Auctions Discoveries Objects

A Ga’anda shrine vessel from Nigeria

(image courtesy of Native)
(image courtesy of Native)

The next Native auction in Brussels features a rare Ga’anda shrine vessel from Nigeria.

This terracotta vessel came on the market in NY in 1999 together with a very similar example. The current owner acquired this one and suggested Robert Rubin to acquire the other*, which he did. (*sold by Sotheby’s in 2010)

(image courtesy of Sotheby's)
(image courtesy of Sotheby’s)

Possibly, both figures thus once belonged to the same shrine. Marla C. Berns in 1989 wrote an excellent article on these vessels and the ceramic art in the Gongola valley. This article contains some wonderful field-photos of such shrines.

Ga'anda shrine interior with two mbirhlen'nda (front) and sambarca, all elevated in broken pottery necks, February 1981. Image courtesy of Marla Berns.
Ga’anda shrine interior with two mbirhlen’nda (front) and sambarca, all elevated in broken pottery necks, February 1981. Image courtesy of Marla Berns.

Mbirhlen’nda is the spirit, regarded as best able to protect and sustain health and prosperity. The dense application of small clay pellets on mbirhlen’nda may be sculptural equivalents of the rows of raises “dots” resulting from scarification incisions. However they may more literally refer to the skin diseases the spirit is said to inflict on those who disobey codes of Ga’anda behaviour and morality. Like ngum-ngumi, mbirhlen’nda protects Ga’anda civilisation.

Part three of Central Nigeria Unmasked. Arts of the Benue River Valley goes into more detail on the sculptural ceramic vessels of this region. Read more about it here or watch a slideshow with more fieldphotos of Marla C. Berns here.

Auctions Discoveries Objects Research

The Kanda-Kanda workshop of the Kanyok

The next Zemanek sale features a rare Kanyok bowl bearer from the Kanda-Kanda workshop.

Zemanek Kanyok bowlbearer
(image courtesy of Zemanek)

This seated bowl bearer (kabila mboko) can be compared to similar examples in the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin (collected by Frobenius in 1904) and MRAC (acquired before 1918).
Kanioka Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin
(image courtesy of SMPK)
Kanyok Tervuren
(image courtesy of MRAC)

In November 2006, Sotheby’s NY sold a a rare couple from the Kanda-Kanda workshop from the William Brill collection for $ 273K. The auction catalogue featured a very interesting analysis of this particular style by Rik Ceyssens:

The style of the Brill Kanyok couple historically has been categorized as a ‘substyle’ largely concerning wood sculpture coming from Kanda-Kanda, a colonial administrative post situated in the northern outskirts of the Kanyok kingdom. This assumption was based primarily on some of the early writings of Frans Olbrechts who saw Kanyok works of art as a regional offshoot of the large-scale and far-reaching Luba style. However, his conclusions were based on a morphological analysis, rather than actual field information. Later, in 1955, Bert Maesen, Olbrecht’s former assistant, and by this time curator at the Tervuren Museum, was one of the first to do substantial field work in Mulund and in Kaatshisung, two political centers in Kanyok territory.

The earliest first-hand 19 century information on Kanyok art is based on the Michaux expedition (February–August 1896). After visiting the Luba and Ruund capitals successively, he traveled north, traversing Kanyok land and acquiring artifacts. The members of the expedition stayed in Kanda-Kanda for four days (May 22 until May 26). At this time, Oscar Michaux collected some of the most cherished Kanyok treasures in the Tervuren Museum, but none in the so-called Kanda-Kanda style.

