). It was shown in New York in 1984 at the MoMA exhibition ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art – Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, devoted to the discovery by early 20th century artists of ‘Negro’ art, which was to have a profound influence upon their creative output.

Results for the Marcia & John Friede Collection paid tribute to the eye of two collectors who have strived for over 20 years encourage the appreciation of the exceptional artistic wealth of Papua New Guinea. The collection’s 15 lots totalled €1,323,350 ($2.009.860).

The most popular item was an ancient Bahinemo hook-mask from the Hunstein Mountains (East Sepik, Papua New Guinea) which virtually doubled its €180,000 high estimate to fetch €324,750 ($493.220, lot 19). With its deconstructed human face, and hooks in the form of hornbill beaks, the mask illustrates the remarkable degree of artistic abstraction attained by the Bahinemo people.

Other Oceanic works attracted keen bidding, notably a splendid Kopar figure from Papua New Guinea, one of the finest examples of the style that developed in the Lower Sepik in the 19th century. It sold for €114,750 ($174.280, lot 18, est. €50,000-80,000).

A large hook figure (Yiman group, Korowori River, Papua New Guinea, est. €150,000-200,000), whose startlingly modern form enchanted 20th century artists, cleared its top-estimate to reach €240,750 ($365.645, lot 22).

The sale began with a collection of Aboriginal shields which reflected the creativity of the inhabitants of the Australian outback. Collectors were deeply impressed by the variety of forms and subtle range of colours. The most popular pieces proved to be a magnificent Aranda shield (Western Australia) at €30,750 ($46.700), six times its €5,000 top estimate (lot 1); and a rain-forest shield (Queensland) that fetched €23,550 ($35.765) against an estimate of €5,000-8,000 (lot 5).

Classic works of African art were fiercely contested. A magnificent Punu mask once owned by General Marie-Réné Collignon posted €264,750, one of the day’s highest prices ($408.095, lot 88, est. €250,000-400,000). It portrays a superbly stylized female face, celebrating the beauty of women and their importance in the spirit world.

A superb Kongo or Vili power figure (Democratic Republic of Congo) doubled its €100,000 top estimate to reach €264,750 ($408.095, lot 98). This powerful, large-headed figure entered the Linden Museum in Stuttgart in 1908.

The Musée du Quai Branly pre-empted one of the five known masks from Geelvink Bay for €102,750 ($156.055, lot 23, est. €100,000-150,000). The mask was collected by Jacques Viot – one of the few Surrealists to have made the arduous voyage to Oceania – on Kurudu Island in 1929, and shown by Pierre Loeb at the Galerie Pigalle the following year.

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