Opinions Research

On the identification of a sculptor

In case you were wondering why I paid so much attention to each Luluwa statue’s ears in my previous post, this quote will explain:

Working in the nineteenth century, Italian art historian Giovanni Morelli strove to define the elements that most clearly manifest an artist’s individuality. The Morellian method found great interest with Sigmund Freud, and subsequent scholars and art historians have adapted it. The key to its analysis is artists’ tendency to repeat non-relevant elements. It also holds that there are certain forms which can be related to the individual artist rather than being influenced by “school or tradition”. As morphological evidence, Morelli used the forms of hands, ears, and fingernails, for example.

(quoted from Bettina von Lintig, Chance Encounter: Kwayep of Bamana, Tribal Art Magazine, no. 70, Winter 2013: p. 96)

Morelli’s innovation was to analyse paintings with a much greater attention to detail than had previously been the case, that is, by examining aspects which were considered unimportant and which the artist was unlikely to have reassessed for each particular painting, such as the rendering of an ear or fingernail. As my previous post demonstrated, in many instances, this method can be successfully applied while identifying anonymous African artists.

Note that the Luluwa figure from the collection of Tervuren (bottom left) is the only one with a carved tragus, a detail missing with the other figures from this workshop.

Morelli's drawings of 'Typical Ears' after various Masters.
Morelli’s drawings of ‘Typical Ears’ after various masters.
Auctions Objects Opinions Research

The Luluwa workshop of the diamond shaped eyes

Luluwa figures from the workshop of the diamond shaped eyes. Height (left): 36 cm. Height (right): 37,5 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Luluwa figures from the workshop of the diamond shaped eyes. Height (left): 36 cm. Height (right): 37,5 cm. Images courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Browsing through the catalogue of the next Sotheby’s Paris sale, it’s evident how the estimates are again much steeper than with their New York colleagues. A good example are the two Luluwa figures illustrated above. Though they have a different patina, they are clearly from the same workshop and most likely even by the same hand. Note that the figure on the left was photographed from below, which gives a slightly different perspective (cf. the mouth). Both figures have large C-shaped eyes, diamond shaped eyes and only schematically rendered fingers. The overall composition is pratically identical. Besides the patination, the biggest difference is the scarification pattern on the forehead. Closer examination reveals other small differences. Personally, I am convinced they are by the same hand. Strangely enough, Sotheby’s doesn’t make any reference to the figure they sold six months ago in New York. Instead, we learn its style connects it with the Bakwa Ndoolo subgroup and that it is similar to a female figure from the Robert Reisdorff Collection, which was published by Olbrechts’ Plastiek van Kongo in 1946 (see below). This last figure does have much in common, like the C-shaped ears and diamond shaped eyes. Nevertheless its hands are much more realistically carved and the overall carving is much more crisp. Together with the body scarifications (absent in both Sotheby’s figures), I would dare to speculate the Reisdorff figure is an earlier generation of this style. So far the art history.

Luluwa figure. Ex collection Robert Reisdorff, Brussels, before 1920. Height: 45 cm.
Luluwa figure. Ex collection Robert Reisdorff, Brussels, before 1920. Height: 45 cm.

Now, concerning the estimates. The figure on the right was sold in New York last May for € 21K (est. € 9K-14K) (info)*. The one on the left, on the other hand, will be sold in Paris on 11 December, and has an estimate of € 60K-90K (info).  A six-fold increase ! Both figure never were published nor exhibited and the provenances are not so very different in ‘value’ (Pierre Dartevelle for the Paris figure and Paul Timmermans for New York) – though Timmermans was a Luluwa expert and published on the subject.

(* previously sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 8 May 1989. Lot 74. Sold for $ 13K)

I have labeled this atelier “The Luluwa workshop of the diamond shaped eyes”, though these typical eyes are possibly more a characteristic of a regional style. During Bruneaf 2011, Kellim Brown presented a group of six figures in this same style by a carver which he identified as Bakwa Ndolo (scroll down here for pictures). I still have to read his book on the subject (Southern Kasai Hands, Brussels 2011). The ears of the figures of this very productive artist are smaller than the artist under discussion here and the apron is clearly differently conceived. To finish, two more figures from the Luluwa master of the diamond shaped eyes.

Left picture courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren (#EO.0.0.43207); height: 40 cm. Right figure: YVRA #0000857).
Left picture courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren (#EO.0.0.43207); height: 40 cm. Right figure: YVRA #0000857.

