Discoveries Objects

Object of the day: a ‘Mbala’ bottle opener

Image courtesy of Gi Mateusen.
Image courtesy of Gi Mateusen.


I came across a remarkable bronze object today. It’s clearly inspired on the famous Mbala statues of a drummer (as illustrated below), but it’s not in wood and much smaller.


Image courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.
Image courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.


The owner of the object was so kind to reveal the object’s function to me: a bottle opener, made for Belgian colonials, to be used during rituals involving beer 🙂  This object had a deep patina indicating extensive ritual use! These could be bought on Kinshasa’s craft market and were probably made far from the Mbala region to be sold as a souvenir of a visit to Congo.


Image courtesy of Gi Mateusen.
Image courtesy of Gi Mateusen.

I want one !

Discoveries News Objects

A first important success for my inscriptions database

Pende mask, D.R. Congo. Height: 30 cm. Image courtesy of Studio Philippe de Formanoir - Paso Doble.
Pende mask, D.R. Congo. Height: 30 cm. Image courtesy of Studio Philippe de Formanoir – Paso Doble. Collection Javier Peres, Berlin.

The above Pende pumbu mask was acquired with my assistance at BRAFA in Brussels in January. While inspecting the mask, I spotted the below inventory number on the inside of the mask. While the dealer had missed it, I immediately recognized the style of this inscription..

Kongo-Kunst tentoonstelling Pende Mask Olbrechts Stadsfeestzaal 1937

I had seen this type of labeling before and was pretty sure it was done by Frans M. Olbrechts for his 1937 exhibition in Antwerp’s Stadsfeestzaal. Back home, I consulted the (rare) exhibition catalogue and checked the upper number of the inscription (92), which proved to be a Pende mask! Note that the majority of objects in the catalogue was not illustrated. However, a second confirmation that this mask was in the famed ‘Tentoonstelling van Kongo Kunst‘ came in the form of the lower line of the inscription: it starts with an abbreviation of the consignor (DERA), followed by the number of the object consigned by that collector. As the catalogue listed J.V. De Raadt as the consignor for mask no. 92, it’s certain the above mask was in the 1937 exhibition. I haven’t been able to identify the second inventory number, but it looks even older. So, I (and the masks’s new owner with me) am very happy that after all these years, an important piece of the object’s history was rediscovered.

Pende Mask Kongo Kunst Olbrechts

ps a day of sleuthing later revealed the existence of two more masks from this carver, see below. The mask on the left is in the Collection Museum aan de Stroom (former Ethnographic Museum), Antwerp (AE.0551), and was purchased from Henri Pareyn on 13 April 1920; the mask on the right was sold in Paris by Boisgirard on 19 February 1968 (lot 110) – its current whereabouts are unknown.

Pende mask pumbu Bruno Claessens Pareyn Etnographic Museum Antwerp





A Baule statue in The Disembodied (1957)

Disembodied 1957 Baule Statue

An attentive reader spotted a Baule figure in the movie poster for The Disembodied (1957). This movie prop is featured a couple of times in the movie, which is about a voodoo cult deep in the ‘African’ jungle. The only ritual use this figure ever had was in its scenes with the witch doctor’s wife, Tonda (Allison Hayes). Its style clearly is very degenerate, and especially the ‘headdress’ is something that doesn’t exist. You can find more info about this voodoo thriller (yes, that’s a genre) here.

allisonhayes Baule statue disembodied


Tonda’s arm position on the above picture in turn reminded me of a classic Djenne pose 🙂


Djenne crossed arms


A James Bond villain collecting African Art

Roger Moore The Man with the Golden Gun African art

Last night, I discovered that Francisco Scaramanga, the antagonist of James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun, was an African art collector. When 007 gets invited for lunch at Scaramanga’s island hideaway, the two first cross the living quarters where two big African works of art are on display. First, we see a big Senufo bird figure (sejen) from Ivory Coast, followed by a classic Yoruba epa mask from Nigeria. Unfortunately I could not track down neither of the works – no surprise since the island explodes at the end of the movie 🙂  Anyhow, I guess the set designers wanted to illustrate the sophisticated nature of this villain, portraying him as an non-Western art collector.

the man with the golden gun ivory coast senufo bird figure sejen

yoruba epa mask nigeria james bond 007 scaramanga

ps apologies for the blurry image quality, these are snapshots from my tv.

