African Art from Yesterday to Today – a lecture by Marc Leo Felix, June 2015

Last Bruneaf, Marc Leo Felix gave a fantastic lecture about the history of the African art market. Structured by the decade, it’s a summary of how the West discovered African art – it offers a wonderful chronology peppered with many personal experiences, insights and opinions. Felix being an African art dealer (and much more than that) for more than 53 years, I can assure you this is a must watch. Note that the lecture is in French, but the good people of Biapal did the effort of providing English subtitles (available when you click ‘CC’ on the lower right bottom).

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.

Opinions Research

A newly identified Mangbetu sculptor: “The Master of the T-shaped brow”

Image courtesy of Lempertz.
Image courtesy of Lempertz.

Another African artist who’s name is forever lost, while his style is so personal he at least deserves a “pseudo-name”. For me, the trademark of this artist’s work is the T-shaped brow which links the nose, nasal bone and eyebrows, a feature present in all his works – hence the nickname. All faces also have the same type of scarification (two small parallel lines) next to the (deeply incised) circle-dot eyes and nostrils. On the neck there is an incised necklace, formed by a continious circle of small carved crosses (sometimes rectangles). Other typical features of the work of this carver are the typical ‘halo-like’ coiffure, the pointed breasts with large exagerated nipples, the position of the hands enclosing the navel, the protruding belly button, and the pentagonal base.

From left to right: 1. Ex Alain Naoum & Ex Christie's, Paris, 16 June 2009. Lot 302; 2. Collection Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (#6356-2). Collected in 1925; 3. Published & exhibited in Mangbetu. Afrikaanse Hofkunst uit Belgische prive-verzamelingen, Brussels, KB, 1992: 87, #16; 4. Ex Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 2003. Lot 56. Collected before 1913; 5. Private Collection, collected before 1902.
From left to right: 1. Ex Alain Naoum & Ex Christie’s, Paris, 16 June 2009. Lot 302; 2. Collection Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (#6356-2). Collected in 1925; 3. Private Collection. Published & exhibited in “Mangbetu. Afrikaanse Hofkunst uit Belgische prive-verzamelingen”, Brussels, KB, 1992: p. 87, #16; 4. Ex Sotheby’s, New York, 15 May 2003. Lot 56. Collected before 1913; 5. Private Collection, collected before 1902.

Figural art depicting a Mangbetu-style head is still called “Mangbetu” no matter who produced it. Although we can not be sure if “The Master of the T-shaped brow” in fact was Mangbetu or Zande, we do know he was very active in the first decade of the twentieth century. Five figures of this artist are known. One of these figures was brought to Europe in 1925 by E. Lefevre, a Belgian prospector and geologist, and thus carved before this date. A second figure was collected by Ernest Shreiber, magistrate in the Belgian Congo, between 1890 and 1913. One of the three pedestals illustrated below was collected in the 1920s. Another figure was already in Europe in 1902. All other objects by this carver have no information about their date of collection. It is thus plausible that this sculptor started carving in the last decade of the 19th century, when Europeans first entered the region, and developed a more homogenous style throughout the years. This corresponds with the fact that the majority of the figurative sculpture in the Uele region was created between 1908 and 1925.

Three other objects are also part of this artist’s corpus; their function is uncertain. A pedestal surmounted by a classic Mangbetu head, they were most likely prestige objects.

From left to right: 1. Ex Sotheby's, New York, 6 May 1998. Lot 207; 2. Private Collection; 3. Published & exhibited in Mangbetu. Afrikaanse Hofkunst uit Belgische prive-verzamelingen, Brussels, KB, 1992: p. 61, #15.
From left to right: 1. Ex Sotheby’s, New York, 6 May 1998. Lot 207; 2. Private Collection; 3. Published & exhibited in “Mangbetu. Afrikaanse Hofkunst uit Belgische prive-verzamelingen”, Brussels, KB, 1992: p. 61, #15.

Like most anthromorphic carvings from the Northeastern Congo, the head shows the typical elongation, strenghtened by the receding hairline. Since the Mangbetu spent a great deal of their time on personal appearence, new hairdresses developed all the time. Hairstyles varied considerably throughout time and according to the status, the occasion and even the mood of the wearer. Wealthier people could afford the time to prepare elaborate coiffures. At the end of the 19th century the practice emerged to strenghten this elongating effect of the forehead by embellishing the coiffure with a sort of funnel-shaped conceived halo. The hair was pulled back, sometimes supplemented with hair from other people, and tied into a open chignon at the back, with the help of a disk- shaped framework of reeds that had been woven into the hair. Originally this coiffure indicated a high social position, worn by the ruling lineage. Afterwards it became an ideal of beauty for all those who wanted to make the effort – preparing such a coiffure was very time-consuming. The halo-shaped basketry frame covered with hair only became common and widespread by 1910. For even more elegance, the Mangbetu wrapped the forehead and the front half of the skull with a wide band of carefully juxtaposed, blackened fiber strings – as can be seen on the field-photo below. The horizontal bands of parallel lines on the wooden statues possibly represent these strings.

