Monthly Archives: July 2013

A new perspective on the importance of provenance

An interesting article by Souren Melikian in The New York Times (here) discusses the current state of the market for antiquities. It brings anecdotal evidence that the prices paid for antiquities continue to reflect not only the intrinsic value of the object, but the quality of its history as well. The article highlights the importance of a pre-1970 history for antiquities at recent auctions in Paris and New York. Unprovenanced objects are not selling.

The reason for this discrepancy lies in the Unesco convention adopted in 1970 to safeguard the buried heritage of mankind and shield standing monuments from looting. While many countries, including the United States, did not sign up, the convention is effectively being implemented by international institutions and, increasingly, by prudent collectors and dealers, fearful that the legitimate ownership of their acquisitions may be challenged in the future. As a result, important works of art that can be proved to have reached the market before 1970 shoot to vertiginous levels, while those that cannot fail to sell with increasing frequency.

Though this upheaval might be an indicator of things to come, the market for antiquities is of course different than the African art market. At the moment, it might be the most relevant for terracotta objects from Nigeria and Mali. Lastly, there are nuances in the quality of the documentation that establishes the presence of objects in the market prior to 1970. Private Collection, before 1970 still seems to set at rest most of the collectors (for now).

The Tomkins Collection

An online presentation of a NY private collection which is worth a visit; you can find the website here.

The Tomkins Collection is a website of the arts of pre-modern cultures. The Collection focuses on objects that represent ancestors, guardians and idols, abstract or surreal. Information about the objects in this private collection has been made available to encourage others to share their collections online in an accessible format.

Tomkins Collection

A Bamun headdress from Cameroon

Bamun Head Christie's 1

The last Christie’s sale featured an interesting Bamun head. Since I had overlooked this headdress in the catalogue, it again teached me how important it is to visit the viewing days of the bigger auction houses. The picture in the catalogue didn’t do the piece any justice.

While the front of this head was very flat, damaged and not really attractive, the back and side of the head revealed a magnificent modernistic sculpture.

Bamun Head Christie's 2

I have no idea what the spherical protuberance on the back of the neck represents but  sculpturally it fitted perfectly, counterbalancing the other volumes. If the face hadn’t been that damaged and with more 3-dimensional facial features, this would have been a masterpiece. But for € 10.625,- it was still a very good deal.

Below the field-photo by Oldenburg from 1912 that Christie’s mentions in the object description. See the second headdress from the left, for an example with a similar hairstyle. This wonderful image shows how these heads were originally danced; attached to a raffia collar and concealing costume.

Performance of the masks during the dance patambuo, Fumban, Bamun, ca. 1912. Field-photo by Rudolf Oldenburg. Image courtesy of the Oldenburg Collection - Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna. (published in: "Cameroon. Art and Kings", Lorenz Homberger (editor), Zürich: Museum Rietberg Zürich, 2008:57, fig. 34)

Performance of the masks during the dance patambuo, Fumban, Bamun, ca. 1912. Field-photo by Rudolf Oldenburg. Image courtesy of the Oldenburg Collection – Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna. (published in: “Cameroon. Art and Kings”, Lorenz Homberger (editor), Zürich: Museum Rietberg Zürich, 2008:57, fig. 34)

For an excellent article on these headdresses, see: Joseph (Marietta B.), Dance Masks of the Tikar, African Arts, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1974): pp. 46-52+91. Christie’s does acknowledge they are not sure this head is in fact Bamun.