Category Archives: Auctions

Auction surprise of the month: a rediscovered Austral Islands necklace

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Austral Islands necklaces are among the rarest and most sought after of all Polynesian artifacts. It was thus no surprise that when a newly discovered example popped up in a small auction in the UK, listed as an ‘ethnic carved bone and antler necklace’ and with an estimate of only £60-100, it was sold for £125,000 (including premium).

The lucky seller runs a house clearance firm and found the item among the contents of an empty property he had been tasked to clear. He had no idea of its value and arrived at a jumble sale with a view of selling it for £15. But he had a change of heart at the last moment and decided to pop across the road to an auction house for experts there to have a look at. They believed it to be an 18th century ethnic carved bone and antler necklace and told him it might be worth between £60 and £100. However, Auctioneer Chris Ewbank started to suspect he underestimated the item in the days leading up to the sale when potential buyers booked up phone lines and left preliminary bids. And when it went under the hammer on 2 December at Ewbank’s Auctions of Surrey (UK), three bidders forced the bidding up to a staggering £99,000. With fees added on the Paris-based winning bidder will pay £125,000 for it.

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Mr Ewbank reacted in this interview: “It is what we in the business call a sleeper, it came out of nowhere. It can make the auctioneer look slightly silly because they failed to spot a gem. There’s no point in trying to hide the fact that we got this one wrong.” In 2010, Sotheby’s sold a similar necklace from the Niagara Falls Museum for £ 200,000. Julien Harding wrote in the catalogue note:

The iconic status of these ornaments is enhanced by a certain mystery which has surrounded their place of origin. In establishing this it will be helpful to begin with the “testicle” pendants which are known in a variety of sizes and materials (ivory, bone, wood). In the official account of Captain Cook’s last voyage we find a description of the natives of Atiu, one of the southern Cook Islands: “Some, who were of a superior class, and also the Chiefs, had two little balls, with a common base, made from the bone of some animal, which hung round the neck, with a great many folds of small cord” (Cook, 1784).
William Wyatt Gill of the London Missionary Society noted that such objects were worn as ear ornaments by the chiefs of Mangaia, the southernmost of the Cook Islands (Gill,1894).
Later, E.L.Gruning, who lived in the Cook Islands from 1905 to 1914, carried out an exploration of Atiu during which he had himself lowered into a cave of unknown depth at the end of a makeshift liana rope. His courage was rewarded by the discovery of human skeletons and two “phallic ornaments”, one suspended from braided human hair, in the manner of a Hawaiian lei niho palaoa. He notes that these ornaments “are reputed to have been worn only by champion warriors of the island, who had the right of possessing any woman, married or single, while wearing one” (Gruning, 1937). The term “phallic”, used by several authors to describe these pendants, is of course a mistake. They may well represent testicles but certainly not a phallus.
It is thus certain that individual testicle pendants were worn as chiefly ornaments in at least two of the Cook Islands in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Very possibly they were similarly used in the neighbouring Austral Islands since there was canoe contact, both deliberate and accidental, between the island groups.
If we now turn to the composite necklaces themselves we find the evidence of origin much less clear, no doubt because early records for the Austral Islands are extremely sparse. In his monumental Album (1890) Edge-Partington published a fine example, attributing it to Mangaia (plate17, no.2). Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck, 1944) gave a detailed account based on the ten necklaces known to him and held in various institutions: British Museum (2), Cambridge University Museum, England (2), Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh (1), Boulogne Museum (1), Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1) and the Oldman Collection (3). He also attributes these necklaces to Mangaia, but suggests a close connection with Rurutu in the Austral group. Significantly, Buck states that the pig was unknown in Mangaia but was present in Rurutu (ibid.).
More recently Roger Duff pointed firmly to the Australs as the origin for these necklaces on the basis of old missionary attributions for three examples not known to Buck. Two, now in the Canterbury Museum, New Zealand, were previously in the Wisbech Museum, England, where they were described as “Necklaces from Rurutu, Austral Islands. Composed of the fibres of cocoanut, human hair and bones; worn as a memorial of friendship. Rev. Wm. Ellis 26.8.1841”. Duff notes that a third necklace, in the Saffron Walden Museum, England, is also attributed to the Australs and specifically to the island of Tupua’i (Duff, 1969).
A persuasive argument in favour of the Austral Islands derives from comparative morphology. The famous figure of A’a in the British Museum (Harding, 1994) is certainly from the Australs – it was given up to John Williams of the London Missionary Society in 1821 by a party of Rurutu islanders. The small figures (“demigods”) carved on this sculpture closely resemble those on a whalebone bowl of typical Australs form (Oldman collection no. 476, now in the Auckland Museum). This bowl has a handle in the form of two pig figures identical in style to the one on the present necklace.
Thus, on the available evidence, we can safely attribute these beautiful necklaces to the Austral Islands, those specks of land to the south of Tahiti which produced some of the finest art of the Pacific. The Australs culture, briefly glimpsed by Captain Cook in 1769 and again in 1777, was more or less intact when Fletcher Christian and the other Bounty mutineers arrived there in 1787. Missionary influence and introduced diseases effectively destroyed the old way of life and today this is merely a remote corner of French Polynesia with a total population of 6500 and virtually no trace of the original culture. The survival of a few Australs masterpieces, such as the necklace offered here, is of the greatest importance. These objects are silent witnesses to a tradition of superb craftsmanship which has disappeared for ever.
The necklace may be compared with three examples in the Oldman collection (illustrated in Oldman, 1943, plate 21, nos. 477, 478, 479) and with three in the Hooper collection (illustrated in Phelps, 1976, plate 83, nos. 654, 655, 656). Understandably, very few Australs necklaces have ever appeared at auction. One of the Hooper examples (no.654) was sold at Christie’s, London, June 17, 1980. After many years in the De Menil collection this reappeared at Sotheby’s, New York, auction on November 22, 1998. Another Hooper necklace (no. 656, the Edge-Partington example previously mentioned) was sold by Christie’s, London, July 3, 1990.