Mangbetu coiffure halo-like Herbert Lang Congo AMNH


The function of these figures is highly interesting since it exemplifies the ongoing difficulty to define authenticity in African art. We know that in the colonial period, the European presence greatly expanded the market for certain types of art in the Uele region. Local chiefs commissioned objects for the Western visitors; they mediated between the new patrons and local artists and encouraged artists to produced the kinds of works that Europeans admired. Chiefs of northeastern Congo thus employed artists to carve anthropomorphic figures, some of which were given as gifts to other leaders, both African and European. These gifts were all the more necessary in uncertain times, as in the period of Arab and European contact. The era of colonial rule threatened the continued operation of the traditional Mangbetu court system. This practice of using art as a form of tribute encouraged the development of workshops in which rulers employed carvers who worked in distinctive styles – such as the one under discussion here. These statues thus were made for secular rather than religious purposes, and in a way are early Congolese examples of sculpture carved intentionally to be a works of art. As Schildkrout and Keim wrote in their excellent book on the subject (African Reflections, American Museum of Natural History, 1990), many of the arts that flourished in the very early colonial period gradually died out in the years after the death of chief Okondo (in 1915) and other rulers. Administrative changes were rapidly reducing the formal power of chiefs. Once the system of colonial rule became firmly established, chiefs were less inclined to use art to win the favor of colonial officials. With the Belgian bureaucratization of colonial administration, gifts of art became less useful as a means of communicating with the colonial authorities. Once the patronage of chiefs was gone, the quantity and quality of anthropomorphic art decreased dramatically. Depending on one’s definition of ‘authenticity’, one can thus place this type of sculpture in one or the other category. Surely these statues were employed in a post-contact environment and did not have any religious or magical use, still, as we have seen above, they served a very specific use to their commissioners…

Auctions News Opinions

Auction review: Sotheby’s, New York, 15 May 2015

Sotheby's New York Luba figure Warua Master 15 May 2015

Apologies for the lack of posts these last weeks, I was working on Sotheby’s May 15th auction of African, Oceanic & Pre-Columbian Art in New York – although it is hard to consider the week spend in summery Manhattan as ‘working’ 🙂 So, how did the sale do ? Just for the African lots (lots 95-189), the total result (inclusive of buyers premium) was $9,139,125 against a total estimate for this section of $6,188,500 – 9,888,500, in other words just a bit under the high estimate. The sale total was $3 million higher, $12,144,375 (including premium) – the African half of the auction thus performed much better than the Pre-Columbian art. The 13 Oceanic lots were dominated by the monumental Bismarck head, which was sold for $ 1 million.

From the 95 African lots, 67 sold and 28 were passed (29,5 %). The African part of the sale sold 70,5 % by lot and 90 % by value. Including the buyer’s premium, 25 of the 67 objects sold above the high estimate (37 %), 36 (54 %) at or between estimates and 6 lots (9 %) under the low estimate. Note that if you deduct the buyer’s premium, 30 lots (or 45 %) sold below the low estimate (!); once again suggesting that the estimates in many cases were just too high.

Star of the sale was the cover lot, the Luba figure from the Warua Master. As seen above it was presented in a separated “black cube” (opposed to the white cubes ubiquitous in the contemporary art world?) under a very strong light – which unfortunately attracted a lot of attention to the huge amount of dust accumulated in its sticky surface (a restorer surely will have to spend an extended period of time with it!). Bidding started at $ 1,5 million (half of the low estimate). There was one bidder in the room and two others on the telephone; the first got it: the statue was hammered down at $ 3 million – $ 3,610,000 adding the buyer’s premium, becoming the most expensive Luba figure ever sold at auction. The previous holder of that record was the Luba statue from the Alan Mann collection, sold by Christie’s in December 2008 (lot 328) for $ 703K. Notwithstanding this remarkable result, selling at the low estimate (without premium), it is clear that Sotheby’s had expected of course a bit more from this statue. The interest limited to 3 collectors, the number of interested parties ideally would have been higher. In my view, the high estimate certainly played a role, but that in turn might have been necessary to persuade the consignor to let Sotheby’s sell the object. Remarkable was the fact that the statue itself was absent at the cocktail party Sotheby’s had organized the evening before the sale. It had moved to another floor for a private viewing. I thought that was a shame, but I can understand Sotheby’s had to accommodate the wishes of an interested party.

