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Auction PR Publicity Announcements News and Information

Sotheby’s Paris African and Oceanic Art Sale

PARIS – On 11 June 2008 Sotheby’s will offer a spectacular ensemble of art from Africa, Oceania and British Columbia, comprising 180 lots with a total estimate of €6-9 million.

The African art includes several iconic works, including one of the first African works of art to enter a European collection – a Sapi-Portuguese ivory salt cellar; an 18th century bronze head from the Kingdom of Benin; and the Christina & Rolf Mielher Collection, comprising works of rare aesthetic value from Nigeria and Cameroon. There is also an ensemble of Oceanic art of exceptional stylistic power.

In the wake of the sales of the André Breton Collection in April 2003 and the Robert Lebel Collection in December 2006, the personal collection of the renowned American dealer James Economos constitutes the third major group of Eskimo and Northwest Coast art to reach auction in France over the last five years. The ensemble pays tribute to the major role played by Surrealist artists in the recognition of the art of the Indians of North America.

Sapi-Portuguese Ivory Salt Cellar, Sierra Leone, late 15th/early 16th century (lot 120, estimate €400,000-600,000) Afro-Portuguese ivories were the first items from Sub-Saharan Africa to enter European collections. Amongst the earliest and most prestigious collections to include ivory salt-cellars were those of the kings of France and Denmark, Emperor Charles V, the Medici family in Florence, and Albrecht Dürer. These commissioned works offer a remarkable synthesis of cultural influences, both in terms of use and iconography.

Sixty ivory salt-cellars from the Renaissance period are known worldwide, most of them incomplete or fragmented, and almost all in museums. The offered salt-cellar has conserved both its receptacle and cover, and is remarkable for the quality of its carving and composition. The delicate four-figure base (two dressed as Europeans, two as Africans) gives it a light, airy feel.

King’s Commemorative Head in bronze, Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, 18th century (lot 130, estimate €300,000-400,000)
With its majestic proportions and superb casting, this emblematic example of royal African art counts as one of the finest and most powerful examples of the style developed in Benin in the 18th century. The king (oba) with royal crown, head-band and multi-layered necklace, is portrayed wearing the coral pearls reserved for him. The head comes from the collection of Maurice Renou; who founded the Galerie Renou & Colle, a leading interwar modern art dealership, with Pierre Colle in 1935.

Masterpieces of African sculpture
Dogon Wakara Figure, Mali, 19th century (lot 86, estimate €200,000-250,000)
This example of the rare Wakara style, which evolved in the Douenza region north-east of Bandiagara, has scarifications and a crested, structured, zig-zag head-dress, and bears witness to the ancient and complex history of how the region was peopled. Works in the Wakara style are rare among the extensive corpus of Dogon sculpture; the figure here is similar to the one in the Tristan Tzara Collection shown at the famous exhibition African Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1935.

Male Statue, Senufo, Ivory Coast (lot 111, estimate €250,000-350,000)
While ethnologists agree that poro guardian figures were usually designed as couples, most of the figures we know today are female. So this – male – figure, remarkable for its plastic qualities, is all the rarer. Its female counterpart was in the Jacques Kerchache Collection; the pair were probably split up when they reached Europe. The offered male figure comes from the collection of the great Paris dealer René Rasmussen, and was then in the collections of Baron Freddy Rolin and Jeff Van der Straete (both in Brussels).

Christina & Rolf Mielher Collection, Munich
The collection of West African art assembled in the 1970s by Christina & Rolf Mielher shows their attachment to the most powerful forms of African art: Lobi statues with thick sacrificial patina; and mask and figures from the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. One of the most outstanding items in the collection is a magnificent Senufo or Tussian helmet (Ivory Coast or Burkina Faso, lot 89, estimate €40,000-70,000) topped by stylized twin antelopes.