In 1902, the Tervuren Museum received the first Kanda-Kanda style artefact, a ‘chaise pliante sculptée par les natifs de Kanda-Kanda (tribu des Bena-Kanioka)’ sent by Alexandre Pimpurniaux, commissaire de district in Lusambo (accession number EO.0.0.16168) (D.E. 13). Works in the Kanda-Kanda style could pre-date 1902, but this date together with the 1896 Michaux expedition date and collecting information give a relatively strong argument for the beginning timeframe of the Kanda-Kanda style: it was not yet operational in 1896 and fully operational before 1902. Although Maesen did not work in Kanda-Kanda, most of what we know today about Kanda-Kanda art is due to his fieldwork. During lectures on the radio (1967), he mentioned ‘tourist art’ offered at the Kanda-Kanda market, as indicated by archives (Tervuren Museum: R.T.B./Interview). I tried in vain to recover these precious document(s). Possibly, Maesen alluded to a 1950 article in L’éventail about a newly acquired wooden bowl in the Kanda-Kanda fashion (EO.1948.3.1) said to initially have been purchased in 1918 at the Kanda-Kanda market. However, this bowl was clearly used and could have been in the market place in the personal possession of its owner, and not for sale. Informed by Maesen’s research, Cornet dates the Kanda-Kanda “pseudo-style”, as he calls it, to the end of the 19th century (1972: 236–237; 1974: 132–134; 1975: 55). In 1987, Koloss learned from Maesen about a ‘workshop operating in the vicinity of Kandakanda in the first two decades of this [20th] century’ (Nooter and Koloss in Koloss 1990: 64).

Finally, in 1985, I myself twice interviewed several dignitaries at the court of Kanda-Kanda when I learned of Kadyaat-Kalool(-aa-Bineen) (d. 1920), the Manindak and titular wood carver of the Kanda-Kanda chief Kabw-Mukalang(-aa-Seey) (1894/96 – 1941/42) (Ceyssens 1990: 16–17).

Contrary to what may have been supposed based on the thematic choices and stylistic qualities of his work, Kadyaat was not a Chokwe migrant, neither a slave, nor a wandering trader. He was an ordinary indigenous Kanyok, installed as Manindak at a regional court, as a minor dignitary or technician, who never made it to one of the central Kanyok courts such as Mulund or Kaatshisung. He was able to develop his talents in combination with what were already multicultural surroundings in 1897 at Kanda-Kanda and its open market conditions. In addition, the open-mindedness of his first and formal employer, chief Kabw-Mukalang(aa-Seey) stimulated his work. Kadyaat, who died around 1920. His successor at the court of Kabw-Mukalang–Kabuya-wa-Biyombo (Bakwa Tembo, Myabi zone), though good enough as a Manindak, did not excel as a wood carver.

Brill Kanioka figures Kanda-Kanda
(image courtesy of Sotheby’s)

The Brill ‘couple’ is fully representative of Kadyaat’s personal style, and there is nothing “pseudo” about it! The particular bearing, resting in a squatting position, in real life, a relatively frequent one. As seen in Kadyaat’s œuvre, he has an anecdotal mind and in this case, the Brill couple, in the same posture, with their heads tilted at the exact angle and their eyes likewise fixed on the same point, Kadyaat indeed seems to be borrowing from the natural human interactions of his surroundings. At the same time, however, the couple here could be perceived as standing upright, the lower limbs being telescoped, as if seen from above, which is a common device in the canon of Central-African art. Moreover, the unisex coiffure is the Kanda-Kanda version of the traditional mafwifw hair style. The woman’s scarifications on the lower abdomen show that Kadyaat’s œuvre is still rooted in classic Kanyok art: I refer to the splendid caryatid stool collected by Michaux in 1896 (EO.0.0.23478) (Ceyssens 2001: cat. 87). Could it be that the smirking open mouth is Kadyaat’s personal trademark? In fact, some would say, the grin somehow echoes the mouth of Songye sculpture. In my opinion, the wide-open mouth can be retraced more closely to southeastern Kete and even Salampasu influence. In Kadyaat, we see an artist who is working within the artistic canons of Kanyok art, and Central African art in general, but he has chosen to incorporate his own perspective and idiosyncrasies to create a unique artistic sensibility.

Kanioka 376 Zemanek
(image courtesy of Zemanek)

Auctions Discoveries Objects

Auction find: a Koro ngamdak headdress from Nigeria

Koro Ngamdak
Image courtesy of Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou


An interesting discovery in a small auction in Paris, a Koro ngamdak headdress from Nigeria.

The Koro make these headdresses for themselves and for the Ham (Jaba), and probably also for the Kagoro, Kaje and Kamantam, as their religion and art are rather similar. The mask is the principal one, representing the ‘mother spirit’ of the tribe, in the dances held on the occasion of the spring sowing and the autumn harvest. An eyewitness account of the autumn celebration of 1949 at the Ham village of Nok (after which the ancient terracotta culture is named) follows.