Back to the auction, the first African lot, an a-typical Kota reliquary (lot 95), did surprisingly well selling for almost double its high estimate at $ 47,5K. The next lot, a Vuvi mask was snapped up by a dealer at $ 32,5K, just above the low estimate. The “Dali”- Kota attracted only a single bid (notwithstanding its four pages in the catalogue) and sold for €100K. The next reliquary (lot 98) sold within its estimate for $ 27,5K; while a last, extremely shiny, example (lot 99) was bought by a NY dealer for $ 81,5K. Predicting the results of these Kota figures is an art form in itself. The next lot, the “Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan Fang ngil mask” (info) performed very well, more than tripling the low estimate at $ 970K. Funny detail, for the preview the beard was detached. The Fang figure in its turn failed to sell, notwithstanding the description by Louis Perrois. Petite histoire: the famous Billy Jamieson originally discovered this statue in a small sale in Toronto.

The next big lot, the Kasai helmet mask (lot 111), sold for $ 490K to a telephone bidder. It’s origin is still heavily discussed, during the preview nobody came forward with a definitive attribution – for me it is a Biombo mask (yours truly is even cited in the catalogue). Anyhow, I must say this mask looked even better in reality: it is something special – without wishing to comment on its value – which, as always, is in the eye of the beholder. Somebody did a good deal with lot 113: selling for $ 20K, this Kuba drum was sold a couple of months ago for peanuts at a small US auction – I had passed on it since I didn’t fancy the idea of paying the shipping costs, my mistake. The Lwena mask, estimated $ 300-500K, did not sell – although the final bid ($ 280K) would already have been a record price for such a mask. The Chokwe bird mask (lot 115) sold for $ 75K, just above the low estimate. It had already been unsuccessfully offered by Sotheby’s last year, at a much higher estimate.

From the Segy collection, a small Fang figure from a known hand, estimated $ 12-18K, sold for $ 75K. A Belgian dealer bought the Yombe maternity figure (lot 133) for $ 30K. A nice pair of Dogon dogs should have done better and sold within the estimate for $ 21,250. The fragmentary Mossi mask (lot 152) failed to sell (estimated $ 60-90K). That rarity alone isn’t sufficient to generate interest was proved by the Attie ladder figure (info), which remained unsold at $12-18K. A Chinese collector bought the Senufo helmet mask for $ 27,5K – he was also the underbidder of the Baga mask (lot 165) – which sold for $ 47,5K. This Senufo mask, also known as a firespitter, somehow does resemble Chinese dragon iconography. I did not understand why somebody paid $ 21,250 for a standard Asante doll. One of my favorite objects in the sale was a Baule buffalo mask (lot 177), with sold below its estimate at a mere $ 6,875. It had an incredible usage patina (with the typical egg shells) and was carved with an eye for detail (check those molars!) – it might not have been aesthetically pleasing, but that’s how they should be. Another steal was the Yoruba epa helmet mask, which sold just above the low estimate for $ 31,250 – no money for such a museum quality object by one of the best known Yoruba carvers. I also liked the rare Ijo rattle (incorrectly listed as a headcrest in the catalogue), which was bought by a French dealer for $ 9,375.

The biggest surprise of this auction might have been the Edo terracotta head from Benin which sold for $1,930,000, almost five times the low estimate – and even that low estimate would have been a record price. It did get 8 pages in the catalogue of course, and it was hard to hate that beautiful picture of the open mouth in profile. I guess it is now the most expensive terracotta object from Africa ever sold at auction. Perhaps the most coveted object of the whole auction was the last object, a copper alloy head attributed to the Udo Kingdom (lot 189). Intensely pursued by multiple bidders both in the room and on the telephone, it was sold for seven times its low estimate for $ 730K. The very low estimate of this enigmatic head, $ 100-150K, surely had awakened a lot of interest; one can only wonder if this would also have been the case if the estimate would have been higher. Surely, estimating an object like this is not easy – it is not a classic Benin head and very naturalistically rendered. Personally I have more the feeling that it represents a young princess, instead of a ruler (as stated in the catalogue). Also the attribution to the Udo Kingdom for me is based on too little facts (the presence of related figures at Udo in the 1940s). However, with only three of the sixteenth heads of this style in private hands, this was obviously an unique opportunity (note that the head from the Schnackenberg collection now is in the collection of the Museum for African Art, NY – so it current whereabouts are no longer unknown, as stated in the catalogue). This head is what they call a treasure and many will regret not getting it after starting to dream due to that low estimate – well played by Sotheby’s!

