Tag Archives: Guro

Auction review: Sotheby’s, Paris, 24 June 2015

Sotheby's, Paris, 24 June 2015 African art africain Bruno Claessens

 

Sotheby’s African art sale in Paris on 24 June 2015 (info) closed the first half of what so far has been a spectacular year for African art (at least at auction). As with each sale these days, several new records were established. The double Baule mask (lot 26) sold for € 5,411,000 (estimated € 2-3 million), establishing a world record for a Baule object and the second highest price for an African mask at auction, and a classical Akan terra-cotta head in its turn reached a final price of € 855,000, a world record for such an object. With a final result of €11,1 million (above the total high estimate of € 9,9 million), this sale achieved the second highest total in this field in France since the market opened – it’s incredible that the Baule mask alone is already responsible for half that result – it was the cover lot after all. In total, the sale sold 76 % by lot – just below the 78 % at Christie’s the day before (reviewed here).

An interesting start of the sale was the Klein collection (lots 2-25): a nice group of small and big figures from the different Kongo groups. This collection (or better, a selection of it) was amassed over twenty years and clearly a work of love. However, of the three figures estimated above the € 100,000 mark only one found a new owner: a Bembe-Gangala statue sold for €123K. Note that in April this year a figure from the same workshop, without provenance and at a small auction, was sold for € 118K (info). The big (but not very attractive) Dondo-Kamba figure (estimated € 150-200K) failed to sell, notwithstanding its excellent provenance and publication history; and the kneeling (also not that enticing) Kongo Minkenge statue (lot 12) with the same estimate also wasn’t able to attract a single bid. Both lots are perfectly fine, and made sense within this particular collection, but in the end both just missed that extra bit of power that you want at such a price level – that little Bembe figure in its turn easily overpowered the majority of this collection (and thus easily found a buyer). This is also perfectly illustrated by lot 18, a big Bembe-Dondo figure (also unsold, estimated €60-90K); it shows that an excellent publication history sometimes isn’t enough. Anyhow, all in all, only 5 of the 24 lots from the Klein collection remained unsold, so that’s certainly not bad. A personal favorite was lot 3, a small Kongo figure with the head turned sidewards and a small faceless miniature figure attached. As with many other lots from this group, I guess the estimate was below what they once had actually paid, and in this case I was not surprised the dealer that once sold them this little gem bought it back (at eight times the low estimate). Another object with a lot of charm was the seated Yombe figure; it tripled its low estimate and was hammered down for € 17,5K. A Teke figure, by the by yours truly identified ‘Maître de la barbe cunéiforme’ failed to sell at an estimate of € 25-35K while another (slightly better) statue from this sculptor (still with its power charge intact and with a better provenance) had been sold for €111K last year. An excellent seated Bembe figure (info) holding a fly-whisk was sold for €37,5K – as the majority of the objects of this group within the estimate. So did the next three lots, three straightforward Bembe figures (lot 19, 20 & 21) that sold a very reasonable prices, indicating a lack of interest in this quality level at an auction like this. Contending for the best gain of the day was a the Vili maternity figure which was sold for a very serious € 147K – in 2008 it exchanged hands in Paris for € 26K, so that’s a sixfold increase in seven years. The only zoomorphic figure in the group, a Kongo dog figure (lot 17) sold for five times the low estimate at € 25K – its profile was exceptional and, since these are quite rare, I had expected that I would sell for even more. A last lot of the Klein collection in the sale, a Bembe figure once in the collection of Guillaume Apollinaire (lot 25), that had been shown in NY in May, sold within the estimate for € 50K.

After the Klein collection, there were two Senufo objects collected by Karl-Heinz Krieg (as in each of the last Sotheby’s Paris sales), especially a bowl with a seated figure on the lid (info) was nice and sold for only € 25K. Next up was a rare Attié mask. The juxtaposition with a late Mondriaan painting in the catalogue was incomprehensible – neither of the both works has anything to do with each other. I guess it’s about the red lines, but the catalogue note misses any explanation. While being estimated € 300-500K, bidding started at a low €180K and quickly came to a standstill at € 220K – nonetheless the mask is listed as sold for € 303K on Sotheby’s’ website so it found a new owner in the after sale. It’s a great and ancient mask, but the corpus of this type of masks is so small that it failed to generate a lot of attention. A big surprise for me was the next lot, a Songye figure; it sold for double its low estimate at € 700K – again the juxtaposition with a modern Western ‘painting’ (a Lucio Fontana this time) remained unexplained and made not much sense. There have been so much big Songye figures of this caliber on the market in recent  years, but they do keep finding buyers, at ever more elevated prices: the market for Songye sculpture remains very strong – rightfully so in my humble opinion.