The ceremonies began with some fearsome, faceless bush spirits to frighten and warm up the populace, then the warriors danced with long obsolete shields and the hunters mimed a hunt (including a man wearing the burtu hornbill headdress and crouching on all fours); finally, a troupe of dancers representing the able-bodied young men of the tribe with abstract headpieces danced vigorously around two tall figures, the mother spirits with turreted headdresses and dressed in great tent-like painted fibre growns. They would twirl around so that the gowns filled out majestically, and every few minutes would envelop one of the young men in a motherly embrace. Thus was the benevolence of the ancestors sought for the work of the year.

Source: William Fagg in Christie’s, London, 8 November 1977. Lot 218.

Copyright William Fagg - RAI, London (021.WBF.
Copyright William Fagg – RAI, London (021.WBF.

UPDATE: In the next Zemanek sale another type of Koro dance crest (labeled nyamfaik) can be found: lot 257.
Koro nyamfaik Zemanek
(image courtesy of Zemanek)


Charles Ratton. The invention of the “primitive” arts at Musée du quai Branly

Opening June 25th and running until September 22, the Paris Musée du quai Branly presents an exhibition on Charles Ratton (1895-1986).

Charles Ratton. The invention of the “primitive” arts wishes to highlight the view of Charles Ratton, an expert, dealer and collector who changed the history of the way “primitive” art was received, by promoting objects which moved away from the taste for “negro” art that had prevailed up to that time.

Charles Ratton Quai Branly

His close involvement in the museum world and his scientific curiosity, shown in the richness of his archives, helped his expertise to flourish. His activities as an expert, and the exhibitions he organised, contributed to the shift in status of works from Africa, America and Oceania: from anthropological study objects to works of art in the 1930s, then masterpieces in the 1960s, in France but also in the United States.

The portrayal of his links with the artists (the Surrealists, Dubuffet) and photography (“documentary” and artistic photography: Man Ray) helps to highlight this shift towards art and history. The exhibition of objects from the “Early Periods” enables us to appreciate the nuances and context of Charles Ratton’s taste for objects which were ultimately an “entertainment” for him, the earlier illuminating the later and vice versa.

Charles Ratton

Auctions Research

Baba Magba ibeji

image courtesy of Sotheby's
image courtesy of Sotheby’s

In the Sotheby’s May 16 African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art sale in New York last week four Yoruba female ere ibeji from Nigeria were presented without any contextual information. Nevertheless, this particular style is easily recognizable by its formal characteristics. A short little nose is always positioned high between the lozenge-shaped eyes. From a frontal view, the ears are not visible. They are positioned to the head’s rear and have a quite particular form. The simple hairdo transitions fluently with the face, and consists of different conical volumes. Female ibeji from Baba Magba have low-placed breasts, often reaching down to navel level. The legs stand spread apart, with feet up to the edge of a rounded rectangular base.

According to William Fagg, these ibeji come from Baba-Magba, that he alternately described as a village in the vicinity of Ilorin or as an outer district of the same locality (Christie’s, 13 June 1978, lot 261 & Christie’s, 10 November 1981, lot 186). Equally, Baba Magba was also the title of the chief priest of the Shango cult, who had his seat in Oyo. So it is possible that the name is a commemoration denoting that at one time a Baba Magba came from this village (Fagg in Christie’s, 13 June 1978, lot 261). Fagg identified this style on the basis of an ibeji collected in 1912 in the collection of the World Museum (part of the National Museums) in Liverpool (# Stoll & Stoll attribute them to an Igbomina sculptor (Stoll (Gert & Mareidi), Ibeji, Zwillingsfiguren der Yoruba, Munich, 1980: p. 309, #209), and according to Fausto Polo this well-known type of ibeji originates from Offa (Igbomina) (Polo (Fausto) & David (Jean), Ibeji. Catalogue des ibeji, Zürich, 2001:#905).