Catalogue Madeleine Meunier Collection Online

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I’m very proud to announce that our new catalogue is ready; you can find it online on this page. Now you know why it had been so silent on these pages these last few weeks 🙂 It has been an honor to work on this historical collection; one truly felt the spirit of Charles Ratton holding the objects he once cherished. In 2014, when I wrote about the Master of the Cascade Coiffure on this blog (here), I could not imagine I would once be so closely involved in the sale of a long lost work of this master carver myself. Besides the obvious masterpieces, even the ‘smaller’ works of this sale are able to fascinate – I highlighted some in an interview with Aurore Krier-Mariani on the Imo Dara blog here – and it is our hope that all types of collectors (with all kinds of budgets) will be able to participate in the dissemination of this important collection.

Note that at the specific wish of Madeleine Meunier the sale will take place at Drouot in Paris. From 9 to 13 December, everything will be on view at the Christie’s headquarters in Paris, before moving to Drouot, where there’s an additional viewing on 14 and 15 December. The sale is on 15 December at 6:30pm. I hope to see you in Paris – do let me know if I can be of any assistance.

Seward Kennedy’s Cabinet of Curiosities to be sold by Christie’s London

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On 22 November 2016, Christie’s London will be selling Seward Kennedy’s Cabinet of Curiosities info). This eclectic collection includes a group of African and Oceanic ‘curiosities’ as well; starting with lot 144, a very nice Zande shield from D.R. Congo. You can browse the catalogue here. Below a nice portrait of the man (click to zoom).

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Victor Teodorescu joins the African and Oceanic Art Department of Christie’s

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I’m very happy to announce that Victor Teodorescu has joined the African & Oceanic department of Christie’s Paris. You might heard the name, as he worked for the African and Oceanic art department of the German auction house Lempertz for the last 5,5 years; since 2012 becoming the co-head of their annual sales in Brussels together with Tim Teuten. In fact, Victor, who has a master’s degree in both philosophy and art history, started his professional career in 2009 at Christie’s Belgium – so he’s back where it all began. Victor will reinforce our growing department, with me continuing to share my time between France and Belgium, Susan Kloman, our International director based in New York, and Pierre Amrouche, consultant. Victor is a welcome addition to our strengthening team, and I look forward to his contributions to our department’s continued success.

Christie’s to sell the Madeleine Meunier Collection on 15 December 2016

Madeleine Meunier et Charles Ratton. Image copyright of the Archives familiales Ratton.

Madeleine Meunier and Charles Ratton. Image courtesy of the Archives familiales Ratton.

On December 15th in Paris at the Hôtel Drouot, Christie’s, in cooperation with the French auction house Millon, will be offering nearly 80 objects of African and Oceanic art from the estate of Madeleine Meunier. The appearance on the market of the Madeleine Meunier estate has been eagerly awaited. In recent years, speculation about the content of this collection has taken on mythic proportions, because Meunier was married, successively, to two great figures in the world of African art: Aristide Courtois and Charles Ratton. Each played a major role in the discovery of African art, Courtois in Africa and Ratton in Paris.

