Category Archives: News

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.

The African art that inspired the new African American History Museum’s building

The African American History Museum cost $540 million to construct and took a little more than four years to complete. Sixty percent of the building is underground with four concourses below ground and four floors above the first level main entrance. The structure has exhibition galleries, an education center, theater, auditorium, café, store and offices. Image courtesy of Alan Karchmer.

The African American History Museum. Image courtesy of Alan Karchmer.

Here’s a fun fact about the new African American History Museum in Washington D.C.: the specific pagoda-like form was inspired by the top element of a Yoruba veranda post ! The building’s architect, David Adjaye, spotted the post (made by the famous sculptor Olowe of Ise) in an overlooked corner of the Museum Five Continents in Munich when designing the museum.

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In fact, the Munich museum owns two posts by Olowe, one now is on long term loan to the African American History Museum, while the other remains on display in Munich. Both were carved circa 1930 and formerly in the residence of the Ojomu of Obaji in Akoko – before being collected by Gerd Stoll (from whose collection the museum acquired them).

A 1930s wooden sculpture by Nigerian artist Olowe of Ise wears a crown, on which the museum’s design is based, in the culture galleries. Image courtesy of Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post.

Image courtesy of Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post.

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In this article in the Washington Post, David Adjaye, the sought-after British architect and son of Ghanaian diplomats, said he wanted to provide a “punch” at the end of the “row of palaces,” as he referred to the other museums at Washington DC’s National Mall. And the architecture needed to “speak the story of the museum, the origins in Africa,” he said, and not be another “stone box with things in it.” Adjaye recalls coming across a wooden sculpture of a man wearing a crown by the early-20th-century Yoruban artist Olowe of Ise. Adjaye had seen similar forms in Benin, in fragments of doors and posts and pillars. But the connection to the Yoruba, one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, was more meaningful. A 2015 Oxford University study found the majority of African Americans and modern-day Yoruba people in West Africa have a similar ancestry, confirming that the region was a major source of African slaves. He sent an image of the sculpture to his collaborators. No other ideas were considered. “I think all of us were captured by it,” said Hal Davis of SmithGroupJJR. Surely it must be the only building in the world that is inspired by African art !

ps in several online articles this segment erroneously is described as a ‘crown’, surely it was merely a structural element to connect the figure with the veranda’s roof – as you can see on the field-photo below. However, I do recall the number ‘3’ has some symbolic meaning among the Yoruba, but I don’t have the time to dive into my books right now.

In situ photo of a Yoruba veranda post by Olowe of Ise - published in Walker (Roslyn Adele), "Olówè of Isè. A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings", National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1998.

In situ photo of the Munich Yoruba veranda post by Olowe of Ise – published in Walker (Roslyn Adele), “Olówè of Isè. A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings”, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1998.

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.

“Masterpieces From Africa” at the Dapper Museum prolonged until 2017

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Good news reached us from from the Musée Dapper in Paris. Their current exhibition, Masterpieces From Africa (and that’s just what it is!) is being extended until June 17, 2017. This tribute to the museum’s founder, Michel Leveau (who passed away in 2012), shows 130 exceptional objects from its holdings. It’s a must see – who knows when these objects will be on view again..

What’s unique, is that now both the famous Bangwa queen and king figures are on view in Paris at the same time, although at different museums (respectively the Musée Dapper and the Musée du quai Branly) – Paris truly is the capital of African art these days. To get a teaser of the Dapper exhibition show, see the Youtube clip below (in French, and including an interview with Christiane Falgarayettes-Leveau, the museums’ director and curator of the exhibition).

 

‘Baule Monkeys’ selected for the International Tribal Art Book Prize 2016: VOTE NOW

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It’s the time of the year to vote! Not only on your president (if you’re American), but also on your favorite English and French tribal art book. I’m very proud to announce that my book ‘Baule Monkeys’, co-authored with Jean-Louis Danis, made it on the shortlist for the Tribal Art Book Prize (PILAT) 2016. Its one of the three preselected titles in English (the language the book was written in). An independent jury will select the winner early December and takes into account the readers’ vote. So if you could help my monkeys to get as many votes as possible, they surely will not be able to ignore them – you know how monkeys are. So, please do vote for my book Baule Monkeys HERE ! Quit monkeying around, vote now! Thanks.

New appointments at US museums

Kevin Dumouchelle with an untitled 2009 work by El Anatsui at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington. Image courtesy of Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times.

Kevin Dumouchelle with an untitled 2009 work by El Anatsui at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington. Image courtesy of Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times.