As a final remark, I would like to note that only 4 of the African objects (the Fang mask, Luba figure and two Benin heads) were responsible for 80 % of the sale total of the African half of the auction. A lot of the “smaller” objects did not do well or did not sell at all. This raises questions about the current state of the so-called middle market of authentic objects that just miss that extra bit. The Sotheby’s sale did not prove to be very forgiving for them, especially if the reserve price was too high (which was often the case). It shows once again how selective this market has become. However, in their own summary of the auction Sotheby’s stated that “this auction result confirmed the continued strength of the market and solidified the status of this field as a major collecting category.” – that wouldn’t be my conclusion. Obviously, the luster of the top lots did not translate to the adjacent lots and the market is becoming more and more segregated, but that’s a discussion for another time.



African masks and the selfie-test

Dan mask selfie test Ivory Coast

One of the first things I ever learned to check if an African face mask is authentic (or not) was to try it on. This might sound silly, but there’s no easier way to see if a mask is wearable and if you can look through the eye holes – if not, you have a problem. This is of course only a first stage in the process of authentication, but further steps have no use if a face mask fails this simple test. In the age of smartphones and selfies, a friend recently coined a name for such a test: “the selfie-test” 🙂 If you’re not able to make a good selfie wearing the mask, you might have a problem!

Auctions Opinions Research

African art and the golden ratio

Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The highlight of the next Sotheby’s sale obviously is the cover lot, a Luba statue from D.R. Congo, attributed to the so-called Warua Master (info). Fourteen (!) pages of the catalogue are dedicated to this lot – Myron Kunin’s Senufo statue got 18. Heinrich Schweizer’s catalogue note contains a very interesting paragraph about the “strong adherence to geometric principles” of the Warua Master. He writes:

The tangent connecting the upmost point of the eyebrows is a horizontal line dividing the face from the apex of the forehead to the chin into two exact halves (see the below drawing). While the upper half is plain, featuring only the forehead, the lower half is visually dense as it contains all facial features – the Warua Master uses the juxtaposition of visual void and density to create tension. Furthermore, the face is inscribed into a perfect ellipse of vertical orientation. The upper half of the ellipse follows exactly the outline of the forehead from its apex to about the line dividing the face into upper and lower half. In the lower half the outline of the face withdraws subtly to the inside. However, it is the lowest point of the beard that falls with mathematical precision onto the nadir of the ellipse. Inside the face, eyebrows and jawbones create two nearly elliptical shapes of horizontal position which follow the same length and width ratio as the vertical ellipse into which the face is inscribed. 

Luba figure Warua Master Golden ratio Congo drawing b

Schweizer continues (and here it gets really interesting):

In light of these strong inherent tensions it is surprising that the face overall exudes so much tranquility and serenity. How does the artist do this? The answer has to do with the position of the eyes and is mesmerizingly mathematical (see below drawing): inscribed in the two smaller, horizontally positioned quasi-ellipses are laterally wide and medially narrow eyes. The virtual horizontal line connecting their inner corners of these eyes (i.e., running right through their middle) bisects the length of the face such that the distance from this line to the bottom of the neck is equal to the distance from this line to the top of the forehead, is equal to the distance between the outer points of the two horizontal quasi-ellipses. We may define this distance as b.

However, it is the relation of the lowest point of the beard to the virtual line connecting the eyes that renders the composition in such “perfect balance”. We may define this distance as a. As shown, a and b are measures relating the apex and nadir of the vertical ellipse defining the face to the virtual line connecting the eyes.

The ratio of the distances measured by a and b corresponds to a formula which is well-known in aesthetic studies and art history as the golden ratio of proportion. It has been observed in ancient Egyptian sculpture, Greek architecture, early medieval painting and was propagated widely during the Italian Renaissance, most famously in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1492) as manifestation of the divine spark visible in the greatest masterpieces of creation. This ideal proportion is mathematically defined by an irrational number that is approximately 1.618 and most often replaced by the Greek letter Φ.

As the drawings and the above show, a number of the aesthetic choices made by the Warua Master follow the golden ratio with an uncanny mathematical precision – although we don’t know whether this is a result of intuition or calculation.

Luba figure Warua Master Golden ratio Congo drawing


To my knowledge (and do correct me if I’m wrong*), this is the first time the golden ratio has been applied in the analysis of an African art object. I’m confident that once you start looking you can find it in a lot of other objects too. For example, have a look at this Mende mask in the same catalogue. It is possible to see the golden ratio in anything, really. While the relation between the golden ratio and aesthetics remains highly debated in academic circles (for example here), this analysis certainly helps to better understand and appreciate the beauty of this Luba figure, or African art in general.

