Auctions Discoveries Objects

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..

Museums Objects

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).





African art on Instagram



As I unfortunately do not have as much time to blog as before, I was happy to recently discover a new outlet to document my adventures in the wonderful world of African and Oceanic art by creating an Instagram account. You can find it here (username: brunoclaessens). Instagram is a free photo-sharing app that you can install on your smartphone. It lets you share pictures (which you can easily manipulate to make them look better) with the world and allows you to follow or discover people with the same interests as you. The African art community on Instagram has been growing steadily these last few years – you would be surprised who has an account – but I’ll let you discover them yourself. Personally, I try to post daily and it can be anything, from the ex libris of Jacques Kerchache to sneak previews of objects in forthcoming sales. Most pics are geotagged, so you can see where they were taken – which can be also be an excellent way to discover more photos from a specific location (for example, at the Rietberg Museum). Users can also add hashtags (a type of label preceded with a #) to facilitate the traceability of their pictures. For example, I didn’t had the time to go to Frieze Masters this year, but searching on #FriezeMasters2016 I still got to discover what was on view (at least if it was photographed, properly labeled and shared) – but as the (new) saying goes, if it’s not on Instagram, it did not happen 🙂


As you can see, with the proper effects it’s easy to create some wonderful shots. Below some more of my recent posts..


Discoveries Objects

A Fang-Ntumu figure reveals its secrets


Four years ago I did a small study of the above Ntumu figure from Gabon; in my description I wrote: “Sometimes the eyes of byeri statues served as an opportunity for the integration of relics into the figure itself by embedding fragments of bone, often in the form of teeth, into deeply excaved cavities – which could be the case here.” A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the current owner of this statue. He had taken the figure to his radiologist to test my hypothesis. A scan proved me right and revealed the presence of three human molars: 2 behind the eyes and 1 inserted in the forehead (which had not been spotted on the statue before) – a great discovery! Next time you have an appointment at your radiologist, don’t forget to bring an African statue 🙂

UPDATE: a reader writes that the third tooth is an upper premolar.





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




Museums News Objects

The Met acquires a Jukun shoulder mask

Jukun headdress, Nigeria. Height: 114,3 cm. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2015.445). Purchase, Pfeiffer, Leona Sobel Education, 2005 Benefit, and Dodge Funds; Gift of Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler, Theresa Sackler and Family; Andrea Bollt Bequest, in memory of Robert Bollt Sr. and Robert Bollt Jr.; Elaine Rosenberg, James J. Ross, and The Katcher Family Foundation Inc. Gifts, 2015.
Jukun headdress, Nigeria. Height: 114,3 cm. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2015.445). Purchase, Pfeiffer, Leona Sobel Education, 2005 Benefit, and Dodge Funds; Gift of Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler, Theresa Sackler and Family; Andrea Bollt Bequest, in memory of Robert Bollt Sr. and Robert Bollt Jr.; Elaine Rosenberg, James J. Ross, and The Katcher Family Foundation Inc. Gifts, 2015.

2015 certainly was a great year for the African art collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Apart from an iconic Hemba statue, the museum also bought an excellent Jukun headdress. This shoulder mask was published in Elsy Leuzinger’s Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika (Zürich, 1970) – and featured on Jacques Kerchache New Year’s Card of 1971. It was ‘collected’ in Cameroon in 1968 or 1969 by Philippe Guimiot, acquired by Kerchache and then in a private collection from 1994 to 2015. I do hope European museums are taking note how the Met continuously is able to fortify its collection thanks to the generous contributions of several donors. Government grants practically reduced to zero, the ‘acquisitions’ of many of them unfortunately are limited to the occasional bequest. Of course, in the EU, there’s no beneficial system of tax-deductible donations as in the States – a not to be underestimated factor.

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some info about the object from the Met’s website:

This enigmatic and arresting creation of a Jukun sculptor active in central Nigeria’s Benue River Region was a kinetic ancestral sculpture. According to accounts gathered by researchers, such works were animated in performances devoted to agricultural rites as well as to those relating to initiation of young boys into adulthood. Access to those events was highly circumscribed. Women, children, and outsiders were not allowed to view those nocturnal apparitions.

The form is purported to have been manipulated by a person who used the lateral apertures to support and raise it. Perforations around the perimeter of the lower half allowed for the attachment of a vegetable fiber costume. The upper half distills an ancestral presence to essential features that are dramatically amplified. Crowning the summit is the majestic dome-like volume of the head. The eyes project in bold relief from the flat surface of the face and teeth are incised on the underside of the straight line of the mouth. At either side the flat discs of earflares favored by regional elites are emphasized. Adoption of Christianity and Islam during the first half of the twentieth century led to the abandonment of this minimally documented tradition.

Currently the object is not on view, but I hope that will change soon!

Objects Research

A rediscovered Senufo staff

Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.
Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.

In 1969, Anita J. Glaze took the above field-photo of a Senufo staff in Ivory Coast. It was published recently in Bernard de Grunne’s catalogue on the subject, Senufo Champion Cultivator Staffs – which is freely available online here (p. 32). Unfortunately no additional information about the place, owner or carver is mentioned.

Last week, the above staff was offered for sale at Sotheby’s Paris (info). Apparently the staff left Ivory Coast not long after Anita J. Glaze photographed it, since according to Sotheby’s it was already owned by Harvery T. Menist ca. 1968. Although the field-photo is a bit blurry, details such as the red fibers and presence of cowrie strings make it clear this is one and the same staff.

telafpitya senufo staff sotheby's anita glaze


I discovered two more staffs that are possibly carved by the same sculptor – only the angle between the upper and lower arm is different. A nice detail is how the carver omitted the two front legs of the stool the woman is sitting on, carving only the legs of the figure while maintaining the balance of the stool.


Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.
Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby’s, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.


ps the elaborate hairdo of the female figure crowning this staff in facts reflects an existing Senufo hairstyle – as can be seen on the beautiful field-photo below.


Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), "Negerkunst und Negerkünstler", Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).
Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), “Negerkunst und Negerkünstler”, Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).
Objects Research

African art made in the UK: the ‘Birmingham Bells’


Lower Niger River bells Forcados

Above two conical bells that depict human heads in a style that is generally identified as the ‘Lower Niger Bronze Industry’ (southern Nigeria). It may come as a surprise, but these were not made in Africa: identical in form and size (but not in alloy), they were cast from a mold in the UK. These bells can be identified by a seam where the two halves have been attached (as opposed to the seamless lost-wax method traditionally used in Nigeria).

In Where Gods and Mortals Meet – Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo art, Perkins Foss writes about these so-called ‘Birmingham Bells’ (p. 51):

John Picton recalls that he and William Fagg saw ‘bells with a stamped job number on the back’ at the British Museum in the 1970s, and that ‘unlike the regular Lower Niger River bells they were cast in piece molds, as evidenced by the seams along each side from top to bottom.

Fagg’s hypothesis was that enterprising English District Officer or trader might have seen such a bell on a Nigerian shrine and taken it to a UK foundry (Birmingham is only a suggestion of where they might have been made) to produce a series, then to test their sales-worthiness in the lower Niger region.

Presumably these replicas were made for sale or trade or as gifts in what is now southern Nigeria around 1900. Examples have later been documented in rituals among the Urhobo, Igbo and other groups, so some of them did end up on a shrine – and thus can in way be deemed ‘authentic’.


Birmingham Bells UK Nigeria copper bronze


These bells always have a stamped number on the lower back – you can zoom in by clicking on the above picture; it starts with ‘R’, followed by 199063. They weigh more than twice as much as the thinly cast authentic bells; made at a time when copper was still scarce. A couple of dozen of them are known and one of them even ended up in the collection of the Metropolitan (info, correctly listed as ‘made in England’). Christie’s even sold one in 2006 for € 3,360 (info). The present whereabouts of the original bell remain a mystery, but the Dallas Museum of Art holds one that is similar in style (info); as does the Smithsonian (here). The function of these bells remains unknown, but the imagery of the (abstract) snakes issuing from the nostrils can be associated with the Edo of the Benin Kingdom, the Yoruba, the Igbo and other groups in the region. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would have more information about them.


Lower Niger Nigeria copper bronze bell bells cloche

Museums News Objects

The Cleveland Museum of Art acquires an Igbo Ikenga figure

Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Ikenga figure. Height: 73,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Unlike their European counterparts, many US museums are still actively acquiring new objects to complete their (often relatively young) collections of African art. In many cases such purchases remain unnoticed, although sometimes there’s a press release to inform the public of a new acquisition. Last October, the Cleveland Museum of Art for example purchased an Igbo ikenga figure (info). The museum writes:

The Igbo constitute the largest ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria and their arts are among the country’s most varied and complex. The figure is a key example of an Igbo sculptural genre called ikenga. It depicts a man seated on a one-legged stool, holding a cutlass in one hand and a human skull turned upside down in the other. The ikenga would have been part of a shrine, where it would have received prayers and sacrifices in return for the ancestors’ support and guidance.

The figure wears an elaborate headdress comprised of two curving, interconnected horn-like extensions, with three projecting cone shapes on either side of the face. The horns, perhaps those of a ram, underline the male gender of the image. The figure’s forehead and temples are graced with parallel incisions imitating local scarification patterns known as ichi. The ichi scars signal that the sculpture represents a high-ranking member of one of the many Igbo male associations. The white color around the eyes, derived from chalk, signifies purity and protection, and refers to the benevolence of the spirits.

The ikenga figure is an important addition to the museum’s Nigerian holdings. It also adds a sculptural genre with widespread cultural connections, as it was shared by various different peoples across a vast geographic region.

Note that the fact that the figure is holding a decapitated head doesn’t mean the Igbo were headhunters (a story one often hears in the trade), this was more a symbol than an actual representation of a local custom. It is more reasonable to assume that it symbolizes courage, wit, bravery, material success and other achievement qualities, which raises the status of the owner.

The Cleveland Museum of Art bought the statue from a US dealer who had bought it in Paris in 2010 at the sale of the remainders of the Kerchache collection for only €10,000 (Pierre Bergé & Associates, Paris, “Collection Anne et Jacques Kerchache”, 13 June 2010. Lot 322). A bargain if you consider the quality of the statue and the fact that it was published in both Elsy Leuzinger’s Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika (p. 187, #M9) and Jacques Kerchache’s Art of Africa (p. 543, #930). After the sale it also got published in Herbert M. Cole’s Igbo book (Milan, 2013: pl. 9). Igbo art still remains under appreciated, but I’m happy to notice it’s getting the place it deserves in public collections.


UPDATE: Herbert M. Cole was so kind to respond to my statement about the meaning of the severed head; he writes:

The Igbo and several of their SE NIgerian neighbors WERE in fact headhunters, as evidenced in numerous headdresses featuring trophy heads, in ikoro slit gongs, and ikenga. Headhunting may have stopped by virtue of the pax brittanica, but it is well recorded in early accounts of this large area, and while the iconogrphy was sustained for symbolic reasons, it had it origin in warfare (even among Igbo subgroups, which were never unified). I see the upside-down head as an indication of doubled humiliation of enemy peoples whose head brings power to the captor’s community.