Tag Archives: Benin

African art collectors with good taste: the Modigliani of Klaus Perls

Crowds sit in front of Amedeo Modigliani's "Nu couche" during the "Artist Muse: A Curated Evening Sale" November 9, 2015 at Christie's New York November 9, 2015. Image courtesy T.A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images.

Crowds sit in front of Amedeo Modigliani’s “Nu couche” during the “Artist Muse: A Curated Evening Sale” November 9, 2015 at Christie’s New York November 9, 2015. Image courtesy T.A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images.

The event that marked the art world last year was the sale of Modigliani’s Nu Couché for $ 170,4 million at Christie’s New York (info). It became the second most expensive painting ever sold at auction. The painting is one of a series of great female nudes made for Léopold Zborowski that famously caused a scandal nearly a century ago when they were exhibited at Modigliani’s first and only one-man show at the Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris.

Another painting of that exhibition ended up in the hands of a famous African art collector: Klaus Perls, the owner of Perls Galleries. We know Perls for the 153 pieces of Benin art he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991. Kate Ezra wrote a great book about this collection, which is available for free here. In 1997, Klaus Perls would donate his Modigliani to the Metropolitan; you can see it on the picture below. It’s strange to think that this one (extraordinary) painting is worth as much as his complete (encyclopedic) collection of Benin art. Anyhow, it’s great to see them together.

The dining room of the Perls home, with Benin art (and a Baule mask) displayed beneath Nu Couché by Amedeo Modigliani, 1918.

The dining room of the Perls home, with Benin art (and a Baule mask) displayed beneath Nu Couché by Amedeo Modigliani, 1918.

ps fourth from the left, the attentive eye can spot a ‘Birmingham bell’, as previously discussed on the blog here.

Back from Berlin

Makonde mask Berlin Ethnographic Museum storage

I hope you all had a good Easter / Pesach / Holiday – I spend mine in Berlin, hence the lack of blog posts these last few days. My personal highlight was the Ethnological Museum. It will close in two years (and reopen in 2019 at a new location on the ‘museum island’ in Berlin’s city centre), so don’t postpone your visit if you haven’t been there. The selection of art from the Benin Kingdom is incredible and alone worth the trip – I was happy to learn the new museum will show even more objects. Furthermore, there’s a strong group of Congo material, some important Gabonese objects and a huge amount of art from Cameroon – all of these being collected more than 100 years ago. It is an amazing experience to see all these icons of African art in reality. Additionally, at the moment there’s a small exhibition about ‘object biographies’, curated by Margareta von Oswald and Verena Rodatus, including a stool from the ‘Buli workshop’, a group of Fon figures and the famous throne figures from Kom (info). After spending the day in awe in the museum, I realized I forgot to take some installation photos, but below a couple of snapshots. I can’t wait to go back, although I’ll definitely skip the museum’s restaurant next time  – the bookshop, on the other hand, was very good.

Benin figure Berlin ethnologisches museum

Detail head Chokwe staff Angola

detail Chokwe staff Angola Berlin

Bruno Claessens Bangwa stools thrones Berlin

Object of the day: a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.8206).

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.8206).

I’m currently obsessed with Benin plaques, so I thought I share one of my favorites. The above example, in the collection of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum, was attributed by William Fagg to the ‘Master of the Leopard Hunt’. It’s one of the seven known brass plaques which appear to be by this artist, certainly one of the greatest of Benin bronze casters. His works are free from the rather unimaginative rigidity of the great majority of the plaques, and this fragmentary scene of a Bini shooting at an ibis in the tree is often considered the most beautiful plaque of all. While most of the known Benin plaques show recurrent scenes of ritual, the work of the Master of the Leopard Hunt always depicts unique events, represented with a free sense of composition.

a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt Nigeria

This ‘master’ got his name thanks to another plaque in the same museum, illustrated below, featuring a hunting party and two leopards – which is however less three dimensional. The Oba alone was allowed to slay leopards during his ritual duties. Leopards would be captured as cubs to be raised within the palace and so tamed in preparation for their immolation by the king.

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.27485).

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.27485).

A third plaque from this artist show two Edo men harvesting fluted pumpkins – extremely unusual in subject matter. The two men’s dress is not that of farmers; their pot-like helmets mark palace officials. This complex plaque likely records a harvest for sacrificial reasons. In Benin this pumpkin type is equated with good things – success, unity and longevity – and is a standard sacrifice to two deities, the high god Osanobua and his son Olokun, god of the sea and wealth. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a rare container in its collection in the shape of such a gourd.