*UPDATE: a reader informed me about Jean-Pierre Fournier’s analysis of an Akan comb (“Le peigne ashanti et ses mystères”), published Arts d’Afrique Noire” in 1985 (no. 56, pp. 11-14), where Fournier applies the section dorée and rectangle d’or to a comb from his collection.

la section dorée le rectangle d’or fournier comb Akan

Museums Opinions

Exhibiting African art & social media: the power of a hashtag

African art exhibitions and social media quai Branly

Talking about innovative curatorial practices: I just came across the above image taken at the newly opened Ivory Coast exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly Les Maïtres de la Sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire (info). Visitors are suggested to use the hashtag #sculpturecotedivoire to discover more about the exhibition on their favorite social media. Any avid user of Twitter or Instagram at once knows which hashtag to use when posting pictures of the exhibition online. The success of this idea becomes clear when searching on #sculpturecotedivoire on Twitter here or on Instagram here.

#sculpturecotedivoire quai branly


I’m happy to notice the Musée du quai Branly is letting people freely photograph the exhibition. I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures at the Sepik show in Berlin and photography isn’t allowed either at the Senufo exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art – although they did develop an app for smartphones. The launch of this app will definitely have increased the usage of smartphones by visitors, but they thus can’t use it at the same time for photographing interesting details or the exhibition installation.

In my experience the gallery assistants never really know why photographing isn’t allowed and what the main objections are*. The availability of postcard reproductions of the highlights at the museum shop is often claimed as an excuse – but those you can’t share online. It is of course a complex discussion. Taking photographs of everything of interest for most young people is a way to experience and enjoy art (and life). As long as it goes together with properly looking at objects (and is done quietly and considerably) I have no problem with that. Museum curators should realize that younger generations ‘consume’ art in a whole new way. Part of the fun now is to share your photos online with friends via social media. Establishing a hashtag, like the Musée du quai Branly did, is a clever way to actively encourage visitors to share images of the exhibition online – and those can only generate additional interest in the art on view.

*There’s of course the widespread belief that flash photography can damage an art object. As this paper shows it’s not more harmful than normal light exposure. Dr Martin Evans explains that the problem is even less of a concern for smartphones, which, no doubt, is how most museum visitors are taking photos (or selfies) these days. He writes:

Many ‘smartphones’ include an illuminator that may be a tiny xenon flash, or a light-emitting diode (LED) that briefly flashes light onto the subject. It is hard to estimate the power of these little illuminators in terms of strict guide numbers, but the consensus is that they can be rated at GN 2 to GN 4. Clearly, flashes from ‘smartphones’ cannot be regarded as a conservation threat in any properly lit gallery.

Anyhow, mobile phones take much better photos without a flash.


UPDATE: Kathryn Gunsch, Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was kind enough to share a curator’s perspective:

The ban on photography is rarely related to conservation concerns. It is about image rights. Not every lender will allow visitors to photograph the objects on loan to a show. Many museums that allow photography in the permanent collection cannot offer photography in the special exhibitions for this reason. I don’t know of any museum that has tried to allow photography in a special exhibition of some objects but not others -that would likely be an enforcement nightmare!- and so if even one lender declines photography, the whole show can’t be snapped. I hope that helps explain it. I know many of us wish it were otherwise, there’s nothing better than seeing gallery images on pinterest, instagram and elsewhere!

I wonder how many private lenders wouldn’t allow their objects to be photographed, and for what reasons. Maybe an easy solution would be to make the right to be photographed a condition to include an object in an exhibition in the loan contract. A reader also informed me that at the quai Branly’s exhibition visitors are not allowed to photogaph the objects that come from the Musée National de Côte d’Ivoire – there is a pictogram on the info label that states “NO PHOTO”. So it are not just the private lenders – also note that the Sepik exhibition (where photography also was prohibited) only had objects from public collections. Lastly, another reader wrote that photography wasn’t allowed at the previous stop at the Ivory Coast exhibition at the Rietberg Museum. Seems like, for now, each museum has its own approach.


UPDATE2: As Détours des Mondes‘ Martine Belliard-Pinard reports here, photography also isn’t allowed at Milan’s MUDEC.

Opinions Research

DNA analysis & African art research

As previously reported (here), the collection of African art of Richard Scheller (a leading biochemist and an executive vice-president at the biotech corporation Genentech) is currently on view at the de Young museum. The exhibition catalogue features an interesting essay about DNA analysis (pp. 288-289): a number of objects of Scheller’s collection has been tested to identify the species of tree used to create the works. The goal was to develop a process that could be used to authenticate pieces and to provide scholars with more information about their creation. “There is a constant issue around authenticity in African art, if the species of tree didn’t grow on the continent of Africa, then you might wonder if your object was authentic or not”, Scheller said to The Art Newspaper.