Collecting, Sylvia Porter’s advice

Something I came across online; Sylvia Porter, one of the most successful financial columnists and writers in the US in the 20th century, once listed ten sound rules as a guide in art collecting (in Sylvia Porter’s New Money Book, 1979). More than 30 years later, they are still very relevant.

1. Study the field which interests you as much as possible.

2. Buy cautiously at first.

3. Make sure that your work of art has quality.

4. Deal with a top gallery or art dealer. Some dealers and major galleries will guarantee the authenticity of the art works they sell, so check this point as well.

5. Have an understanding with your dealer or gallery about trading up – so he’ll repurchase or resell your works as you have more money to invest in high quality art.

6. Do not buy art works just because they are a current rage.

7. Ask the advice of museum directors or curators whenever possible.

8. Decide upon your investing limit before you buy. If you fall in love with a more expensive object try to arrange for a time payment.

9. Spread your financial risks by buying a variety of art unless you are expert in a particular field.

10. Buy the best examples you can afford in any category.

Royal-Athena Galleries (where I found this list) added two other important rules:

11. Ask for the provenance of any potential acquisitions.

12. Do not buy objects that have been significantly restored.

Discoveries Objects Publications Research

Ivory spoons from the Boa revisited

Bango spoon. Ivory. Height: 19,8 cm. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1978.412.704)
Bango spoon. Ivory. Height: 19,8 cm. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1978.412.704).

The Winter issue of Tribal Art Magazine (No. 70) features a very interesting article (The Concave and the Convex. Ivory Spoons of the Northeastern Congo, pp. 102-109) which reassesses the origin of a spoon type commonly attributed to the Boa (or Ababua). Author Julien Volper (assistant curator in the ethnography section of the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren) writes:

While at first glance this attribution may appear to have a sound scientific basis, the “Boa” designation actually rests on very limited information. In truth, the designation has become credible only because it has been so constantly repeated and accepted throughout the field of African art.

The Ababua attribution of Tervuren’s examples in particular relates to a connection between poorly documented ivory spoons and ethnographic information published by A. de Calonne-Beaufaict (1909, pp. 330-331). This author was one of the few to mention the large spatulate spoons, epapwa, of the Ababua, although he characterizes them as sculptural objects. Because of this, it was easy to attribute delicately crafted ivory spoons to the same ethnic group, even though epapwa are actually made of wood and their large size is not at all comparable to smaller ivory spoons.

In any case, In Tervuren, as elsewhere, real research on the little-discussed topic was conveniently replaced by the credo: “except among the Boa and the Lega, no one has ever seen an ivory spoon in Congo”. Even a cursory examination of the Tervuren collection allows for refinement of this restrictive classification. In studying the files and technical records for the approximately fifty “Boa-type” ivory spoons in the museum’s collection, it becomes apparent that, counter to assertions, none of them can be attributed to the Boa with any real certainty, although the accounts and/or biographies of certain field collectors do tend to suggest this ethno-geographic identification could be correct.

Following, Volper illustrates three spoons of this specific type (now in the British Museum) that were in fact collected among the neighboring Bango ! Five spoons of this type were collected by the English officer G. Burrows, who wrote that these spoons were of a utilitarian nature, intended for domestic use (like eating meat). Burrows (The Curse of Central Africa, 1903) makes a point of stating the Bango were gifted ivory workers but that they appear to use it exclusively to make the bracelets and spoons he mentions. And where the use of the spoons is concerned, Burrows sees it as a “Bango cultural exception”, one that distinguishes the group from its close neighbors. Volper contradicts this last statement by showing that a stylistic analysis of the spoons of the north-eastern Congo reveals that the handles of Bango spoons have many sculptural similarities to wooden examples collected in that same region. This tradition thus might be more widespread than previously thought.

I was quite suprised to learn that the attribution of these spoons to the Boa was based on so little scientific evidence. While in the past many of these spoons were often thought to be Lega, in the last decades almost everybody described them as Boa. The spoon illustrated here from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in its turn typically labeled as “Lega or Boa”. Thanks to Julien Volper’s meticulous research, we now know we’ve all been wrong. Exit Boa, enter Bango!

Update: in the upcoming Sotheby’s sale in Paris, we find another ivory spoon incorrectly attributed to the Boa here.

Bango spoon. Ivory. Height: 19,8 cm. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1978.412.704).
Bango spoon. Ivory. Height: 19,8 cm. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1978.412.704).
Auctions Museums News

Dallas Museum of Art acquires two objects from the Allan Stone collection

Ejagham headcrest, Cross River Region, Nigeria. Height: 68,6 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Ejagham headcrest, Cross River Region, Nigeria. Height: 68,6 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The Dallas Museum of Art has acquired two outstanding works of African art at Sotheby’s New York auction of the Collection of Allan Stone (reviewed here). These important new acquisitions include the the four-horned Songye figure which sold for $ 2,165,000 (est. $ 600K-900K), and a rare (also horned!) Ejagham headcrest which was bought for $ 305,000 (est. $ 100.-150K) – according to Sotheby’s, the most major example of its kind to remain in private hands.