Image courtesy of the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, Germany.

Image courtesy of the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, Germany.

One element that these three plaques have in common is that they all depict actions: an archer aiming at a bird in a tree or palace officials catching leopards or garnering fruits. Together with the three-quarter view and the reference to an environment, this feature is alien to most African art and probably the result of a highly creative mind who dared to experiment with the standard prototype of the human-centered plaques.

 

 

Accessing the Pitt-Rivers inventories online

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum (2012.33.1).

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum (2012.33.1).

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) amassed two large collections of art objects during his lifetime. The first became the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. His second collection was displayed at a private museum in Farnham, Dorset during his lifetime and stayed in his family’s hands. This museum was eventually closed in the 1960s and this collection has now been dispersed. It is listed in nine beautifully illustrated volumes of a catalogue now part of the collections of Cambridge University Library. The Pitt-Rivers museum has made both the accession catalogues of their collection, as well as the above mentioned nine volumes of Pitt-Rivers’ private collection digitally available for consultation here. You can explore the pages of the catalogues by selecting a volume or by searching for a specific term using the ‘Search the volumes’ button. Most of these volumes are beautifully illustrated with detailed color drawings, accompanied by a description, the measures, the acquisition date, the price and the provenance. In other words an incredible research tool. Besides Oceanic and African art (with a focus on Benin art), these catalogues also contain art from other parts of the world. If you’re looking for a specific object, it can take a while (I did find Bulgy Eyes) – but these inventories are so interesting browsing them page by page is a pleasure to do. If you wish to learn more about the life and collections of Mr. Pitt-Rivers, do visit the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers website.

With big thanks to Marc Assayag for the tip. Sharing is caring!

 

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Image courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Benin treasures on a pre-1930 interior photo

George Neville interior Benin bronzes tusks heads leopards

Ben Hall recently found the above interior photo on a Brighton flea market. Talking about a room full of treasures. It appears to be a rare picture of the interior of George W. Neville’s house in Weybridge. Neville (1852-1929) worked for Elder Dempster, a shipping company, in Lagos. After his death, Neville’s collection (128 objects big) was sold by Foster in London on 1 May 1930, the auction was titled Highly Important Bronzes, Ivory & Wood Carvings from the Walled City of Benin, West Africa (G.W. Neville Collection from Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897).

So, where are these objects now ? The pair of Benin bronze leopards are in the National Museum in Lagos, Nigera. They were bought by Charles Ratton in the 1930 auction. Louis Carré acquired them from Ratton after the famous exhibition at MOMA in New York in 1935 and in 1952 they were bought for the new National Museum in Lagos. The plaque with the two Portuguese soldiers is currently in the Musée du quai Branly (#70.2002.4.1) in Paris after passing through a number of hands (Ratton, Carré, Pleven) since Neville owned it. Lastly, the bronze altar between the leopards is in the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles (X65-9088), having been given to them by the Wellcome Institute.

With thanks to Ben Hall, Tim Teuten, Hermione Waterfield and Susan Kloman for the excellent sleuthing – remember this picture came without any contextual information. Still unaccounted for are the big head on the windowsill on the left, the Benin plaque with the bird, the two hip ornaments on the chimney, the ivory tusk and the Yoruba stool.

Christie’s appraisal of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

As previously discussed here, Detroit’s bankruptcy had started the discussion to sell part of the DIA’s collection. Early December, a US judge ruled that the city is eligible for bankruptcy, which means that asset sales can go ahead. One of the city’s most valuable assets is its art collection in the DIA. Until now, there hasn’t been a blatant pitch to sell the works, only a ‘discrete’ valuation by Christie’s (at a cost of $200,000). The judge made it clear that in his opinion it wouldn’t be wise to sell the art, but that was just his philosophical view, not a ruling. In fact, the man in charge of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, Kevin Orr, made it clear yesterday that the art collection is very much ‘on the table’. More info here

The good news is that the number of works the city could possibly sell (that is, those bought by the city directly, not gifts or DIA acquired objects) is only 5% of the museum’s total collection. Christie’s appraised only works bought with city of Detroit funds, all before 1955. The majority of the African art collection is thus save. (Christie’s press release)

In the meantime, the 150-page valuation of the works the city of Detroit can sell has been published. You can see the list here. Below the included African and Oceanic art.