Adolf Hoffmeister Collection of Art from New Ireland
Uli ancestor statue, Northern New Ireland (lot 45, estimate €250,000-350,000)
The Prague artist, writer and composer Adolf Hoffmeister was a friend of André Breton, and a major figure in the Surrealist movement before the Second World War. Oceanic art was of great importance to the Surrealists: Breton spoke of the seductive power and fascination of Oceanic art in our eyes, and in 1937 the Galerie Gradiva, run by Breton, sold Hoffmeister the major work in his collection – this imposing Uli figure. The Uli were carved to commemorate dead chiefs. This one, very similar to the one in the Masco Collection, and another in the Linden Museum (Stuttgart), the great stature of this Uli is highly unusual.

Ensemble of exceptionally powerful works
The sale also features works from Oceania of great power and exceptional rarity, such as the due meina (big god) Kanak Statue from New Caledonia (lot 70, estimate €30,000-50,000) acquired by Governor General Joseph Guyon between 1924 and 1932. This striking portrayal of an ancestor in the guise of mask-bearer illustrates the powerful carving style of New Caledonia sculptors’ large scale works.

A Mask from Pentecost Island, Vanuatu (lot 57, estimate €60,000-90,000), acquired by the Reverend Alexander Morton between 1887 and 1892, was discovered by Sotheby’s specialists in the reserves of the Orbost & District Historical Society Museum in Australia, while they were doing research on another, similar mask (also acquired by Morton and sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2006). It belongs to the limited body of little-known archaic masks, probably used in sacred ceremonies.

Exceptional flute-stopper, Biwat area, middle Yuat River region, Lower Sepik, Papua-New Guinea, 19th century.
These items had great social, ceremonial and religious significance. When it comes to the human figure, Biwat aesthetics are considered the most powerful and aggressive in New Guinea art, with highly elaborate design and ornament. The offered example is unusual both in the contrast between its delicate features and powerful style of carving, and in the presence of a tortoise carved on the back (lot 58, estimate €400,000-500,000).

James Economos is acknowledged as one of the most important dealers in American Indian art. He advised the most famous collectors in the field – René d’Harnoncourt, William de Kooning, Ted Carpentier & Adelaide de Menil, and Lord & Lady Sainsbury. His unbounded enthusiasm for the search, discovery and transmission of the arts of the Northwest Coast dates from 1947 when, aged nine, he was hired by Julius Carlebach in New York as a messenger for the gallery. Carlebach’s shop was assiduously frequented by the Surrealists and their friends, and an essential address for anyone wishing to acquire objects of North American Indian art. This collection of 38 works represents over sixty years of commitment to the field – highlighting his taste and eye for objects from a great culture, both historically and aesthetically.

Haida Portrait Mask, Northwest Coast of British Columbia (lot 2,
estimate €85,000-125,000)
This mask portrays a woman of high rank, with delicately worked features, and an idealized face painted with shield-like motifs, with a labret adorning her lower lip. It hails from the De Menil Collection, one of the most important collections of North American Indian art. A very similar mask, acquired during the Wilkes Expedition (1838-42), can be found in the US National Museum.

Rare & important Kwakiutl head-dress, Northwest Coast of
British Columbia (lot 5, estimate €200,000-300,000) Head-dresses, evoking the bird associated with family mythology, are extremely rare in the art of the Northwest Coast. This spectacular example portrays the bird of prey Kolus, with a fluffy white covering and long, half-open beak revealing teeth made from shells.

Kwakiutl Face mask, Northwest Coast of British Columbia (lot 6,
estimate €70,000-100,000).
This mask portrays the female giant of winter dances, probably the most famous mythical character in Kwakiutl art, and has a large head, the mouth open to unleash her terrifying cry. The rarest aspect of the mask is the small human
figure added to the forehead – probably linked to the myth behind the mask.

Kwakiutl Mask, British Columbia (lot 8, estimate €200,000-
This mask represents a bear with an articulated lower jaw opening to reveal a human face. In 1950, in the only text he expressly devoted to the masks of this culture, André Breton wrote: “The virtue of the object [transformation mask] considered here resides above all in the possibility for an abrupt change from one
appearance to another, from one meaning to another. […] these masks embrace one of the most dizzying of human effects, transformation not only in thought, but also in deed” (André Breton, in Neuf, 1, 1950: 36-41).