Moba figure Togo Durand-Dessert Sotheby's

Next up were 10 objects selected from the Durand-Dessert collection. During the 2008 edition of Parcours des Mondes, this collection had been shown in Paris in a highly praised exhibition called Fragments du Vivant which for the first time presented this very personal selection to the public. The catalogue, with pictures from Hughes Dubois, is highly recommended. 9 of the 10 objects were sold, all of them above the low estimate. The object that possibly embodied the spirit of the Durand-Dessert collection the best was the fragmentary Moba figure illustrated above (info). 111 cm high, one can imagine what a massive figure this once must have been. Even in this eroded condition it still radiated power; I personally consider it one of the best of its kind and remember being totally blown away by it in 2008 (as were many). Before the sale there was a lot of commentary on the estimate: € 150-250K was unheard of for such a figure. Again, Sotheby’s proved to be pushing estimates (rightfully in this case in my opinion) and succeeded in selling the figure for € 243K to a telephone bidder. Also best of its kind was the Wé miniature mask just before. Estimated € 15-20K, it was hammered down for € 43,750 after a short but intense bidding war – a record price, yet totally justifiable as it will be impossible to find another example still so complete. Another favorite was the ivory Lega mask. Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert had bought it at auction from Sotheby’s in Paris in 2006 for € 191K (info); nine years later the underbidder at that sale got a second chance and bought it for €291K – still a very good price seen the size and age of this mask. Liliane & Michel Durand-Dessert had the luck to be in Paris when the first shipments of Mumuye statues arrived in Europe in the late 1960s; this sale included one of the better of the nine examples they have in their collection. This statue wonderfully embodied what Mumuye sculpture is all about and sold for € 99K (est. €40-60K). For me a surprise was the last lot of the group, a Senufo helmet mask, estimated already very highly at € 120-180K, it exchanged hands for a staggering €255K to the same telephone bidder who had opened the sale in style by paying € 195K for a vessel from Magdalene Odundo from 1994. Obviously the Senufo mask had a lot of what they call ‘wall power’ in the contemporary art world, yet this result seems a bit higher than the real market value of this mask. The reason behind the juxtaposition with the painting from Wilfredo Lam in the catalogue escaped me, but I guess such Western art works are placed in the catalogue with a another public in mind – which clearly worked.

After a group of Oceanic art, of which the highest estimated lot (a €700-1,000K Uli figure) failed to sell, we traveled back to Africa. A telephone bidder snapped up the Guro mask by the ‘Master of Bouafle’ (lot 56) for € 339K (est. € 120-180K). Some didn’t like its patina, but I found this gracious mask a winner from all sides. The next lot, a Senufo figure, which also had been shown in New York last May, did not sell at an estimate of € 300-400K – which did not surprise me at all. A lot where the estimate was at the other extreme, being much too low, was the Luba staff: estimated only € 10-15K it generated a lot of interest and was bought by a Belgian dealer for €52,500 – I thought everything above the waist of this figure was pretty spectacular. Another low-estimated lot was the ivory Lega head without eyes (lot 66); estimated € 4-6K, it sold for € 25K. As observed in the Christie’s sale the day before, reasonable estimates allow the market to play – which certainly happened with these two lots.

Impressively welcoming visitors at the entrance of the preview during the previous days, the eroded Bamileke royal figure from the Delenne collection was sold just above its high estimate for € 735K. The Cleveland Museum of Art in 2010 acquired a small but excellent group of Congolese objects from this collection (info); Costa Petridis wrote the accompanying catalogue to this purchase (which features a collection photo with this magnificent statue). In December, Sotheby’s Paris will be offering more objects from the Delenne collection (mostly coming from Oceania). Another interesting lot was the elegant Kota reliquary figure; previously unknown, it doubled its high estimate and sold for € 101K after a lot of interest had been shown in it. 15 more lots followed, but I had to leave to catch a homebound train – this review is already too long anyway.

So, as auctions are still considered an important indicator of the health of the market, this sale (together with the one from Christie’s the day before) shows the market for African art certainly is not slowing down. Once again, the stellar lots made stellar prices. And, as Sotheby’s with each sale keeps pushing estimates higher (at least for top quality lots), and is able to successfully find buyers for these works, it is clear that at the level of the high-profile objects the market is very strong*.