Working first with modern objects, Scheller and his team at Genentech, which funded the research, discovered that they could chemically extract and sequence DNA from dead wood. By comparing it with a public database of chloroplast (organelles found in plant cells) DNA, they were able to identify the species of tree. They then turned to the works in Scheller’s collection, removing just enough sawdust from the bottom of three sculptures to repeat the process used with the newer wood. The results were extraordinary: the team was able to extract DNA that was 100 to 200 years old, proving that it could still be found in materials that had been dead for many years. This was probably the first time that this process has been applied to a work of art made from wood.

Finding a species DNA match in the database presented a challenge, however. “When we made the DNA from the art objects, we found that we were only able to establish distant relatives,” Scheller says. “There are 300,000 species of plants on earth and only around 400 have been deposited in the database so far.” The team was unable to find exact species matches for any of the works, but a Jonga sculpture from the Democratic Republic of Congo returned the highest number of database matches; these pointed to the Madagascar rosy periwinkle, many species in this family can be found in Central Africa. The nearest relatives identified in the other two works, although more distant, were also from families of trees commonly found in Africa.

For Scheller, the process was a success. “That it’s possible to do this is the question that we were asking,” he says. “It is possible to take wood, make DNA and determine the species.” Although the database needs to expand before this process can be fully utilized. Once the database catches up, the possibilities for research are endless.

“In ten years, this could become a very powerful tool,” says Lesley Bone (chief curator at the De Young), who believes that it holds the promise of great discoveries for curators, from establishing material trade routes to understanding how materials shifted with tribal migration. Scheller agrees, citing reports of tribes that created certain sacred objects using particular species of trees. Comparing the DNA of these objects would make it possible to determine if they came from the same species, so confirming their shared provenance.

Does this signal a change in the way African art is authenticated? “In the future, yes,” Scheller says. “For now, no. It’s too new and it’s too sophisticated scientifically. I think it will take a while.”

Obviously, this is a very interesting scientific development – stimulated by somebody who has the technology at his disposal; kudos to him. But, as Scheller correctly states, it is all a bit ‘too new’. Without a database containing the DNA of all trees that grow in Africa, the technique is not very helpful (yet). Even if DNA analysis would find out the species of wood that was used for making a specific object, it would tell us not much about its authenticity – except, in a negative way, if the wood did not exist in the area the object is reportedly from. Furthermore, specialists at the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa are already able to identify Congolese wood species. They are, however, impossible to consult as a private researcher. But, as is noted in the catalogue, the tremendous biodiversity in Africa can make distinguishing specific species rather difficult (reference is made to the approximately 1,300 species in the Acacia genus). Personally, I think, for now, connoisseurship will remain the first and foremost way to appraise African art, although science will definitely come to play a more important role in the not so far future (an example here).

UPDATE: learn more in this lecture given at the de Young by Richard H. Scheller (introduced by Christina Hellmich) called Identification of Tree Species through the Analysis of DNA

Auctions News Opinions

“In Pursuit of Record Prices”: The Myron Kunin Collection at Sotheby’s New York (11 November 2014)

Myron Kunin Sotheby's New York Senufo deble figure world record Primitivism

One week after the sale of Myron Kunin’s collection of African art at Sotheby’s New York, it is time to take a closer look at the results. Note that since the estimates do not reflect commissions, all below prices are without the buyer’s premium (unless indicated otherwise). The 157 African art lots in total brought in a little less than $ 35 million – described as ‘historic’ by the auction house, but was it ?

The presale total estimates were $ 18,8 million and $ 29,1 million – the sale thus brought in more than $ 5 million above the high estimate that Sotheby’s had set before the sale. Of the 157 African art objects in the collection,  38 (or 24 %) remained unsold – however, sales continued after the auction. Most of the lots that were passed, did so not surprisingly – most often when the estimate and quality level did not correspond.

Of the 119 lots that were sold, 45 (or 28,5 %) did so under the low estimate, 31 within the estimate and 43 (or 27,5 %) above the high estimate – it is of course this last category that made the auction. The sale itself took a very slow start, the first four lots all coming from the Dogon. To many’s surprise the reserve prizes each time were well below the low estimate, for example the opening bid for the Dogon granary shutter (lot 4) was $ 15K (est. $40-60K) and it sold for only $ 24K. A first real test was the Djennenke figure, which tripled its low estimate and sold for $ 1,3 million to a telephone bidder. The next few lots were less exciting, but the tone of the auction was set: the lows would be low and the highs high. A much coveted Dan figure (which I’ll discuss in a future post) sold for $ 290K, while a supposedly early 18th century Dogon figure (lot 6) sold for only $ 28K.