Aristide Courtois (1883-1962), a French colonial administrator in the Congo, brought back hundreds of objects acquired during his assignments in the regions where he was stationed. Having an exceptional eye for distinguishing between masterpieces and ordinary objects, Courtois was one of the first colonial administrators to see these ritual objects as true works of art. Once back in Paris, Courtois worked with the first great African art dealer, Paul Guillaume, with whom he would conduct many transactions. Courtois married Madeleine Meunier in 1938 and the couple had a daughter, Annie. Madeleine Meunier kept a number of works from this period in her life: three Kota reliquaries from Gabon and four major works of Kuyu art from the Northern Congo, all collected by Aristide Courtois. Upon Guillaume’s death in 1934, Courtois developed ties with Charles Ratton, who became a loyal customer and purchased many pieces from Courtois. Ratton’s purchase records from 1938 to 1943 list some two hundred transactions, including the famous six-eyed Kwele mask known as the “Lapicque mask”, now part of the collections at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.

A few years later, Madeleine Courtois separated from her husband to marry Charles Ratton. Meunier would have a son with Ratton: the recently deceased Charles-François Ratton. Charles Ratton (1897-1986) – who was honoured with an exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in 2013 – had a significant impact on the history of African art by virtue of his talents as an expert, collector and dealer. He played a fundamental role in raising so-called primitive objects to the ranks of true art. Sensitive and erudite, Ratton forged a path as a dealer for ‘Haute Époque’ (Medieval and Renaissance) objects, which led to an interest in African arts, then antiques from South Seas and the Americas, and, atypical for the time, Eskimo art. In 1935, he was a major lender and advisor to the landmark African Negro Art exhibition (Museum of Modern Art, New York), the first African arts show held in a museum of modern art. Ever seeking new opportunities to place African art on the forefront, he included his Yaka headrest (estimate: €40,000-60,000) at an exhibition at the Théâtre Edouard VII in Paris in 1936 celebrating the film premiere of The Green Pastures. Ratton also served as artistic advisor to the renowned 1953 film Les Statues Meurent Aussi (‘Statues Also Die’), directed by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais for Présence Africaine (it was the subject of an exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris in 2010). Two pieces from the Meunier collection appear in this film, whose whereabouts remained a secret for the past fifty years: Charles Ratton’s superb Fang male on a base by Inagaki (estimated value: € 300,000-500,000) and a Luba-Shankadi headrest (estimate: €500,000-800,000). This masterpiece can be attributed to the most renowned sculptor of the pre-colonial period: The Master of the Cascade Coiffure, active in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the late 19th century. Other headrests by this master carver can be found in important museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1981.399), the British Museum (#AF46.481) and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin (III.C.19987).

Other great objects formerly in the collection of Charles Ratton are an exceptional Hungana pendant (estimate: €15,000-25,000), an exquisite little Vili figure (estimate: € 3,000-5,000) and two Sepik River works from Papua New Guinea, probably acquired from Pierre Loeb, including a four-caryatid headrest estimated at €30,000-40,000. Below you can find some non-professional pictures of our preview last week (click on the images to zoom). Concomitantly with Parcours des Mondes, we exhibited a small selection of highlights of the Meunier collection together with the Old Master Paintings and French antiques that were being sold this week – which worked surprisingly well and succeeded in attracting the attention of collectors that normally would never look at African and Oceanic art.

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Ronald Reagan’s Dan figure to be sold by Christie’s

Ronald Reagan Christie's African art catalogue

On 21 and 22 September 2016, Christie’s will be selling the private collection of president Ronald Reagan in New York. To my surprise the collection includes an African object! This Dan statue (illustrated below) was once in the family residence of the Reagans in the White House, Washington D.C. Surely there must be a photo somewhere showing the statue there. Unfortunately the provenance of the statue remains undocumented, but I would guess it was a diplomatic gift – Reagan did meet Liberian president Samuel K. Doe in 1982, celebrating 120 years of diplomatic relations.

Image courtesy of Click Christie's.