* I’m aware my focus in these reviews mainly is on this small group, but it are these results that are pushing the market (and thus interest in) African art forwards.

 

double Baule mask Ivory Coast Verité Sotheby's Bruno Claessens review

Object of the day: a Guro/Bete mask by the ‘Master of Gonate’

Bete Mask Master of Gonate Ivory Coast

Another auction surprise – this time from December last year. The above Guro/Bete mask by the so-called ‘Master of Gonate’ was offered for sale as the only African lot in a general auction in Paris. Notwithstanding it being an important rediscovery the mask was only estimated € 40,000-60,000. Mounted on a signed Inagaki base, it is assumed it probably once belonged to Paul Guillaume. The mask came from the collection of Laurent d’Albis, who had bought it from Charles Ratton. It sold for € 480,000, yes that much.

Since there is still a lot of discussion about this ‘Master (or better Masters) of Gonate’ it is very interesting to read the text by Bertrand Goy, an expert on art of Ivory Coast, that accompanied this lot in the catalogue (unfortunately no English translation is available):

Cet important témoignage de l’art Bété de Côte d’Ivoire fait partie d’un très cours corpus de six masques sculptés par le même artiste vers la fin du XIXe siècle. Au sein de cet ensemble il se distingue par d’exceptionnelles qualités plastiques et des solutions artistiques lui conférant sensibilité et émotion alliées à la rigeur d’un style personnel parfaitement maîtrisé. A ce titre il mérite d’être aujourd’hui considéré comme la réalisation la plus aboutie de celui qui a été baptisé «le maître de Gonate» et sa redécouverte aujourd’hui peut être considérée comme un important évènement pour la connaissance des arts de la Côte d’Ivoire. La qualité exceptionnelle du masque décrit dans ces lignes est aussi incontestable que l’identité de son auteur, le «maître de Gonaté», est hypothétique. Le choix d’associer un style sculptural à ce village gouro au seul prétexte de sa proximité géographique avec la ville bété de Daloa révèle la perplexité des observateurs quant à l’origine de ce type d’oeuvres: Gouro, Bété, Gouro-Bété? Les rares témoignages anciens concernant des masques de morphologie approchante désignent pourtant un centre de style plus méridional, aux marches Est du territoire bété. La confusion toutefois s’explique: de longue date, le pays bété a été traité comme un parent pauvre. La littérature a durablement ignoré ce groupe, deuxième ethnie du pays, installé au plus profond d’un territoire sylvestre du centre de la Côte d’Ivoire, à l’ouest du fleuve Sassandra. Dans un triangle dont les sommets sont Soubré au sud-ouest, Daloa au Nord et Gagnoa à l’est, des populations de langue krou isolées dans leurs forêts denses vivaient de collecte et de chasse avant que l’exploitation du cacao puis du café ne s’y développe de manière intensive. Dès les premiers instants de la conquête, les militaires relevèrent l’incroyable mosaïque ethnique composant cet empire du milieu aux frontières floues, constat relayé par les grands africanistes Delafosse ou Tauxier et plus récemment Jean Pierre Dozon. Le grossier découpage du pays, parfois directement calqué sur le déploiement des troupes de «pacification», créa des entités telles que «les Bété de Gagnoa paraissaient plus proches des Gban et des Dida voisins (notamment sur le plan socio-culturel et linguistique) que des Bété de Daloa.» À fortiori, leur production artistique connaîtra longtemps semblable ostracisme. Seul, Eckart von Sidow, en 1930, utilise le vieux terme de «Shien» pour qualifier un masque originaire de la région; L’ethnologue Denise Paulme, 32 ans plus tard, décrète «l’absence de masques» chez les Bété peu de temps avant que William Fagg ne convoque opportunément le groupe pour faire l’appoint de ses Cent tribus, 100 chefs-d’oeuvre. En 1968, dans son ouvrage L’Art nègre, Pierre Meauzé, pourtant fondateur en 1942 du musée de l’IFAN à Abidjan, présente un masque bété sous la dénomination Dan. Cet incompréhensible malentendu contribuera à créditer l’ensemble des oeuvres produites dans cette zone intermédiaire à leurs voisins plus connus. A l’ouest, les masques expressionnistes terrifiants et guerriers, évoquant irrésistiblement un mempo japonais ou le casque de Dark Vador, ont longtemps été attribués aux Guéré (Wé); il faudra attendre Bohumil Holas pour rendre aux Bété la paternité de ces masques glé de la région de