Ere Ibeji lecture (Katlijk, 7 July 2013)

African Sunday Katlijk

If you are in the neighborhood, I will be giving a lecture on my ibeji book Sunday July 7 at Gallery de Ruijter-van Santen in Katlijk, The Netherlands. I will be speaking at 14pm. At 11am, the 12th African Sunday starts with a lecture on Madagascar grave poles by Anno Fokkinga. Ursula Voorhuis, famed for her comprehensive Yoruba collection, will also be exhibiting 50 objects from her collection. More information on the program can be found here.

Fairs Objects

Bruneaf XXIII souvenir

Mangbetu knife Bruno Claessens 2

A new addition to my private collection, a Mangbetu knife with an ivory handle (height: 24cm). Acquired from Bruno Frey, it belongs to a rare type with the lower part of the blade in the form of an abstract anthropomorphic figure – I find it absolutely fantastic.

Mangbetu knife Bruno Claessens 3
Mangbetu knife Bruno Claessens 1


Iba Ndiaye drawing of a Yombe figure

Iba Ndiaye - Untitled Sketchbook, 1993 (image courtesy of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta)
Iba Ndiaye – Untitled Sketchbook, 1993 (image courtesy of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta)

A wonderful drawing by Iba Ndiaye which I just discovered in the online presentation of the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (here).

Included in this small sketchbook is a drawing of a nineteenth-century Kongo sculpture from the Yombe region of central Africa, in the collection of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian (see below). This drawing was made during the artist’s 1993 visit to Washington, D.C., where he made sketches and notes on numerous artworks ranging from ancient Minoan sculpture to works by Titian, Bellini, Van Dyck, Bacon, and de Kooning. All together, this small, 100 page notebook, originally purchased in the shop at the National Gallery (as evidenced by the dated receipt contained within) includes sixty-five sketches and notes.

(image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., USA)
(image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., USA)
News Publications

Free African art books from the Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is offering free downloads of many of their out-of-print catalogues and art books here. Among them many titles on African art:

Art of the Dogon: Selections from the Lester Wunderman Collection

Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection

Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture

For Spirits and Kings: African Art from the Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection

Happy downloading !


Ere Ibeji exhibition view

I was glad to see so many returning visitors this second day of the exhibition. More pictures coming soon, but already one teaser.

Ere Ibeji exhibition Bruno Claessens

Auctions Objects

An Ishan figure from Nigeria

One of the sleepers in the last Sotheby’s sale in NY was this wonderful Ishan figure.

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

The iconography of two vertically stacked figures, in a “piggyback” positon, is frequently seen carved in relief on Ishan doors, but is comparatively rare in post figures. Regarding the significance of this iconography, Lorenz (1995) notes: “The piggyback figure is a multivalent image referring in a general sense to the stratification of Ishan society, in which some men are supported while others bear the burden. It also refers specifically to the former practice of the Enijie [kings] and warrior chiefs (Ekakulo, sing. Okakulo) who went to battle carried on the shoulders of a slave or orderly (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, Correspondence, 28 November 1983). Their elevated position allowed them to conserve energy, survey the battlefield, and issue clearly visible directives to their troops. Human porters were more accessible and reliable than horses, which do not survive long in the tsetse fly infested forests. The piggyback image is, therefore, probably more realisitic than the equestrian warrior (which also appears in Ishan doors), and is favored because of its polysemous nature. The piggyback image also refers to the ujie dance, part of the Ishan first burial ceremony, in which leadership in warfare is an important theme. During ujie, as witnessed today in Ishan villages, the sons of the deceased carry ebenlen swords of office as they are carried aloft in the manner of war leaders of old. Each son is joined by a large group of supporters from his otu (age set) who go into mock battle against the trees of the neighborhood (Ikekhua c.1960: 88-89), slashing off branches with which they beat the ground, whip the air, and make threatening gestures. Brandishing the freshly cut branches, which signify a recent death, the young men vigorously and jubilantly escort their favorite through the village to his father’s compound.”

It was photographed in situ at Iubiadan-Emu by Phillip Alison in 1960. Picture on the left in this field-photo, it is currently the only known surviving figure of this group.

(Source: Doran H. Ross (ed.), Visions of Africa: The Jerome L. Joss Collection of African Art at UCLA, Los Angeles, 1994, p. 85, fig. 34) (image courtesy of  Phillip Alison)
(Source: Doran H. Ross (ed.), Visions of Africa: The Jerome L. Joss Collection of African Art at UCLA, Los Angeles, 1994, p. 85, fig. 34) (image courtesy of Phillip Alison)

At $ 25K (buyer’s premium included) this was an excellent deal.

Objects Research

The Jemaa Nok head

Found in the Tsauni mine at Jemaa, about 25 miles north-east of Nok. (Image courtesy of the The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Lagos, Nigeria)
Found in the Tsauni mine at Jemaa, about 25 miles north-east of Nok. (Image courtesy of the The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Lagos, Nigeria)

An interesting short documentary about the famous Jemaa head and a informative general introduction to the art of the so-called Nok culture:

Exhibtions News

Ere Ibeji Exhibition Poster

We had a wonderful sunny opening today, with lots of visitors and interest, so I’m a happy man.

ere ibeji exhibition Bruno Claessens

News Publications

Ere Ibeji – Dos and Bertie Winkel Collection (Bruno Claessens, 2013)

This week, I will be presenting my first book during Bruneaf XXIII at the gallery of Pierre Loos (Impasse Saint Jacques 17, first floor). There will be a small exhibition with the ere ibeji from the Winkel collection, together with some framed pictures. I will be signing the book on Wednesday 05/06, Thursday 06/06 and Saturday 08/06 – hope to see you there !

