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Exceptional Dogon Statue for Sotheby’s Paris Auction

Sotheby’s December 3 sale in Paris reflects a successful encounter between several African art enthusiasts – two collectors, a journalist and a scientist – united by the fate of an exceptional Dogon figure (Plateau of Bandiagara, Mali) that had been split into two for nearly 50 years on either side of the Atlantic.

Dogon FigureNow the two parts (body and face) have been re-united. The work is one of a very small group of large, 15th-17th century Dogon male figures with raised arms. Through both its dynamic lines and anatomical detailing, this powerful sculpture, 1.48m tall, conveys great tension, and depicts a chief imploring his ancestors with arms raised, as if in communion with the supreme being (estimate: €400,000–600,000).

In 1984 the New York MoMA, under the title “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern”, presented another historic encounter: that of the “Discovery” by early 20th-century artists and sculptors of “Negro” art, which was to have such a profound influence on modern creation. Max Ernst, for instance, was enchanted by a masterpiece of Bamana art: a Kono Mask with perfect volumes, and pure, powerful forms – one of the most forceful emblems of the kono initiatory society (h. 48 cm, est. €300,000-400,000).

Other important African works include a superb Punu Mask once owned by General Marie-Réné Collignon (est. €250,000-400,000). With its quasi-archetypal stylistic perfection, this represents a female entity whose idealized image magnificently celebrates both the beauty of women and their importance in the spirit world.

This classic work from Gabon is complemented by the less familiar art of Cameroon and Nigeria. Via an ensemble of highly selective works, the sale showcases the amazing plastic solutions discovered by the ancient Wum and Kom master-sculptors from the Grasslands region of Cameroon. Take the Kom Mask in the form of a monkey-head (est. €100,000-150,000), the geometric stylization of a rare Jukun figure (est. €50,000-70,000), and the ingenious Eket Panel-Masks (est. €30,000-45,000).

Oceanic art, rarely available in such quantity at auction, centres on an exceptional ensemble from New Guinea from the Collection of Marcia & John Friede (New York). This includes a remarkable, ancient Bahinemo Hook-Mask from the Hunstein mountains (est. €130,000-180,000). With its destructured human face, and hooks in the form of calao-bird beaks, this is the finest example of abstraction achieved by the Bahinemo people of the Eastern Sepik.

In a similarly abstract vein, a large hook figure (Yimam group, River Korowori, est. €150,000-200,000) displays the startlingly modern sides/hooks which enthused 20th century artists and continues to fascinate us today. A very similar work was shown last year at the Beyeler Foundation, linked to works on paper by Henri Matisse.

Also of note is one of the five known masks from the Bay of Geevlinck (est. €100,000-150,000), collected by Jacques Viot – one of the few Surrealists to have made the arduous trip to Oceania – on the Isle of Kurudu in 1929, and shown by Pierre Loeb at the Galerie Pigalle the following year.

Completing this ensemble is a superb Malangan Panel from New Ireland (est. €100,000-120,000), formerly in the Museum für Volkerkunde in Berlin, which, with its remarkable volumes, complex interlacing motifs and superb carving, embodies the virtuoso creative genius of New Ireland artists.

Finally, reflecting the beauty of the art of South-East Asia (so rarely present on the market), comes an outstanding statue from the island of Nias in Indonesia, frequently cited as a masterpiece of ancient Nias statuary. Its ornament and design indicate the chiefly status of the ancestor portrayed – a figure of major importance in the eyes of the community, who received offerings when the chief was ill or about to deliver a judgment or declare war (est. €80,000-120,000).

Image: Exceptionnelle statue, Dogon, Plateau de Biandiagara, Mali, XV° – XVII° siècles. Estimate: 400,000/ 600,000€. Photo: Sotheby’s.