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The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquires one of the last Batcham headdresses in private hands

Talking about one of the ‘holy grails’ of African Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired one of the last Batcham headdresses in private hands. The acquisition happened in all silence earlier this year, and the mask just made it to the website here – pictures are still missing, so fresh is the news.

After acquiring one of the best Bamana ci wara headdresses last year, as well as a world class Hemba ancestor statue, the Epstein Sachihongo mask, and a great Jukun shoulder mask in these last few years, the MET definitely is leading the way. Kuddos to head of the department, Alisa Lagamma, who, thanks to a small circle of donors (Jim Ross and Marian Malcolm in this case), once more strengthens the museum’s holdings with an important icon of African Art. This is even more impressive if you know that the museum is currently going through a very difficult period (source).

This rare 19th-century mask is one of the less than 20 known masks of its kind in public and private collections. These were the only three examples known until the mid-1960s, when several other examples were collected in situ. The Belgian African art dealer Pierre Dartevelle acquired his headdress in Cameroon between 1967 and 1970 and it stayed in his private collection ever since. The selling price is unknown, but it certainly will have been a seven digit number. The headdress is not on view yet, but hopefully soon will be. I’m delighted that another ‘eroded’ object will be shown publicly – in the past the African art wing mostly showed art in a ‘pristine’ condition.

These headdresses are designated “Batcham” after the small chiefdom in the northwest Bamileke region from which the first mask of this type was collected in 1904 by a German colonial officer named Von Wuthenow. Once in the collection of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig, Germany (#MAF.9401), that mask unfortunately was destroyed by bombing in December 1943. However, these were in use in the wider Bamileke region, but the name stuck. The example in the Fowler Museum at UCLA (#X65.5820) for example was photographed in situ by the missionary Frank Christol in 1925 in Bamendjo, which is about ten kilometres north of Batcham. If you want to learn more about these the book to get is Batcham – Sculptures du Cameroun by Jean-Paul Notué, published in connection with an exposition in Marseille in 1993 (which also includes this mask).

UPDATE: the MET has added pictures in the meantime, which can be downloaded freely -jay!

How a Benin Kingdom bronze cockerel suddenly became famous

The story is already one year old, but I never got the opportunity to write about it. In March 2016, Cambridge University agreed to remove a bronze Benin Kingdom rooster that had been on display in the dining hall at Jesus College for more than half a century (as shown above). Yes you read that correct, a dining hall. Students had complained about its links to Britain’s colonial past and the sacking of Benin Kingdom’s capital in 1897. An integral part of being a student of course is protesting, but one can wonder why only now the rooster crowed.

A university spokesperson at the time said: “Jesus College acknowledges the contribution made by students in raising the important but complex question of the rightful location of its Benin Bronze, in response to which it has permanently removed the Okukor from its Hall.” Okukor was the rooster’s nickname; it was given to Jesus College by George Willan Neville (a member of the Benin punitive expedition) in 1930. It was adopted as a symbol because of the surname of its founder, John Alcock, a former Bishop of Ely. Three cockerels’ heads as well appear on the college’s crest. The spokesperson continued: “The College commits to work actively with the wider University and to commit resources to new initiatives with Nigerian heritage and museum authorities to discuss and determine the best future for the Okukor, including the question of repatriation.”

The campaign for the Okukor’s return produced a flurry of media attention in the British and international press; the BBCThe GuardianThe Telegraph, and even Artnet all reported on the story. It’s rare that African art make the headlines like that. John Picton, an authority on the art of Nigeria, reacted in Newsweek on the question of the return of the looted Benin Kingdom treasures: “There is of course a strong moral case for the return of this material—all of it—but to be honest there is currently nowhere safe to put it in Nigeria. The existing facilities could not cope if all the artifacts from museums in LA, Chicago, New York, London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and so on were to arrive. In any case, it is only right that world-class museums of world art history and archaeology should include some of this material; so there is a place for compromise. The trouble is no-one really wants to do anything about it; and if a group of students make a fuss and this brass bird is wrapped up and sent back, so what? The problem is much more complex.” Hear, hear.

One year later the rooster is still crowing for attention and in April 2017, Prince Gregory Akenzua of Benin renewed calls for Jesus College to return it to Nigeria during a visit to Cambridge University (info). But, for the moment, the Okukor remains in storage and Jesus College have not yet made any indication as to whether it will be returned to Nigeria.

ps This cock definitely displays the obsession with pattern and the technical expertise in lost-wax casting that typifies the great works made by brass-casters at the Benin Kingdom court. Only about two dozen of them are known (one of them being in the Lagos Museum by the way). It should be noted that none of the articles on this cock speak of its function, so here is what the MET says about theirs:

Brass roosters are placed on ancestral altars commemorating the queen mothers of Benin. They stand for fowl and other animals that are sacrificed during rituals honoring royal ancestors. These explicitly male creatures acknowledge that the queen mother is different from other women and shares many powers and privileges with men. In depicting these birds, Benin brass casters indulge their love of dense overall patterns. Although stylized, these incised designs deftly suggest the rooster’s showy plumage, scaly legs, and dimpled comb.