Daloa. En revanche, pour l’ancien conservateur du musée d’Abidjan, à l’est, rien de nouveau: les masques anthropomorphes plus figuratifs et apaisés du Cercle de Gagnoa continuent à être concédés aux Gouro. Ces représentations partagent un indéniable air de famille. Leur caractère «ataviqu» le plus remarquable est un front très ample et dégagé, traversé verticalement en son centre par une longue ligne chéloïdienne. S’y ajoutent une coiffure élégamment ordonnée, impeccablement plaquée aux tempes, des yeux aux paupières lourdes soulignées d’un réseau de rides, un nez un peu épaté et aux narines marquées, inscrit dans un triangle. D’une façon générale, le facies humain de ces masques tend à un réalisme excluant le plus souvent l’adjonction de caractères zoomorphes comme c’est le cas chez les Gouro. Chacun de ses éléments pris individuellement ne sont pas l’exclusivité des Bété, ils peuvent se retrouver chez les voisins dan ou gouro; conjointement, ils désignent une région située à l’est du territoire bété. Au nord de la zone, sur un axe Sintra-Gagnoa (précisément dans le canton Zédi, sous préfecture de Bayota), le tchèque Golovin avait collecté dans les années 1930 quelques masques au front hypertrophié, désormais au musée Naprstek de Prague. Plus au Sud, l’adjudant Filloux ramassa un double du mythique masque de Tzara non loin de Gagnoa alors qu’en 1913 il «actionnait» le nord-ouest du secteur dida, autour de Sikiso, dont seraient originaires les voisins Bété paccola et zabia. Bien plus tôt encore, l’administrateur Thomann, explorateur pionnier du pays bété au tournant du XXe siècle et fondateur de ses premiers postes, avait collecté des masques de ce type. Au sein de cette famille recomposée, le style dit de «Gonaté» constitue un sous-ensemble très uniforme de taille et d’apparence. Limité à six exemplaires connus à ce jour, la plupart ont transité par les prestigieuses collections de Han Coray ou du baron von der Heydt et sont désormais propriété de musées suisses. Quelques traits particuliers permettent de les distinguer: sommet du front abruptement interrompu par un plan horizontal, oreilles stylisées en forme de faucille, bouche plus réaliste et harmonieuse que celle du modèle de référence, joues parfois scarifiées de signes cabalistiques. Le haut du visage se cache derrière ce qui s’apparente au traditionnel accessoire du carnaval vénitien ou protège le gentleman cambrioleur: le sculpteur a t’il voulu renforcer l’anonymat du danseur en empilant masque sur masque ? Des quelques exemplaires issus de cet atelier, l’oeuvre présentée ici est sans doute le modèle le plus réussi. Le sillon du philtrum légèrement marqué met en valeur le contour de la bouche et les lèvres sensuelles et finement ourlées, des lignes concentriques, assorties à celles délimitant la coiffure, dessinent un loup posé sur un nez épaté sans excès; la parfaite proportion entre haut et bas du visage évite l’outrance; le crâne suit la courbe naturelle du front sans être interrompu par ce brutal pan coupé caractérisant certains spécimens de la famille, réplique de la brosse adoptée par Boris Karloff pour son meilleur rôle. La belle patine brune, les traces d’usure au revers, les trous d’attache pour coiffe et barbe forés au feu de part et d’autre conformément à la tradition, disent l’ancienneté de ce masque. Posé sur son socle de Kichizo Inagaki, il nous entraine dans une période pionnière de l’Art Nègre, celle où son propriétaire courait les galeries avec un parent, Franck Burty Haviland, photographe ayant fait partie du premier cercle d’Alfred Stieglitz et d’Alfred De Zayas. Époque également où le galeriste Han Coray fut l’acquéreur avéré d’au moins la moitié de cette série de masques. Dès leur première exposition d’Art Nègre, à New York en 1914 pour Stieglitz, à Zurich en 1917 pour Coray et Tsara, le fournisseur commun avait nom Paul Guillaume. Il est raisonnable de penser que l’arrivée en France d’un ensemble aussi cohérent date des années où le marchand avait transformé en collecteurs des officiers d’Infanterie coloniale chargés de mettre la Côte d’Ivoire à «résipiscence» avant que la guerre de 14 ne les rappelle tous sur le front.

ps in 2013 Sotheby’s New York offered a mask by the Master of Gonate at an estimate of € 46K-70K (info), it sold for € 87,420; Christie’s Paris sold a mask attributed to the Masters of Gonate (note the plural) for € 26,650 in 2007, and a horned mask from the same workshop in 2003 for $ 28K.