Dan figure (Liberia). Wood. Height: 20 in. (51 cm). Est. $ 8,000-12,000. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

This female statue can be attributed to the workshop of the artist Zlan (or Sran) of Belewale (Liberia), without doubt one of the most famous Dan-Wè artists of the first half of the 20th century. The influence of his unique style was felt in Dan, Mano and Wè towns in Liberia and Ivory Coast. Zlan’s career is well documented by Hans Himmelheber: he carved for many wealthy men and chiefs, teaching many pupils from both the Dan and Wè peoples. This large number of apprentices, copying the work of their master meticulously makes it hard to identify the hand of Zlan with absolute certainty. Unique among the Dan, one of the wives of Zlan is also know to have carved spoons and other objects in his style as well. Eberhard Fisher wrote extensively about Zlan in “Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire” (Paris, 2015: pp. 128-138).

ps You can browse the complete catalogue of the Reagan sale here. There are some other amazing objects in the collection, for example “an evocative relic symbolizing one of president Reagan’s greatest foreign policy achievements: a signed fragment of the Berlin wall” 🙂  More than 700 pieces of historic and personal memorabilia will go up for sale!

Come say hi in Paris !

Bruno Claessens Luba-Shankadi statue figure Congo Mwanza Christies 23 June 2016

My apologies for the radio silence on the blog these last weeks; I was totally occupied with my first two sales at Christie’s Paris. If you are in the neighborhood, please do come say hello to me and my beautiful cover girl. There are only four days left to admire our wonderful selection of African, Oceanic and North-American art:

Monday June 20, 10:00am – 6:00pm
Tuesday June 21, 10:00am – 6:00pm
Wednesday June 22, 10:00am – 6:00pm
Thursday June 23, 10:00am – 12:00pm

The sale of the Jacqueline Loudmer collection (info) is on Thursday 23 June and starts at 3PM, it is immediately followed by our various owners sale. As there are no reserves for the Loudmer collection (everything must go!), it will in all likelihood take a bit longer than on average, so our second sale is expected to start around 7PM. Don’t hesitate to reserve a telephone line, leave an absentee bid, bid online or just be there. You know where to find me if I can be of any assistance.

A newly discovered Mangbetu masterpiece

Image courtesy of Salle de Ventes du Beguinage.

Image courtesy of Salle de Ventes du Beguinage.

One often hears the claim that all major African works of art are known by now. But we Belgians (and the French too of course) know better. Every now and then something major pops out of nowhere, and today was such a day again. The small Brussels auction house Beguinage sold a previously unknown Mangbetu harp with an anthropomorphic column for a small fortune: it was hammered down for € 300,000 (so ca. € 360,000 with costs), selling to a French dealer (a Belgian colleague being the underbidder). Once again a clear prove that it doesn’t matter how small or obscure the sale is, if it’s good it gets noticed. Note that is has been a while since I posted about sleepers at auction..

Coming back to this harp, Georg August Schweinfurth gave a beautiful description about the importance of music in the local daily life when he visited the Zande and Mangbetu region between 1867 and 1871:

‘Apart from the special characteristics that distinguish them, more or less pronounced marks of race that pick out the different groups of the human family, the Niam-Niams are men of the same nature as others; they have the same passions, the same joys, the same pains as us. I have exchanged any number of jokes with them, I have taken part in their childish games, accompanied by the sound of their drums or mandolins, and I have found in them the same gaiety and verve found elsewhere.’ (“Au Coeur de l’Afrique. Trois ans de voyages et d’aventures dans les régions inexplorées de L’Afrique Centrale (1868-1871)”, Le Tour Du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages, Vol. 28, 1874: p. 210)

‘But the Niam-Niamshave other pleasures; they have an instinctive love of art, and owe to it more elevated pleasures. Passionate about music, they extract from their mandolins sounds which resonate in the deepest fibers of their being and which thrown them into genuine intoxication. The concerts they offer themselves are of unimaginable lengths. Piaggia has said that a Niam- Niam would play his instrument for twenty-four hours without leaving it for a second, forgetting to eat or drink; and even though I know well this people’s appetite, I believe Piaggia was right. Their favorite instrument is related at once to the harp and mandolin. It resembles the former by the disposition of its strings and the latter by the form of the body. Built precisely according to the laws of acoustics, the soundboard has two openings. The strings, solidly held by pegs, are sometimes made of vegetable fibers, sometimes of giraffe tail-hair. As for the music played on these mandolins, it is highly monotonous; it would be difficult to discern in it the slightest semblance of melody. It is never more than an accompaniment to a recitation, sung in a plaintive (even whining) tone, and of a decidedly nasal timbre. I have many times seen friends going arm in arm playing this way, beating time with their heads, and plunging each other into a profound ecstasy.’ (op. cit., 1874: pp. 222-223)

Unfortunately there don’t exist recordings of Mangbetu harp music.