You can learn more about them in the freely available pdf of Kate Ezra’s book on the Perls Collection of Benin Art at the Metropolitan Art here (pp. 85-89).

 

Wishing you all a joyful Easter !

“Picasso Primitif” at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (Paris, 28 March – 23 July 2017)

Timed with the preview of our April sale (info), next Tuesday sees the opening of the highly anticipated exhibition Picasso Primitif at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris. Organized in collaboration with the Musée National Picasso and curated by Yves Le Fur, Picasso Primtif aims to explore the links between the omnipresent artist and the non-Western arts. This exhibition aims to decipher this relationship born of admiration, respect and fear. On the museum’s website we read:

“Negro art? Don’t know it.” It was with this provocative tone that the Andalusian painter, sculptor and graphic artist made a point of denying his relationship with non-European art. However, and as his personal collection demonstrates, the arts of Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia never ceased to accompany him in all his various studios. The documents, letters, objects and photographs brought together in the first part of the exhibition and displayed chronologically, are evidence of this, demonstrating Picasso’s interests and curiosity about non-Western creation.

In a second, more conceptual section, Primitive Picasso offers a comparative view of the artist’s works with those of non-Western artists, and leans more towards an anthropology of art than an analysis of aesthetic relationships. The resulting confrontation reveals the similar issues those artists have had to address (nudity, sexuality, impulses and loss) through parallel plastic solutions (deforming or deconstructing bodies, for example). Primitive art, therefore, is no longer considered to be a stage of non-development, but rather an access to the deepest, most fundamental layers of the human being.

It was about time somebody organized this exhibition; fingers crossed it exceeds the expectations. I must admit I was quite surprised by the show’s title, as the word ‘Primitive’ in general is widely frowned upon by the scholarly community when talking about non-Western art, but I guess it sounded catchy as a title.

One year at Christie’s – ask me anything #AMA

Tempus fugit; last month marked my 1st year anniversary as the European director of the African and Oceanic Department at Christie’s. It’s been one hell of ride so far! The above picture sums up the year nicely. To ‘celebrate’ I thought of doing an ‘ask me anything’. The format is quite simple. There is no format. Just mail me whatever question you have and I’ll post the answers on here 🙂 Please allow me some time to answer as I have some busy days ahead. Thanks, Bruno

Javier Peres announced as honorary president of Parcours des Mondes 2017

Parcours des Mondes recently announced this year’s honorary president: Javier Peres, a young contemporary art dealer and the founder of the cutting-edge gallery Peres Projects. Peres has been enthusiastically been collecting African art for more than 10 years, you can download an interview with him published in the Spring 2016 issue of Tribal Art Magazine here. In 2016, he published ‘Wild Style – Group Spirit’ (for sale here), the catalogue documenting the two group shows he organized exhibiting African art from his collection alongside contemporary art from his gallery. I’ve seen many unsuccessful attempts of mixing the two, but this contemporary art dealer, with a deep passion and engagement with both fields, gets it right.

This year’s edition of Parcours (the 16th already) will run from 12 to 17 September 2017. Peres Projects will also be exhibiting a small selection of African Art during the contemporary art fair Independent Brussels from 20 to 23 April in Brussels. Several works of Peres’ collection will also be included during the exhibition “Pascali Sciamano” at the Fondazione Carriero, which runs from 24 March to 24 June in Milan, Italy (info). Just to say that Peres indeed will be the perfect ambassador for this year’s edition of Parcours des Mondes. Below some images of his exhibition ‘Wild Style’ (more here).

‘Wild Style’ as well included a performance by the boundary-breaking artist Donna Huanca, who recently also had a highly-acclaimed exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection in London. Below some pictures; the dialogue between contemporary and African art has never been so intense.

Catalogue online: Christie’s, Paris, 4 April 2017 (African and Oceanic art from the Laprugne collection & various owners)

I’m very proud to announce that our new catalogue is ready; you can find it online here. Now you know why it was so silent on these pages these last few weeks.. The first part of this sale will be dedicated to the Laprugne collection (comprising 78 lots), and the second section will present objects from various owners. Now at the vanguard of the auction season, Christie’s’ African and Oceanic Art department has shifted its auction calendar to coincide better with the rhythm of the market. Coinciding with the highly anticipated opening of the “Picasso Primitif” exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, it surely will be worth a trip to Paris.