A next important lot was a seated Baule figure (est. $ 300-500K) which was hammered down for $ 700K. Impressive also was the $ 580K a Guro mask (lot 41) made (est. $200-300K). But the real highlight of the sale was of course the cover lot, Kunin’s famed Senufo figure (est. $ 6-9 million); the bidding started at $ 4,9 million and the action was mainly between the different telephone lines, coming to a stop after a few minutes at the impressive sum of $ 10,6 million – as much as an average Sotheby’s sale. Mission accomplished for Sotheby’s. They clearly had worked hard on the star lot of the sale – as many of the top objects, it had traveled to Paris and Doha before coming back to NY. This piece alone helped nudge the sale to a record total.

I had much higher expectations for the Yoruba shango staff, which sold only $ 10K above its low estimate at $ 260K. A lot of money for such an object of course, but it was hard to dislike this piece, even if you were not a fan of Yoruba. An incredible object was the Wum mask from Cameroon selling five times its low estimate at $ 200K. A jaw-dropping result was obtained by the Brummer Fang-Betsi head, estimated $ 600-900K, it sold for $ 3,1 million. One of the highlights of Yaëlle Biro’s exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde, last year at the Metropolitan, Kunin had bought this historic head at Sotheby’s New York in 2002 for $450K – in twelve years the price thus six folded. The following Fang-Ngumba figure (lot 83) also did very well and doubled its low estimate when selling for $ 650K. As with many of the pieces in this sale, the estimates were often very high (reflecting the price level Kunin was buying at), for example with the Vuvi mask, estimated at $ 200-300K (lot 90), which sold for $ 320K – abstracting the fact that it’s only just above the high estimate, a very impressive result.

After Gabon, it was finally time for the Congolese objects. The big Kongo nail figure (lot 100) doubled its low estimate and sold for $ 650K, a very reasonable price for such a big and important figure. Rubinstein’s Teke figure sold for almost five times its estimate at $ 470K to a bidder in the room. Picasso’s Luba stool sold for more than double its low estimate at $ 675K, while the sticky Luba neckrest (lot 125) made $ 380K (three times its low estimate) – solid results for classic examples of royal Luba art. The Luluwa figure sold for a very reasonable $ 280K and the Kanyok couple made an unbelievable $ 320K. After a long battle, the janus Songye figure (lot 141), was sold for $ 2,15 million and doubled it’s estimate – it was the last important Songye that  had left the Alan Stone collection before he died and his estate was sold by Sotheby’s. Two other Songye figures (lot 143 & lot 146) failed to sell (probably due to their high estimates or over saturated market for this type of object). While the janus Songye stool performed as expected and sold for $ 420K. Lot 147, the Songye-Luba kifwebe mask, sold for an amazing $ 500K.

Some personal favorites I did not yet mention: the 19th Century Dan mask (lot 19) in the Flanplo style; the Igbo headdress (lot 57), incorrectly listed as Eket (discussed here) that made $ 80K (estimated much too low at $15-25K) and an old Igbo mask in a known style sold for $ 16K (a steal seen its quality). I loved the Vili figure (lot 96) which sold to a French dealer for € 160K (est. $ 60-90K), one of the best in its kind and certainly 19th century. A Suku figure (or Tsaan ?) sold for $ 75K (est. $ 25-35K) was a superb piece of sculpture with a great patina – very rare too. I adored the small a-typical Luba figure (selling for $ 15K), which will go to the same collection as the Luba-Zimba stool (lot 133), that was somehow similar in spirit (perhaps due the beaded eyes and stylization).

Even in an important sale like this there was the possibility to buy at very competitive prices for the attentive connoisseur, for example: an ancient Bwa mask was sold for only $ 7,5K and a Mende mask was bought for $ 28K (originally being sold for $37K in 2008). After the sale, most professional regretted not having bought the rare Bete figure for a mere $ 120K, under its low estimate and certainly worth much more. The $ 3,800 for the Wurkun figure (lot 65) was a very good price for the collector with a limited budget, while an excellent Yoruba epa mask (est. $ 10-15K) failed to attract a single bid with the reserve price being $ 4,8K – a steal for such a big and rare mask. All Yoruba didn’t do very well – and three other lot (73, 76 and 77) also failed to generate any interest notwithstanding the low reserves (respectively $ 15K, $ 9K and $ 15K). Lastly a Punu mask sold for $ 28K (est. $ 40-60K) and a small Lumbo figure sold for half its low estimate at $ 3K. Surprisingly a small bronze Baule turtle was able to make $23K, against an estimate of $ 2-3K which left the room a bit puzzled. Lot 47, a Senufo figure, was a fantastic piece of sculpture and thus not really surprisingly generated a lot of interest estimated at only $ 25-35K and was sold in the room for $ 130K.

