Auction review: Sotheby’s NY – May 16, 2013


The Sotheby’s May 16 African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art sale in New York, fueled by a handful of outstanding offerings, maintained the upwardly momentum of the African art market, racking up more than $ 7 million with many new records.

From the 119 African art lots, 41 (or 34,5 %) failed to find buyers. From the 78 sold lots, 16 sold under the estimate, 27 within the estimate range and 35 items sold above the estimate; many of them skyrocketing above the pre-sale estimates.

The Babanki elephant mask (one of the better ones known) (Est. $ 60-90K) sold for $ 173K, a very good deal. An unpublished Dogon dog (Est. $ 70-100K) sold for $ 185K. A Guro-Bete mask by the master of Gonate (est. $ 60-90K) pulled $ 112,5K. The heavily promoted Eket headdress doubled its lowest estimate and sold for $ 815K, a record for an Eket sculpture, though the expectations for it were even higher. A well patinated Oyo ibeji pair also doubled its estimate and sold for $ 11K.

A personal favourite, a one of a kind Ijebu Yoruba terracotta headdress (est. $ 60-90K) sold for $ 167K, a defendable price. The two other terracotta figures from this workshop are currently on view at the Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa exhitibion at the National Museum of African Art. The Mambila figure from the Franklin colllection didn’t caused a stir, selling at the low estimate for $ 485K. The Sherbro helmet mask sold for a fivefold of its estimate at $ 40K; no suprise seen its counterpart in the Metropolitan. The Yoruba equestrian figure, selling for $ 155K, was one of the suprises of the auction (with an estimate of $ 20-30K). I’m very happy to see that Yoruba art finally gets the credit is deserves in the highest regions of the market. Also the next lot, an Ifa divination bowl, followed this trend and sold for $ 81K.

For me personally, the winner in this sale was the Bamileke figural post with an incredible dynamic composition. For $ 365K (est. $ 70-80K) you got three figures for the price of one. Four successive Gabonese objects failed to sell (a toilet break halfway the sale?): a Fang figure (lot 128), a Mahongwe reliquary (lot 129), a Fang head (lot 130) and a Fang mask (lot 131), while a Kota reliquary figure with a pre-sale estimate of $ 10-15K sold for $ 293K.

An “ex Tristan Tzara” Kongo figure sold for $ 68K, a very good deal. A last big suprise, a Songye figure with a masked face, collected in 1972, found a new home for $ 179K (with an estimate of $ 15-25K). The strange ‘Star Wars’-style Lega figure tripled its lowest estimate, selling for $ 197K and lastly a bone Lega spoon (est. $ 12-18K) sold for $ 81K, no suprise seen its unique combination of anthropomorphic and zoomporphic features.

This sale, again, proved that the market for top level African art is still very strong and competitive, while average or “boring” objects tend to remain unsold or sell below the low estimate.


(all images courtesy of Sotheby’s)