Discoveries News

A rediscovered Maori Hei-tiki

rediscovered hei tiki Maori BBC antiques Roadshow

An amazing discovery during the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow: a woman was weeding in her garden and found the above Hei-tiki buried in the ground in a cloth pouch. Check out the video clip here.

Discoveries Research

The Baule figure in “La maladie noire” identified

Baule figure. Height: 68 cm. Image courtesy of The Barnes Foundation (A221).
Baule figure. Height: 68 cm. Image courtesy of The Barnes Foundation (A221).

Thanks to a tip of a kind reader, I’ve been able to localize the Baule figure featured in the previously described “La maladie noirepostcard: it’s currently held by the Barnes Foundation (info). Albert C. Barnes in all likelihood acquired it directly from Paul Guillaume between 1922 and 1924 (like the majority of the collection).

Further sleuthing revealed the original black&white image of the statue which Albert Guillaume used as an inspiration for his postcard; it was published in 1926 by Thomas Munro and Paul Guillaume in Primitive Negro Sculpture” (p. 89 & 91, #21). Albert Guillaume only slightly exaggerated the buttocks and clearly truthfully reproduced the statue in his postcard.

Baule figures Barnes La maladie noire Guillaume

This makes this postcard even more exciting, as it may have represented an event that really happened – so I started wondering about all those characters: the portrayed collector might be Dr. Albert C. Barnes himself (although he was not bald). Anyhow, the man behind him clearly is no one other than Paul Guillaume ! Note his typical mustache and hairdo.

Albert C. Barnes

Paul Guillaume

In the just-published catalogue about the African Art collection of the Barnes Foundation (details here), where the sculpture is published as Plate 20b, Susan Vogel notes (p. 132) that “the figure was among the most expensive African sculptures that Barnes acquired, and it remained one he considered very important: he had it reproduced in tile at the museum entrance and it was prominently published”. Barnes himself published the figure as 14th century in an essay, “The Temple” in the May 24 issue of Opportunity (reproduced by Christa Clarke on p. 57). That date might seem funny, but know that Paul Guillaume used to attach metal labels with such dates on the Inagaki bases he had made for his objects 🙂

ps apologies for the radio silence on my blog these last weeks, I was very occupied with the Paris auctions – on which more later..

UPDATE: a reader has suggested the man on the left in all likelihood is no other than the Felix Féneon !

Felix Feneon


UPDATE2: David Zemanek just informed me that the round object hanging on the curtains in the back in fact is a Songye dance shield – Bonhams sold a similar (rare and unusual) shield in 2007 (info).

Image courtesy of Bonhams.
Image courtesy of Bonhams.
Discoveries Opinions

Postcard of the day: “La maladie noire”

Salon de Paris La maladie noire Guillaume postcard Bruno Claessens


I love this postcard. It’s called “La maladie noire” – which freely translates to “The craze for African art”. It is a drawing by Albert Guillaume – I don’t know if he’s related to the famous Paul Guillaume. Looking at the dresses of the women I would say it’s from the 1920s. That the scene is taking place in Paris we know from the title “Salon de Paris”. Central in the scene is a wooden female figure from the Baule (Ivory Coast). On its right we see it’s owner, cigar in the mouth, hands in his pockets, he’s pleased to show off his new acquisition, but his mind is already somewhere else. On his left, his wife rests one hand on his shoulder, while supporting her head with the other; “Mon dieux, what do I have to do with this black goddess in my house?” you see her thinking. Her friends, sitting down, are as mystified about the presence of this enigmatic, yet voluptuous sculpture central in the salon. Most left, an art-critic (or a merchant?) raises his hands, awe-struck by this exotic beauty and praising the eye of the collector. On the right, behind the owner, we find two fellow-collectors. The first, chin up, clearly is convinced that this statue is inferior to the one he has in his own collection; while the man most right has a rather mean posture – with hate observing this craze for African art that is taking place all around him in the Parisian art circles. In other words, most likely a perfect rendering of what was happening in the salons those days – and sometimes still is..

UPDATE: a reader was so kind to send me a link with more information about Albert Guillaume, find it here.