To use a soccer term, the news of two ‘top transfers’ recently reached us: after almost a decade at the Brooklyn Museum, Kevin Dumouchelle has joined the Smithsonian Institution as Curator at the National Museum of African Art. Constantine Petridis in his turn, after 15 years at the Cleveland Museum of Art, has just been appointed chair and curator of African art and Indian art of the Americas at the Art Institute of Chicago. We wish them both much success in their new professional endeavors.

Across the pond the sad tidings reached us that Herman Burssens, professor emeritus at Ghent University, passed away at the age of 89. Burssens is best know for his excellent work on the sculpture of the Zande (Yanda-beelden en Mani-sekte bij de Azande (Centraal-Afrika), 1962).

Herman Burssens in 2013

Herman Burssens in 2013.

Upcoming exhibitions at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (Paris)

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The Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac surely is celebrating its tenth birthday properly. The end of this month sees the opening of two now exciting exhibitions. The first, “Eclectic“, from 23 November 2016 until 2 April 2017 and curated by Hélène Joubert, will show around forty key works, mostly African, from the private collection of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière. He’s the 23rd richest man of France (source) so you can expect some stunning works for sure. Opening at the same time is “From the Jordan River to the Congo River. Art And Christianity in Central Africa” (info), curated by Julien Volper and showing about one hundred African works of Christian inspiration (crucifixes, sculptures, pendants, engravings and drawings) drawn from various private and public collections in Europe. This type of objects always gives me mixed feelings, as it were these same Christians that were responsible for the destruction of so many African cultures, but the syncretic objects that survived surely are interesting.

Perhaps the most anticipated upcoming exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly is Picasso PrimitifCurated by Yves Le Fur, a first segment of the exhibition will chronologically document Picasso’s interest in non-Western art, while a second part will be more conceptual and confront works of the artist with those of non-Western artists (as was done during Primitivism in 20th Century Art). Hopefully the exhibition will draw as much new attention to African art as the latter once did. It was about time someone organized an exhibition on this subject. However, personally, I do regret the use of the word ‘Primitif’ in the exhibition’s title; I thought we had moved past the use of the P-word by now. Picasso Primitif runs from 28 March until 23 July 2017 and will be followed by what surely will be an epic exhibition on the art of the Fang. I don’t see many other museums with such an impressive agenda, so kudos to the Musée du quai Branly !

ps I once mentioned that Fang figure on the exhibition’s poster on my blog, see Investing in African art and ‘the rule of 72’.

ps2 Picasso’s nimba figure is currently on view in Brussels at the Bozar where it presented with a huge Female head by the master in an exhibition on his sculpture.

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.

The MET acquires the best Bamana antelope headdress ever

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Associate Curator of African Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Yaëlle Biro, just broke the news on twitter that the museum acquired the above Bamana antelope headdress (ci wara) from Mali. In my humble opinion this is the best ci wara in existence. It has been in my African art top 10 since a very long time. The stylization of the antelope is spot on and the artists’ use of negative space is pure genius. I’m so happy that this headdress will soon go on public display after having been out of view for so long. The last time it could be seen was 15 years ago, when it was included in Bernard de Grunne’s Masterhands exhibition (Brussels, 2001: p. 54, #11). In 1966, it was shown in New York’s Museum of Primitive Art during the exhibition Masks and Sculptures from the Collection of Gustave and Franyo Schindler (#46). In 1989 it was published in Warren Robbins & Nancy Nooter’s African Art in American Collections, Survey 1989 (p. 73, #59); and from the Schindler collection it went on to a private NY collection until last month. The news is still fresh so this ci wara isn’t listed on the Met’s website just yet and neither do we know the kind benefactors who have made this exceptional purchase possible, but what a great addition again for the Met’s African art collection! It will be on view soon..

UPDATE: it was also published in Alisa Lagamma’s Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture (p. 92, #47), which is freely available for download here. The catalog note eloquently describes the headdress as follows:

This headdress suggests a symphony of interwoven concave and convex elements. The horns, with their powerful outward and upward thrust, harmonize with the elongated and hollowed triangular ears, and prominent negative spaces are distributed throughout as visual highlights. The reductive sculptural form, a striking departure from convention, is an essentialized, skeletal structure that frames empty volumes in the area of the head, neck and lower body. The demarcation of these interior areas is accentuated by finely carved surface patterns that include a chain of diamonds along the ridge of the nose and the sides of the mane and neck; dense cross-hatching along the front of the neck and surface of the ears; and spiraling lines that travel up the length of the horns. In this interpretation, the antelope’s transparent being appears as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with life force.

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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