UPDATE: Amyas Naegele was kind enough to share this short vintage recording of this type of harp:

Catalogue online: The Jacqueline Loudmer Collection (Christies, Paris, 23 June 2016)

Jacqueline Loudmer Christie's 23 Juin 2016 Paris

I’m proud to announce my second catalogue for June: “Collection Jacqueline Loudmer – Succession Jacqueline Millodot”; you can browse it here. Besides 41 paintings and drawings (among which some important works by Fernand Léger), the sales holds 124 objects from Africa, Northern America and Oceania with provenances such as Beasley, Brandt, Degand, Dehondt, de Baillencourt, de Launoit, Friede, Furman, Gallibert, Harter, Hooper, Kerchache, Le Corneur, Loeb, Mazaraki, Mertens, Mestach, Meulendijk, Morigi, Ortiz, Perret, Pinto, Rassmussen, Ratton, Rockefeller, Schindler, Schoeller, Simpson, Tronche and Viot. Note that since it is an estate sale, the estimates are very modest in order to sell everything. Let the fact that there will be no reserve prices make it clear that we wish to find new owners for all objects 🙂

As we as well will offer the Emily Wingert estate during the various owners sale immediately following this auction (info), we will thus be selling the collections of two important female collectors of the 20th century. With the Bamana lady on the front of this catalogue, and the Luba-Shankadi cover girl for the various owners sale, it’s safe to say our two sales are all about women in African and Oceanic art. Jacqueline Loudmer, once married to Guy Loudmer (who organized several important African and Oceanic auctions in Paris in the 1970s), was a well know figure in the Paris art scene of the 1970s and 80s. Her personal collection, however, remained very private and features several great rediscoveries – but those I’ll let you discover yourself !

Jacqueline Loudmer Guy Christie's Paris african and oceanic art

My first auction catalogue online! (Christie’s, Paris, 23 June 2016)

 

I’m very proud to present my first auction catalogue for Christie’s, you can browse it here.

 

Christie's Paris 23 June 2016 Bruno Claessens African Art

 

So, now you know why it has been so quiet on the blog these last few weeks 🙂

The sale features an important selection of objects from the estate of Emily ‘Jazzy’ Wingert (1934-2015). Especially her Maori works are truly exceptional. Below the English translation of the catalogue note about Ms. Wingert:

“Stop the Bus!” : The Emily A. Wingert Collection of Oceanic and African Art

In the 1950’s, as a college student, Emily Wingert (1934-2015) was travelling downtown on the Third Avenue bus in Manhattan when she was struck by a window display of African art. She recalled calling out, “Stop the bus!”, because she was so captivated by what she saw that she had to have a closer look. It was the historic gallery of Julius Carlebach that changed the course of her life. The works of art left her hungry for more information, and she changed her major to anthropology at Columbia University.

She studied with renowned scholar, Paul Wingert, whom she would later marry. Together in 1962, they took a sort of honeymoon in the form of a year-long academic journey through the Pacific, with most of their time spent studying Maori art in New Zealand. It is surely the deep knowledge she gained during this time that eventually informed her important Maori acquisitions. That, along with her continuing passion for African and pre columbian art, inspired her to build an impressive collection.

Emily Wingert’s interests and talents were vast and varied, though. After Paul Wingert’s death in 1974, as the owner and CEO of Mark Ten Security in Montclair, she became one of New Jersey’s first female licensed private detectives. In 1988, she followed her passion for jazz and fine dining and created Trumpets, a jazz club and restaurant in Montclair. After 10 years, she sold Trumpets following a sudden and total hearing loss. Adjusting to her deafness, she joined an online discussion group known as the “Say What Club.” This organization became her new passion, and she helped lead a group of people who felt isolated DUE TO THEIR HEARING difficulties, into a mutually supportive community. As an early adopter of the Internet, Emily found that she could talk to people and regain some of the connectivity she had lost with her hearing.

Born into a collecting family, Emily Wingert, nevertheless, clearly was a woman ahead of her time and an original spirit. She would later describe her passion for collecting African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art (in Vision, Montclair State College, Spring 1989): ‘Not only DO these pieces provide vibrant and exciting clues to the past, they are also great art forms that deserve as much of a place in the art world as works by Picasso or Matisse. I have donated works of art [to the Montclair State College Museum] with the hope that they will inspire others to study this art.’ Emily Wingert surely would be delighted to learn that the objects from her precious collection will come to enrich the lives of a new generation of collectors.

The ‘Stop the bus’ anecdote reminded me of the opening scene of Bell, Book and Candle (see it here), with features a recreation of Carlebach’s gallery in New York. Anyway, I’ll write more about our sale in the coming weeks. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you should have questions about any of our lots.