Built over several decades, the Laprugne collection spans all continents and is the lifework of Mr. and Mrs. Laprugne. Starting in the 1970s, Jean-Pierre Laprugne ran the Parisian gallery ‘Mazarine 52’, which specialized in African and Oceanic art. In his early twenties, abandoning his position as a teacher early on, Jean-Pierre Laprugne saw it as his life mission to save these works of art from oblivion and reveal their origins and artistic merits in his gallery. In a classical French tradition, he honed his knowledge through tireless visits to flea markets at dawn and a large network of amateurs which he also frequently met at Hotel Drouot. Over time, this would yield countless treasures. His gallery quickly became a popular meeting spot in the Saint-Germain quarter thanks to Jean-Pierre’s knowledge, open mind and good humor. He inspired a whole generation of likeminded collectors and dealers with his contagious passion. Through the years he was able to build up an exquisite private collection, discretely safeguarding the masterpieces he found for his private sanctuary. At the heart of his collection is a unique group of 7 Kota reliquary figures from Gabon, displaying the unique diversity these guardian figures can show. This exciting collection contains many more unseen and unpublished treasures never before on the market.

The sale of the Laprugne collection continues into the various owners sale, including two dedicated sections. A first group of objects, all miniatures under 20 centimeters, demonstrates the virtuosity of African artists when sculpting small-scale objects. A second section presents a carefully selected group of African and Oceanic masks from the highest quality showing the incredible creativity in the reinvention of the human face. Amongst these masks, a rediscovered archaic Sepik River mask from Papua New Guinea which has remained in the same family since being acquired at the famous auction of the collection of André Lefèvre in 1965 (lot 96). With these focused selections we respond to the current market’s desire to explore categories in-depth. Normally considered in the context of a museum, this comparative approach represents a fresh perspective in the auction model to appeal to seasoned collectors and new audiences alike. Last but not least, and a bit hidden in the middle of the catalogue, is the iconic Dogon mask formerly in the collections of Rene Rasmussen and Gaston de Havenon – lot 82 (on which I will write more later).

A small selection of highlights (including the Dogon mask) will go on view this Thursday 16 March until Tuesday 21 March (daily from 10 am to 6pm).

The viewing days of the sale are:

Wednesday 29 March: 10am-6pm
Thursday 30 March: 10am-6pm
Friday 31 March: 10am-6pm
Saturday 1 April: 10am-6pm
Sunday 2 April: 2pm-6pm
Monday 3 April: 10am-6pm
Tuesday 4 April: 10am-1pm

The sale will take place on Tuesday April 4th at 4pm. Don’t hesitate to contact me for any more information, condition reports or additional pictures. Hope to see you in Paris!

 

Auction ‘surprise’ of the day: a rediscovered Maori flute (putorino)

These last few days there was a lot of buzz in the air in the circles of collectors and dealers in Maori art. Did you hear about this previously unknown flute in a small UK auction? Of course one did! Thanks to the well-consulted live online auction site The saleroom even the smallest British auction house (in this case in the small village of Haslemere, Surrey) now can reach a global audience. Even if mislabeled, so many aficionados are browsing these sales, that no sleeper stays unnoticed. Estimated at only £50-100, this masterpiece was bound to make a top price.

A few were somewhat skeptical about this offering. Surely it should be clear, even to the untrained eye, this is not a pipe. A one second google search would make that very obvious. They got the culture right, at least. In my view, just five minutes on google would eventualy end at the beautiful Maori flute we sold at Christie’s Paris last year. So, the auctioneers, or didn’t do their homework – but why then illustrating the lot with so many professional pictures ? – or did know the object would make what it is worth anyway and hoped to generate a lot of extra buzz with the low estimate. It did work if that was the case, as this exceptional Maori flute sold for £140,000 (without premium) this afternoon. With costs, the total price is around £180,000 or € 210,000 ($ 225,000). This might sound as a lot of money compared with the estimate, but in fact this still is a very good price for it and I’m sure we’ll see it again sooner or later.

Now, you’re probably wondering how these flutes sound like ? Well, you can hear (and see) Richard Nunns play an early 19th century putorino form the Oldman collection below..

Two Mbembe statues reunited just in time for Valentine’s Day

Right: Mbembe artist; male figure with rifle; 19th to early 20th century; wood; 77.8 cm; gift of Heinrich Schweizer in memory of Merton D. Simpson, 2016-12-1; left: Mbembe artist; female figure; 19th to early 20th century; wood; 68 cm; museum purchase, 85-1-12. Image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

A wonderful story reached us from the National Museum of African art in Washington D.C.. The museum already owned the female Mbembe figure holding a child above, but recently also were given her husband. Until very recently, this “power couple” had been in separate collections, their connection lost. The two met again in New York in 2014, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art, after being separated ever since they left Nigeria in the early 1970s.

