Sotheby’s New York African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art Auction

Sotheby’s New York spring sale of African, Oceanic and Pre Columbian Art will be held on 14 May 2010 and will offer collectors a selection of tribal arts from important American and international private collections.

The auction comprises an especially rich offering of Oceanic works of art, many of which are icons of the field. Prior to the auction, the works, which are estimated to bring more than $5.1 million, will be exhibited to the public at Sotheby’s New York galleries beginning 8 May 2010.

Oceanic Art
The spring auction will comprise works from the JOLIKA Collection of Marcia and John Friede, led by the sale’s star lot, a Biwat (Mundugumor) Male Ancestor Spirit Figure from a Sacred Flute, wusear, Papua New Guinea (est. $1/1.5 million). No figure as complete or of such high quality is known ever to have appeared at auction. One of the most iconic genres of Melanesian art, wusear are male spirit figures that were placed on top of the sacred flutes of the Biwat people on the shores of the middle Yuat River in Papua New Guinea. Vertically inserted into the bamboo flute, wusear were effigies who ‘spoke’ through the flute, and were sacred property of a clan. Also offered from the JOLIKA collection are an Asmat Shield, Unir (Lorenz) River, Irian Jaya (est. $70/100,000) and a Middle Sepik River Gable Mask, Papua New Guinea, that once belonged to Bela Hein, the legendary early 20th century Paris-based dealer and collector of African art (est. $120/180,000).

Also among the Oceanic works on offer is a Hawaiian Feather Cape formerly in the collection of the Niagara Falls Museum, Canada (est. $300/500,000). Feather-covered shoulder capes are widely recognized and appreciated hallmarks of traditional Hawaiian culture; the present example features brilliantly colored red, black and yellow feathers. No two capes are alike in their design and most were created for specific individuals. Also formerly in the collection of the Niagara Falls Museum, an Austral Islands Chief Necklace will be offered (est. $300/500,000). Austral necklaces of this type are among the rarest and most sought after of all Polynesian artifacts. No more than twenty are known to exist and among these the present example is unique in having so many ivory and bone elements.

African Art
Among the African works on offer is a Banda Ancestor Figure from the Ubangi Region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that is attributed to the Master of Mobaye (est. $250/400,000). For a traditionally anonymous art form such as African Art, the notion of an individual artist is rare, and only a handful of artists are known by name. Only eight figures have been attributed to the Master of Mobaye, who was active in the second half of the 19th century.

A Rare Fang-Betsi Reliquary Ensemble will also be offered, featuring a male ancestor figure with its original container used to house family relics (est. $250/350,000). Complete Fang reliquary ensembles consisting of a bark container for the relics of deceased clan elders surmounted by a sculptural element made of wood, such as a head, torso, or full figure, are exceedingly rare.

A Fang Reliquary Head from Gabon (est. $150/250,000), featured left, boasts an exceptional provenance which parallels the influence of African art on modern art throughout the 20th century. Among the storied line of owners of the present lot: gallerist and early partner of Alfred Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas: distinguished New York collector John Quinn, who in 1919 commissioned Charles Sheeler to photograph the work as part of a portfolio of his African collection; Joseph Brummer, who was well known as Constantin Brancusi’s dealer but perhaps lesser known as one of the foremost dealers of African art in the early 20th century; French painter and famed African collector André Derain; noted New York 1960s and 1970s dealer of African Art Merton D. Simpson; and Carlo Monzino, one of Italy’s leading collectors of Post-war art.

Pre-Columbian Art
The Pre-Columbian section of the auction features a rare Taino Wood Snuffer, Haiti, ca. AD 1300-1500, (est. $80/120,000), one of only three known examples. The slender tubular object would have been used in the elite shamanic cohoba ceremonies; the inhalation of the fine cohoba powder induced a ritual hallucinatory experience. It is carved with a bird-man figure, representing the transformation and journey of a shaman. Originally acquired in the 1930’s, the snuffer has been in one family’s collection.

A Large Vera Cruz seated figure, Classic, ca. AD 450-650, of the El Zapotal style, a form which rarely appears at auction, is another highlight of the sale (est. $125/150,000). The seated figure of a young warrior has an intense and life-like expression, shown with minimal accoutrements or clothing, emphasizing an inner strength and spirit.

Several single-owner groupings will also be featured, including a variety of Central American gold animal pendants, and a fine group of Costa Rican polychrome ceramics from a Private Collection. The sale also includes a selection of stone and ceramic Andean and Central American figures from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, all of which were published in the 1983 and 1985 Sackler catalogues.

From Mexico and the Maya areas, the auction includes West Mexican figures from the collection of Benjamin Johnson- a noted conservator and art historian from Los Angeles; Fine Maya stucco polychrome head of a dignitary, Late Classic, ca. A.D. 550-950 (est. $25/35,000); and two 19th C. casts of the famous 7th C. Yaxchilan lintels 24 and 25, featuring Lady Xoc in her bloodletting and hallucinatory ceremonies celebrating the accession of her husband Shield Jaguar (est. $10/15,000 and $12/15,000 respectively).

Image: Vera Cruz seated figure, Classic, ca. AD 450-650, of the El Zapotal style, a form which rarely appears at auction, is another highlight of the sale. Est. $125/150,000. Photo: Sotheby’s