Bonhams Inaugural Offering of African and Oceanic Arts in New York City Marked by Exemplary Sales – A standing-room-only crowd, as well as an international pool of telephone bidders, gathered on Tuesday, November 13th for Bonhams’ inaugural sale of African and Oceanic Art, held at the New York auction gallery located in the historic Fuller Building.

The nearly 400-lot sale, featuring historical works and masterpieces of African, Melanesian and Polynesian sculpture, included works from the noted Gelbard collection as well as property from various owners. Many of the auction highlights had been exhibited internationally, several considered “best of type” and included as illustrations in the field’s most important reference books.

A Lobi figure considered by many to be one of the finest examples in existence, fetched $192,000; well over the high estimate of $140,000. Standing at 32-inches in height, the figure displays a variegated gray surface and, rather than the usual rigid posture and canonical treatment found in most large Lobi figures, possesses an almost animated sensual quality. The figure had been published in multiple titles, most recently in 1990.

Also drawing an extraordinary price, was an extremely rare Bakongo maternity figure from the estate of famed film director Andrew Marton. Marton, who is perhaps best known for having directed the famous chariot scene of Ben Hur, purchased the figure in 1948 while in the Congo directing another American film classic King Solomon’s Mines.

“The figure is exceptional,” according to Tribal Arts Dept. Senior Consultant Scott Rodolitz, “as it is one of perhaps only five examples known.” Beautifully carved and featuring a lustrous surface with remains of burnishing, this lot had never been exhibited or published, having remained within the director’s family as an “exotic” keepsake until the present. The figure sparked an intense bidding war, coming in at $132,000 – an astounding $100,000 over its estimate of $25/35,000.

A particularly notable Bakonogo facemask also drew the attention of bidders with a final price of $42,000. From the Democratic Republic of Congo, the facemask, of fine aged and darkened wood, is richly pigmented in red and white with scarification depicted by large hobnails. Exhibited as recently as 2005, the mask is considered a tour de force; the naturalistic features appearing almost as portraiture in relation to many other masks of its type.

Rodolitz also noted the astonishingly strong bids drawn by the collection of Polynesian work offered. In particular, Rodolitz singles out two Hawaiian bowls and a Marquesan club, which sold at far past their pre-sale estimates. The Marquesan club hammered as one of the sale’s top sellers. Estimated at $25/35,000, the lot drew a final price of $60,000. Property of a private British collector, the club was collected between 1880 and 1890 and is considered an ideal example of its type, featuring large sunburst eyes, raised Tiki faces, and classical Marquesan design elements.

The Hawaiian bowls — one 19-inches in diameter and the other 9.5-inches in diameter — were both catalogued with estimates of $7/9,000. Both of koawood, the former is of massive form and was originally acquired by a native Hawaiian family with relation to nobility; the latter features more than 22 indigenous repairs of all shapes and styles. Both sold for well over their estimates bringing $30,000 and $24,000, respectively.

Additionally a massive, 14-foot Hawaiian canoe from the estate of John Dupont, believed to have been carved prior to 1915, fetched $39,000. Rare in that it is carved completely of koawood, the canoe features a full outrigger lashed to the side of its hull, exceptional patina and magnificent surface grain.

As Rodolitz notes, the first tribal art sale at Bonhams New York stands out for having garnered noteworthy prices while taking place here in the U.S. With the declining dollar, the Tribal Arts market has experienced an increasing overseas exodus as American collectors increasingly offer property for sale in the UK and Europe. In light of these factors, the strong domestic interest for Bonhams’ inaugural sale is significant.