Record price for the André Breton Guro mask

Image courtesy of Tajan.

Image courtesy of Tajan.

Andre Breton’s Guro mask (previously discussed here) did very well last Wednesday in Paris. Estimated at € 100.000-150.000 it sold for € 1.375.000,- (costs included) – a world record for a work of art of the Guro. Apparently, this mask was found in an estate in the South of France; that’s how it ended up at Tajan. The idea of having an auction especially for this mask  definitely payed off. I think this was the first single-object sale in the African art world ever – and maybe not the last? The well written text by Bertrand Goy certainly helped, but it was of course the western segment of this mask’s history that skyrocketed the price. But even without it’s provenance, it is a gem of an object.

Image courtesy of Tajan.

Image courtesy of Tajan.

Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Image courtesy of Tajan.

Image courtesy of Tajan.

Subject of an upcoming single-object auction, the above Guro mask might so far be one of the most important rediscoveries of 2014. It was published only once, by Nancy Cunard, in Negro: Anthology (London, 1934, p. 663). This rare book recently was the subject of an exhibition at the quai Branly museum (info). Formerly in the collections of André Breton & Charles Ratton, this mask disappeared from the public eye since 1931. It’s reappearance on the market, after being ‘lost’ for more than 80 years, is thus quite an exciting event. You can read all about the mask in the catalogue here. The text by Bertrand Goy includes a very interesting paragraph (in French) on the Guro, the history of their discovery and this master carver.

As icing on the cake, this mask is visible on two photos taken in the apartment of André Breton, rue Fontaine, ca. 1924 and ca. 1927.

UPDATE: this mask was sold for € 1.375.000,- !

Bouafle mask ches Breton 1924

Buafle mask at Andre Breton 1927

Crowned by a lovingly embracing couple, this mask can be attributed to the so-called ‘Master of Bouaflé’. The choice of this village for naming this talented sculptor happened quite arbitrary apparently. Bouaflé or Buafle is a town in the southeastern part of the Guro territory, close to the Yaure border. However, it’s not sure that this artist, active prior to 1920, ever lived there. Though many works of this ‘master’ are known, only one other mask of this specific type exists. Housed at the Yale University Art Gallery, it is however difficult to attribute this mask definitely to the same artist since it lacks the same refinement and is partly repainted.

Guro mask. Image courtesye of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Guro mask. Image courtesye of the Yale University Art Gallery.

UPDATE: now also with video..

African forms @ Bonhams NY, 15 May 2013

As already mentioned in my previous post, the last Bonhams sale in NY featured a lot of leftovers from the collection of Marc & Denyze Ginzberg.

The most important part of this famed collection was sold by Sotheby’s Paris on 10 September 2007 . In New York, Jacaranda also has been offering objects of daily use with the noted Ginzberg provenance. And now, Bonhams sold another 100 pieces. To my suprise many below the estimate .

For attentive buyers there were some interesting bargains to be made; some examples:

– a Banyambo spear, published in African forms, sold for only $ 3,750 inc. premium. Note that Sotheby’s sold a similar spear from the Ginzberg collection in 2007 for € 12,000 inc. premium.

Banyambo Spear Bonhams

– a wonderful Guro spoon (incorrectly listed as Dan in the catalogue) sold for only $ 600 inc. premium.

Guro spoon Bonhams

Three whistles selling for $ 250 inc premium is just ridiculous – that’s even lower than regular prices on Ebay.

Ginzberg whistles

– a personal favourite was this double miniature Lega stool. A very rare find, for $ 875 inc. premium almost for free.

Lega stool Bonhams

– the Igbo stool featured on the front cover of the African forms addendum made $ 1,125 inc. premium.

Igbo stool

Some objects even failed to sell, for example this wonderful Zulu pipe:

Zulu pipe

(all images courtesy of Bonhams)

So who’s to blame ? A disinterested public ? Bonhams, for not creating enough fuzz about these objects ? The end of the ‘African forms’ hype ? Or, again, the economic crisis ?