UPDATE 2: in the meantime, I was able to localize the Baule statue, identified 3 of the featured persons and discovered what that round object in the background is – read all about it here.

Discoveries Objects Research

Objects of the day: Tellem lip plugs

Photo: Bruno Claessens. Image courtesy of the Blom  Collection, Switzerland.
Photo: Bruno Claessens. Image courtesy of the Blom Collection, Switzerland.

I was in Switzerland last week and had the pleasure to visit a private collection with a focus on art of the Dogon and Tellem from Mali. One type of objects I had never seen before were the above rock crystal lip plugs. These were found in Tellem caves, close to female neck rests and textiles. Their owner kindly allowed me to share these photos – I photographed the plugs on my hand to get a better idea of their size. It must have taken a long time to shape a piece of rock crystal like this (and a lot of accidental fractures of other examples). Note how one end of each lip plug is crowned by a piece of metal to make sure it would stay in place when being worn in the lower lip. It must have been a spectacular view. Unfortunately nothing is known about their function. Even more impressive were the two examples made in an unidentified type of stone illustrated below.

Photo: Bruno Claessens. Image courtesy of the Blom Collection, Switzerland.
Photo: Bruno Claessens. Image courtesy of the Blom Collection, Switzerland.

These characteristic lip plugs can often be found on wooden Dogon and Tellem statues, see for example the statue on the book cover below. This book, Dogon. Images & Traditions, was published by the owner of these lip plugs, Huib Blom, in 2010. The book summarizes more than 25 years of research and, including numerous beautiful black-and-white field-photos by the author himself, is highly recommended. If you mention my blog while ordering it here, you’ll get a € 20 discount.

Dogon images and traditions Huib Blom Tellem art

Discoveries Objects Research

Field-photo of the day: an ancient Luba stool (D.R. Congo)

Luba Stool Burton D.R. Congo

When discussing the correspondence between traditional Luba hairstyles and cicatrization, and the coiffures and body decoration on their chiefly stools, one often encounters the following quote from William Burton’s excellent study Luba religion and magic in custom and belief (1961, p. 24):

So petrified have become the customs of the present in the traditions of the past, that we have known women to go two days journey to see the stool of the chief at Nkulu, that they might settle some little matter as to the correct vogue in cicatrization marks. This stool, carved at least 150 years ago, still sets the fashion, to certain of the Luba in cicatrization.

Burton’s observations are important in that they suggest that, not only did the artists who made the Luba stools copied actual hair and scarification styles, but also that they set a standard of fashion for succeeding generations.

Note that well known is that Burton also photographed this stool in the 1920s, as illustrated above. Unfortunately the details of this field-photo are not very clear – which might explain why this picture hasn’t been published much. However, after some sleuthing I was able to track down this stool (which fortunately survived time) and we now can finally see the cicatrization patterns in detail (click on the picture to zoom).


Luba stool Nkulu wood Burton


This stool was sold by Sotheby’s London on 17 June 1991 (lot 150); the Belgian dealer/collector who bought it for £ 63,800 presumably being aware of its importance. Interestingly enough, Burton’s original caption accompanying this field-photo stated: “Stool of office of Nkulu chiefs, 250 years old. Insignia of office carried even in war”. Especially the supposed age of this stool is remarkable; Burton’s informants stating it was made in the 18th century. This shows that many Luba regalia may in fact be much older than we think.

Auctions Discoveries News Objects

Sleeper of the month: an ivory Lega mask (D.R. Congo)

ivory lega mask sleeper bruno claessens blog

The above Lega mask – 15,3 cm high – was sold at auction in The Netherlands earlier this month. The grandfather of the Belgian owner had collected it between 1906 and 1909 while working as a cartographer in the then Congo Freestate. With an estimate of only € 15,000-20,000 this little mask obviously attracted a lot of attention. It is a very rare opportunity to find a previously unknown ivory Lega mask of this quality, so I was convinced it wouldn’t stay unnoticed. Well, this little treasure didn’t sleep and in the end sold for € 300,000 (without costs) – probably the same result if it would have been sold at one of the bigger auction houses. After having spent fifteen minutes with it, I can say it’s totally worth it.

PS the title of ‘Sleeper’ in this case is thus totally incorrect 🙂