Auction review: Christie’s Paris – June 19, 2013

Senufo bird Bartos Christie's

The June 19, 2013 auction at Christie’s had a couple of major museum quality objects, such as the Baga snake on the front cover, but it also has a wide range of interesting and good works that carried very reasonable estimates. 79 of the 132 objects (or 60 %) were sold. With a sale total (including buyer’s premium) of € 4,723.755,- for the 79 sold lots, it equalled Sotheby’s with a total of € 3,475.050,- for 56 lots with the average price/lot (ca. € 60K). Seen the intensified competition between the two auction houses, a praiseworthy result – but not a success.

Objects from the Celeste and Armand Bartos collection offered a couple of great opportunities for connoisseurs with a bit of money. My personal favourite was the Senufo bird (pictured above). Estimated at € 20-30K, it sold to a private collector for only € 32K. Its strong lines and abstraction for me made it the best example of the Bartos’s refined taste. In the catalogue we read:

In the assemblage of the pure forms seen on the Bartos Senufo bird – the oval in high relief upon a square – surmounted by the curved, tapering head offers the essential spirit of the gliding bird. It is clear in this sculpture the inspiration of modern artists, like Brancusi or Jean Arp, in the realization of many of their sculptures.

Clearly appealing to their sophisticated feeling for line and form, the Senufo bird held a prominent place for many years in the Bartos’s collection. In the early 1960’s we see it near Miro’s Le Port (1945) which they acquired from Pierre Matisse and juxtaposed to Arp’s polished bronze (x) tbc. Later, the Senufo bird could be found prominently in their foyer, next to Noguchi’s Untitled (1968) in stone and wood – always the first piece they saw when they entered their home.

The biggest suprise from the Bartos collection (and in the sale alltogether) was the squatting Dogon figure. Estimated between € 30-50K, it realized a record price of € 601K selling to a collector from Qatar. Everybody predicted a strong result for this exquisite miniature, but this result was clearly beyond expectations. Other highlights from the Bartos collection were a Kongo figure selling for € 97K (though mainly covered with European nails), a rare Bamana staff (€ 16K) and a Fang head exhibited in New York in 1935 (€ 337K). The centerpiece of their small collection was of course the Baga snake, which tripled its lower estimate, selling for € 2,337.500,-. In a recent mailing Christie’s advertised this result as a “world auction record for a Baga work”, apparently forgetting the Baga serpent from the Dinhofer collection that was sold by Sotheby’s NY for 3,3 million dollars in 2008 (currently € 2,5 million). Nevertheless, they do mention it in the catalogue note:

The majority of exceptional examples among these sculptures, the Bartos serpent among them, were collected by Hélène and Henri Kamer in the 1950s, and are now held in the greatest museums in the world. Among the eight snakes collected by the Kamers are: one belonging to the Musée du Quai Branly, now exhibited in the Pavillon des Sessions (Louvre, Paris, 71.1989.49.1), it was given to the museum by Jacques Lazard under Hélène (Kamer) Leloup’s instigation; another one from the Menil Collection in Houston (V9009), two other examples from the Metropolitan Museum of New York (1978.206.101 and 1978.412.339) formerly in the Rockefeller collection, another snake sold by Leloup to the American director, John Huston, and finally, the one formerly part of the Pierre Matisse collection, now in a private collection (see Sotheby’s, 16 May 2008, lot 58). For other similar snakes, see: the Geneva Barbier-Mueller Museum figure; the Cleveland Museum of Art example (1960.37) published in Robbins and Nooter (1989 fig.247); and the Rietberg Museum figure in Zurich, acquired from Emil Storrer.

Hélène Leloup recently recalled the specific circumstances under which she collected the Bartos serpent: When she arrived in Guinea in 1957, she and Henri Kamer settled in Boke. Over the course of 10 days she visited the Baga and Nalu territories. Searching for snakes. The Bartos snake was found toward the end of 1957 in a Guinea village then referred to as Victoria, today Kanfarandé. At the time, because it is situated at the mouth of the Rio Nuez River, this village had different names depending of the ethnical origin of the speakers. At low tide, she went via canoe up the river, which was bordered by mangroves, and she could see frightened crocodiles were escaping and dashing into the water. The return was very dangerous as the tide was high, and the waves became stronger causing the canoe to heave to and fro as it was very heavy with passengers – both objects and people (Leloup, personal communication, Paris, March 27, 2013).

A second private collection offered in this sale, from the American performer Andy Williams, didn’t bring as much suprises. The Igbo couple for example was sold for half the estimate (€ 47K) – probably due to its post-1920 creation date. From the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago a Baga headdress (lot 61), estimated at € 400-800K, failed to sell. Both objects illustrate that the dedication of several pages in the auction catalogue to one specific lot (eight for the Baga!) doesn’t always pay off. The six pages praising the Epstein Dogon figure (lot 93, est. € 300-500K) also didn’t help. Two last important objects that remained unsold were the Bahan royal commemorative group (lot 122, est. € 250-350K) and the Ndengse figure (lot 127, est. € 150-250K). For me, this indicates the current markets concentration on esthetics rather than history and provenance.

Dogon figure Bartos Christie's

(all images courtesy of Christie’s)