Three important lots so far remained undiscussed, as I want to use them to illustrate what in my eyes was the lesson of this sale:

  •  the Yombe maternity figure doubled its low estimate selling for $ 3 million. In 2011 this lot was sold for $ 1,8 million (including premium);
  •  the kneeling Kongo figure (lot 99), estimated $ 150-250K, sold for $ 420K. In 2008 this small (11,5 cm high) gem was estimated $ 30-50K and sold for $ 289K (including premium);
  • the Ngbaka figure (lot 119) sold for $ 3,5 million (tripling the estimate of $ 1,2-1,8 million) and was acquired by Kunin in 2009 from the Chaim Gross estate for $ 1,25 million (including premium).

These three objects thus all were acquired fairly recently, and while some conjectured that it was much too soon to have them back on the market, especially since all three were sold for record prices, each of them pulverized their previous result without even a struggle. This clearly shows the strength of the market at the top level where the sky remains the limit. Another factor however may be at hand: an important buyer at a sale like this would have been Kunin himself; with his death Sotheby’s lost one of their top buyers. Additionally, just before the sale another top client suddenly died (info) – the absence of these two major players might have caused the re-entry of several high-end collectors who had left the market after persistently being overbid in the past.

Conclusion: starting publicly during Parcours des Mondes, for months before the sale (short videos included), experts at Sotheby’s had been marketing the Kunin sale (more in specific a small group of masterpieces) as an event filled with once-in-a-lifetime pieces of an outstanding quality. It worked. Thanks to the numerous record prices the sale totaled above its high estimate and many records were broken. Sotheby’s hasn’t released any information on the buyers yet, but as far as I heard more than 50 % of the objects were bought by US collectors. Anyhow, since art appreciation these days generally is connected with its monetary value (“only records make the news”), this sale is of course excellent news for the position of African arts and we can only applaud Sotheby’s for enabling this.


Opinions Research

On the invention of styles by fakers

As anybody active in the world of African art, I’ve had my share of discussions about forgeries. An argument which often returns in many of these is the reasoning that it is not because you have never seen a certain type or style of object before, you can call it a fake. Fakers, this reasoning states, don’t invent styles, because that wouldn’t be profitable. In this view, they focus only on popular and valuable styles that will sell easily. Unfortunately, this argument is invalid. I won’t give examples from the African art world here, but do wish to share the well-documented and incredible story of the ‘Post-Pre-Colombian’ ceramicist Brigido Lara.

In July 1974, Mexican police arrested and imprisoned a group of individuals from the Gulf Coast State of Veracruz for the possession of a collection of what appeared to be looted Pre-Columbian ceramics. Though such objects have long been protected as national patrimony, the high prices they fetch in the auction houses and galleries of New York and Europe fuel a contraband traffic in antiquities. At the trial of the accused, archeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) testified that the ceramics had been taken from ancient sites in the Cempoala region, in the central part of the state of Veracruz. Convicted largely on the basis of this testimony, the individuals were sent to prison for their role in this illegal trade in looted objects.

From his cell, one of the convicted individuals, Brigído Lara, made an unusual demand. At his request, clay was brought to the jail. From within his cell Lara then proceeded to create indisputable proof of his innocence—identical reproductions of the pieces that had sent him to jail. He was not a looter at all, it turned out, but a wrongfully accused forger, an accomplished imitator of ancient styles. For the past twenty years he had been fabricating contemporary copies of ancient ceramics. Though he worked in many styles including Aztec and Mayan, his specialty was the ceramic wares of the ancient Totonac, a population that inhabited Veracruz and flourished between the seventh and twelfth centuries a.d. The replicas were taken from the jail and once again shown to the same experts from the INAH whose testimony had led to the convictions. Once again the verdict was rendered: These too were judged to be ancient pieces from Cempoala.

Read the full story here. Lara claims to have made approximately 40,000 fakes prior to his arrest. Some became part of prestigious international collections: the Dallas Museum of Art, the Morton May collection at the Saint Louis Art Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and important collections in France, Australia, Spain, and Belgium all contained pieces that Lara claimed to have made. In fact, Lara may have been so prolific that he had a hand in shaping what is today understood as the classic Totonac style! As remarkable as Lara’s tale is, he’s certainly not alone and also in Africa similar practices unfortunately emerged throughout the twentieth century. As with the Lara case, some examples of these invented styles or types eventually got published and in such a way started to build credentials – complicating the discussion about their true origin.