The maternity figure had been in the Smithsonian’s collection since the 1980s, having arrived at the museum as part of the purchase of the African art collection of Emile Deletaille (info). Before, it had passed through the hands of Lucien Van de Velde and Alain Dufour. The male figure had stayed in the collection of Merton D. Simpson, in who’s memory it was now donated to the museum by Heinrich Schweizer. You can learn more about the reunion here.

Both statues were once connected by a slit gong, a large piece of hollowed wood used as resonant village drum. You can download Alisa LaGamma’s excellent article on the subject freely here. Both figures and the drum were all carved from one massive log of iroko wood. One can even spot the matching tree rings on the figures’ backs on the picture below!

Image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

 

ps my apologies for the past quiet weeks on the blog, all my energy is currently dedicated to producing a wonderful catalog for our forthcoming April sale of the Laprugne collection (info).

 

 

 

Christie’s, Paris, 4 April 2017: African, Oceanic and American Indian art from the Laprugne Collection & Various Owners

I’m proud to officially announce our next auction on April 4th 2017. The first part of this sale will be dedicated to the Laprugne collection (comprising 79 lots), and the second section will present objects from various owners. Now at the vanguard of the auction season, Christie’s’ African and Oceanic Art department has shifted its auction calendar to coincide better with the rhythm of the market. Coinciding with the highly anticipated opening of the “Picasso Primitif” exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, it surely will be worth a trip to Paris.

Built over several decades, the Laprugne collection spans all continents and is the lifework of Mr. and Mrs. Laprugne. Starting in the 1970s, Jean-Pierre Laprugne ran the Parisian gallery ‘Mazarine 52’, which specialized in African and Oceanic art. In his early twenties, abandoning his position as a teacher early on, Jean-Pierre Laprugne saw it as his life mission to save these works of art from oblivion and reveal their origins and artistic merits in his gallery. In a classical French tradition, he honed his knowledge through tireless visits to flea markets at dawn and a large network of amateurs which he also frequently met at Hotel Drouot. Over time, this would yield countless treasures. His gallery quickly became a popular meeting spot in the Saint-Germain quarter thanks to Jean-Pierre’s knowledge, open mind and good humor. He inspired a whole generation of likeminded collectors and dealers with his contagious passion. Through the years he was able to build up an exquisite private collection, discretely safeguarding the masterpieces he found for his private sanctuary. At the heart of his collection is a unique group of 7 Kota reliquary figures from Gabon, displaying the unique diversity these guardian figures can show (see the teaser photo above). This exciting collection contains many more unseen and unpublished treasures never before on the market.

The sale of the Laprugne collection continues into the various owners sale, including two dedicated sections. A first group of objects, all miniatures under 20 centimeters, demonstrates the virtuosity of African artists when sculpting small-scale objects. A second section presents a carefully selected group of African and Oceanic masks from the highest quality showing the incredible creativity in the reinvention of the human face. Amongst these masks, a rediscovered archaic Sepik River mask from Papua New Guinea which has remained in the same family since being acquired at the famous auction of the collection of André Lefèvre in 1965. With these focused selections we respond to the current market’s desire to explore categories in-depth. Normally considered in the context of a museum, this comparative approach represents a fresh perspective in the auction model to appeal to seasoned collectors and new audiences alike.

The viewing days are:

Wednesday 29 March: 10am-6pm
Thursday 30 March: 10am-6pm
Friday 31 March: 10am-6pm
Saturday 1 April: 10am-6pm
Sunday 2 April: 2pm-6pm
Monday 3 April: 10am-6pm
Tuesday 4 April: 10am-1pm

The sale will take place on Tuesday April 4th at 4pm. Hope to see you there!

ps click here for an interview with Jean-Pierre Laprugne from 2003.

SAVE THE DATE: Collection X, Christie’s, Paris, 4 April 2017

 

Please mark your calendar, the next Christie’s sale of African, Oceanic and Northern American Art will take place on Tuesday April 4th at 4pm. Highlights will also be on view mid-March during the preview days of the Impressionist and Modern art sale. Also during TEFAF Maastricht, a small selection of objects will be on view in our Paris HQ.  If you would find yourself earlier in Paris, please note that we’re always open during weekdays and happy to give you a private preview of the objects in our upcoming sales. We’re at your service.

The viewing days are:

Wednesday 29 March: 10am-6pm
Thursday 30 March: 10am-6pm
Friday 31 March: 10am-6pm
Saturday 1 April: 10am-6pm
Sunday 2 April: 2pm-6pm
Monday 3 April: 10am-6pm
Tuesday 4 April: 10am-1pm

Yes, we’re moving away from the tradition of having our sale in June to be at the vanguard of the spring season. In fact, we’ll have two sales: an unknown private collection full of treasures and a various owners sale with two curated sections – more info coming soon… In total we’ll be offering more than 150 objects, in all price ranges and from across the world, so it surely will be worth a trip to Paris.