African & Oceanic Art Phase 1

A KNIFE CASE, PROBABLY KONGO-PORTUGESE
ANGOLA/DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 16TH-18TH CENTURY
ivory
10 in. high
#25.183.A,B
Est. $700,000-1,200,000

A BENIN COMMEMORATIVE PORTRAIT OF A QUEEN MOTHER
NIGERIA, CIRCA 19TH CENTURY (LATE PERIOD)
copper alloy (bronze), cast
21 in. high
#26.180
Est. $150,000-400,000

African & Oceanic Art Phase 2

A BENIN FIGURE
NIGERIA
copper alloy
9 1/2 in. high
#26.10
Est. $30,000-50,000

A BENIN FIGURE
NIGERIA
copper alloy
9 1/4 in. high
#26.11
Est. $30,000-50,000

A SHIELD
MIDDLE SEPIK RIVER, PAPUA, NEW GUINEA
58 in. long
#26.369
Est. $40,000-60,000

A SAWOS CEREMONIAL BOARD (MALU)
MIDDLE SEPIK RIVER, PAPUA, NEW GUINEA
66 1/4 in. long
#26.370
Est. $300,000-500,000

Image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“Touching history”, the Hands On desks programme at The British Museum

Image: BC.

Image: BC.

Last week I coincidentally stumbled upon a object handling session in the Asia gallery of the British Museum. Volunteers give visitors the unique opportunity to handle objects from the museum’s collection in six of the museum’s galleries. At the end of this year it will also be possible to handle African objects. More than 90 volunteers are involved. The desks are open daily, seven days a week, between 11.00 and 16.00. I wasn’t aware of this “Hands On Desks” programme (apparently already running since January 2000) and think its a wonderful idea to get the objects out of their glass cabinets and into the hands of visitors. As collectors, curators or dealers, most of us know that you can’t replace the feeling of actually touching an object. An evaluation of the programme showed that almost all visitors to Hands On desks said that the experience increased the quality of their visit and brought it to life. I sincerely hope other museums will follow the British Museum’s example.

A whole wall of magnificent Benin plaques at the British Museum, London. Image: BC.

A whole wall of magnificent Benin plaques at the British Museum, London. Image: BC.

New Benin Kingdom gallery opens at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Relief plaque showing a dignitary with drum and two attendants striking gongs. Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria, 16th–17th century. 43.2 x 27.9 cm. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (#L-G 7.32.2012).

Relief plaque showing a dignitary with drum and two attendants striking gongs. Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria, 16th–17th century. 43.2 x 27.9 cm. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (#L-G 7.32.2012).

Accompanied by a drum roll by the above musician, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has unveiled a new gallery dedicated to the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of bronzes and ivories created in the ancient Kingdom of Benin, located in present-day Nigeria. The single greatest private holding of objects from Benin (not to be confused with the West African Republic of Bénin, the former Dahomey) the Lehman Collection was a gift to the Museum in 2012. Lehman, a banker and a great-grandson of a founder of Lehman Brothers, had purchased the Benin sculptures between the 1950s and the 1970s. On display for the first time in Boston, the 36 objects (two Lehman Collection loans are included) comprising 30 bronzes and six ivories, all date from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The gallery, which was completely renovated, also includes two early ivories from Sierra Leone and Guinea, crafted by African artists for the European market. Read all about it here. For an inventory of the donation, including provenances, click here.

The plaque above has a typical provenance for a Benin bronze: Ex William Downing Webster, London; sold by him on October 15, 1898 for £ 19 to Lt.-General Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers (b. 1827 – d. 1900), Farnham, England; until the 1960s, kept at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham. The collection of the privately-owned Pitt-Rivers museum passed by descent through Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers’s son Alexander Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers to his grandson, Captain George Pitt-Rivers (1890-1966) and his common law wife, Stella Howson-Clive (Pitt-Rivers). The museum closed in the 1960s and the collection was sold.

The provenance of these Benin bronzes remains the origin of a lot of controversy. What the MFA forgot to list was that Webster most likely purchased this plaque from a British soldier returning from the Benin Expedition, which had sacked the kingdom’s capital. So, understandably, not everybody is amused by this donation. For the reaction of the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments, that demands a return of the objects, click here. More on the story on the Elginism blog here, and lastly, a more nuanced view by Chika Okeke-Agulu here.

Pectoral with two officials Edo peoples, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, 16th–17th century. 31.1 x 28.6 cm. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (#L-G 7.28.2012).

Pectoral with two officials. Edo peoples, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, 16th–17th century. 31.1 x 28.6 cm. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (#L-G 7.28.2012).