The master-sculptor who invented this style was active during the last-quarter of the 19th century, something attested to in a female ibeji that was collected between November 1896 and April 1897 by Major-General Sir Cecil Pereira (Christie’s, 13 June 1978, lot 261). This artist was very active and probably established a prolific workshop. Many comparable ibeji in this unique style are known and they were still seen in the field until the 1980s, as shown in this field-photo by Deborah Stokes.

Ramanu Iyanda holding a pair of ere ibeji representing the younger sisters of his father, Jimoh Ajadi. Said to be carved by his grandfather, Yesafu Amuda. Town of Somodero, Olondi compound, Oyo State, Nigeria, 1980. Photo courtesy of Deborah Stokes.
Ramanu Iyanda holding a pair of ere ibeji representing the younger sisters of his father, Jimoh Ajadi. Said to be carved by his grandfather, Yesafu Amuda. Town of Somodero, Olondi compound, Oyo State, Nigeria, 1980. Photo courtesy of Deborah Stokes.

UPDATE: William Fagg revised his attribution of this style a bit in 1984; he now stated this pairs as coming “from south of Ilorin” and gave this specific information: This style is a variant of one of which an example was acquired early in the century by Liverpool Museum, identified as from Baba Magba : this has recently been located as a ward in the town of Ilorin, to which it may be assumed that the style extended. However two years ago ibeji researchers found an old carver of another variant of the style living in a village 30 or 40 miles down the southward road. This variant could well be to the south-east in the direction of Igbomina. (source: Christie’s, London, 10 April 1984. Lot 88. & Christie’s, London, 14 December 1984. Lot 116.)
(Thanks Fausto Polo for the reference!)


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)

Publications Research

Among the primitive Bakongo (Weeks, 1914)

A very informative book with some great field-photos, available for free here (20 MB, file info).

Among the primitive Bakongo (Weeks, 1914)

As read here, more old publications on African art are downloadable in pdf-format on the website of the Cultural Heritage Library of the Smithsonian Libraries.

We’ve been building this Congolese collection at the Warren M. Robbins Library for 33 years and are pleased to be able to share it with scholars and students globally, especially those living and working on the continent of Africa, where none of these books are likely to be found. Of particular interest is the set entitled Congo illustré, which contains historical photographs of Congolese society, Belgian colonial & missionary enterprises, and flora & fauna.

Their database can be searched here.


Neumeister 15 May 2013

Two personal favourites from the last Neumeister auction (which was not very succesful, to be polite).

A fine ere ibeji pair in a known style that sold for € 4,500.

Ibeji pair Neumeister

To quote myself from my book on ibeji:

Ibeji of this type (with protruding lozenge-shaped eyes and a low-set pointed mouth), are described in the literature as originating from various Igbomina villages and cities. Similar examples have been found in Oro (25 km. to the north of Ila-Orangun), Ijomu-Oro (a few kilometers northeast of Oro), Esie (2 km. to the southeast of Oro), Oke-Onigbin (15 km. east of Oro and half-way to Omu-Aran), Ijara-Isin (5 kilometers northeast of Oke-Onigbin) and Omu-Aran (30 km. northeast of Ila-Orangun). In the circular area so described, Oke-Onigbin is centrally positioned, making this well-known artists’ village a plausible place of origin for this ibeji type. George Chemeche, with his diplomatic description ‘Oro/Omu-Aran region’, has provided the most accurate attribution for this local Igbomina sub-style.

And a fantastic Swazi headrest, which sold for only € 900.
Swazi headrest Neumeister

(all images courtesy of Neumeister)


The Cobbs, 27 April 2013 – a Mende sleeper

Under the direction of Scott Rodolitz this New Hampshire auction house recently had its first African art sale. You can download the catalogue here.

Of particular importance in this auction was a rare Mende staff with an early documented provenance. It was brought to Canada from Africa by Capt. J.L. Boddy and presented to E.D. Manchee in 1907 (as stated by his 1925 will). Only a handful of these staffs are currently known, most of them being much younger than this one. It sold for $ 10,800.

Mende staff Cobbs
Mende staff Cobbs head

UPDATE: Christie’s will be selling another early collected (ca. 1885) Mende staff next month.

In the same auction two nice Nupe posts (mounted upside down) remained unsold with an estimate of $ 900- 1,200.

Nupe posts Cobbs

(all images courtesy of The Cobbs)


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 ?