Among the Yoruba of southwest Nigeria, the rate of twin births is over four times the worldwide average. This fact along with a high infant mortality rate gave rise to the creation of a unique twin cult. For each deceased twin, a small carved wooden figurine, or ere ibeji, was made in which the spirit of the deceased could live on. This statuette was lovingly cared for on a daily basis and in return brought the family health and prosperity. Through the lens of Jean-Pierre Depienne and the pen of Bruno Claessens, the 32 ere ibeji from the private collection of Dos and Bertie Winkel are presented in this book for the first time. After an introductory text on the subject, the extensive variety of styles of this very particular type of African art are described in depth.

Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 1
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 2
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 3
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 4
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 5
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 6
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 7
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 8
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 9
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 10
Bruno Claessens Ere Ibeji 11

After Bruneaf, you can order the book here on the website of Dos and Bertie Winkel.


Tribalmania’s interview with Heinrich Schweizer

Heinrich Schweizer Tribalmania

Last December, Michael Auliso published a very informative interview with Sotheby’s NY’s Department Head African & Oceanic art, Heinrich Schweizer, on his website. This 10-page interview (at least if you print it) is a must read. It offers a rare glimpse of one of the keyplayers view on the current state of the African art market. The first few questions concern Schweizer’s personal story. A second part treats his first years at Sotheby’s, explaining the change he helped effectuate at the Department and the early signs of the giant leap the market would soon take.

Spring 2007, we presented the Saul and Marcia Stanoff Collection together with a few masterpieces deaccessioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. This auction broke all records and generated $25 million – half the sum that the Vérité sale had totaled but with only one quarter of lots. That sale of May 2007 was the true turning point in the market, marking the beginning of a new era. The quality of the works on offer was so great that it attracted the interest of art collectors outside the African and Oceanic art field, who, for the first time, entered the market on a broad front. Our cultivation and continuous expansion of this collector group led to the reassessment of the top of the market in our category that we have been witnessing in the last five years up through today.

Following a praiseworthy denouncing of the usage of the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ (daring on a website called Tribalmania), Schweizer explains this evolution further.

I think that the art market in general in the 21st century is becoming less compartmentalized by regions or categories of artworks. There is one category that everybody wants: the universal masterpiece, the artwork that defies categorization and transcends regional styles and eras. Once you are discussing such an artwork, it doesn’t matter whether the work is African or Oceanic, 500 years old or 50 years old. We’ve seen a number of such works in the past two years going for very strong prices at auction. One great example would be our Hungana Ivory Pendant which we sold in Paris last year (December 14, 2011, lot 64). It had an estimate of 30-50,000 Euros and was sought-after by a dozen of bidders, eventually selling for over one million dollars to a client who was bidding with me on the phone. It didn’t sell for that much because it was an “ivory” or a “miniature”, or an “amulet” or “Congolese”. Of course it could be categorized in all those terms, but it was much more than that. In the end it sold for an outstanding price because the artist had created a sculpture that carried so much dignity and spirituality that it became accessible to a very broad audience reaching far beyond the limits of the traditional African Art market.

.. with prices going far beyond the regular limits too!

The current market shows a clear, strong interest in top quality artworks from canonic African styles, especially those that are well-documented by virtue of their inclusion in important publications and exhibitions. If you go back 30 years, auctions were much larger, often comprising between 300 and 400 works of mixed quality. Back then, knowledgeable dealers would sometimes come to the auction to advise their clients, but mostly to pick out the best works for themselves. Today the auction houses are selling directly to the world’s most important collectors. It is a big change.

Which is totally correct. I know many older collectors who have never bought at auction, while almost all younger collectors regularly attend sales. The opposite is true for dealers. Where many nowadays claim that auctions are too expensive,  they used to score at least a part of their inventory there.

Subsequently, Auliso asked the question that has been on everybody’s lips the last years: Some of my dealer colleagues have the perception that Sotheby’s is consciously taking away their clients, thus hurting their business. Your thoughts on that notion?

Schweizer: I strongly disagree with this idea because it is not well-informed. The truth is that the international auction houses are persistently producing new collectors. We are introducing people to African and Oceanic Art who could never have imagined they would be attracted to this field. I would say that 50 percent of our clients have been in the market for 10 years or more, and 50 percent have joined the market more recently. Many of the newer collectors have developed a great passion for this field. Newer collectors often start out at auction because they appreciate the level of expertise, compliance standards and transparency of pricing. But with time they gain confidence in their own judgment, start going to fairs and venture into the gallery world where they also start buying. In the end, these new collectors strengthen the market and everyone benefits.

Unfortunately the taste of these collectors is a bit high level for most galleries of course. Another argument would be the current state of the economy. Historically, during recession, auction houses have always done better than dealers.

The last part of the interview deals with the creation of “The African and Oceanic Fine Art Market”, created for new eclectic collectors with deep pockets.

The massive participation of seasoned fine art collectors in our sales is consistently producing new records at Sotheby’s. A fine art collector spending 20 million dollars for a European Master has usually no problem placing a 200,000 dollar bid in an African and Oceanic art sale even if this means 100,000 dollars more than a previous record.


If you as a seller want to capitalize on the difference between the traditional market and the new market, you are best advised to use Sotheby’s as a “bridge” where your property can walk from one side to the other.

This should explain the unprecedented openess shown in this interview. We’ve learned a lot about Heinrich Schweizer, Sotheby’s last decade’s evolution and their view on the market, but in the end they are – as are all dealers – always on the hunt to find great pieces. And one could thus contextualise this interview as an open sollicitation to have your objects sold by them, preferably the masterpieces of course.

Read the full interview here!