Both acquisitions strengthen the museum’s collection of African art, a collection of nearly 2,000 works mainly coming from two important collections: the Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture and the collection of Gustave and Franyo Schindler. You can browse the museum’s African art holdings here. Read more about their collection in this freely available book.


UPDATE: I forgot to mention that last year the Dallas Museum of Art bought the
Rosekrans Urhobo.


Adieu Tervuren

As stated before, the Royal Museum for Central Africa of Tervuren (RMCA) will be closing for (at least) 3 years the end of this month. Today I visited it one last time. While the museum was trembling due to the drillings outside, the famous stuffed elephant was already being prepared for its coming journey..

MRAC Elephant

If you thought that was a difficult object to move, check this 30 meter long canoe..

MRAC Canoe

Some of the fish on display can use some fresh water..


The rhinos already had their horns removed out of fear of theft – which was just a sad view..

MRAC Rhino

I wonder if they will still display this giant block of tropical wood after the renovation.

MRAC Wood block

The museum will reuse the display cases, and this is what they will look like:

MRAC Display case

Possibly the only museum in the world that documents its own reorganisation through contemporary African painting.

Mrac painting

TIP: The museum’s shop is selling out and they had uncovered a major stash of old Africa-Tervuren magazines. These are impossible to find (most likely because the majority was never actually sold apparently) and when you find one, they tend to sell for a lot of money. Each magazine was 50 cent (!) – many of them feature very interesting articles. I took what I could carry, but there are still many left..

MRAC Magazines

(all images: BC)

News Objects

Sleeper of the month – a Mangbetu harp

Image courtesy of De Zwaan.
Image courtesy of De Zwaan.

Earlier this month the Amsterdam auctionhouse De Zwaan sold a private collection of African art. Lot 3639 was an anthropomorphic harp of the Mangbetu region, estimated € 300-400. It sold for € 34,000 (excluding the buyer’s premium), that’s more than 100 times the lower estimate ! De Zwaan didn’t know this same harp was sold by Christie’s, London on 25 July 1978 (lot 148) – for £ 360. The resonance box of this harp features two figures; a rare and unique detail. I have never seen a similar footrest (?) at the end. Most likely, the buyer still possessed more information justifying this high price.

UPDATE: one day after this post, the buyer presented himself to me in Brussels; he did not had any additional information but was extremely delighted with the acquisition.

It’s impossible to attribute this harp with absolute certainty to the Mangbetu. Cultural exchanges were common througout the region and musical instruments clearly spread from one group to another as a result of migrations, cultural assimilation, borrowing, and exchange. We can be quite certain that harps were introduced into the area where the Mangbetu live by two different groups: the Bantu speakers, who came from the west during the last millenium, and the Ubangian speakers, who came from the northwest in the last two centuries.

Mangbetu harps (domu) have been considered in depth as art objects, but little is known of their musical uses (there even don’t exist recordings of Mangbetu harp music). They evidently appeared among the Mangbetu sometime after the mid-1870s and reached a peak of popularity during the early colonial period. Beautiful harps decorated with carved heads at the ends of their bows were made in the area at that time. The custom of carving human heads on harps was widespread among the Azande and Barambo in the north, but Schweinfurth asserted that the Mangbetu had no stringed instruments of any kind (1874, 2:117). After the turn of the century, however, many of these instruments were made with carved heads representing the elongated Mangbetu style. These harps may have been introduced into the region of the Mangbetu kingdoms after the time of Schweinfurth’s visit. Hutereau and Lang both claimed that the Meje and the Mangbetu adopted the harp from the Azande (Hutereau 1912; Lang fieldnote 2105). Many of these instruments were collected by Lang and others between 1910 and 1915.

Despite the claims of Hutereau and Lang, linguistic evidence suggests that the harp may have been introduced from the south. The Mangbetu use the Bantu name domu for the harp. Harps may have been first introduced and used south of the Uele by the Mangbele (now assimilated to the Mangbetu but originally a Bantu group) and the Matchaga. Quite probably some Mangbetu groups, most likely the Mangbele, and other Bantu groups such as the Budu had at first a simple version of the instrument and then modified it in the style of the Ubangian speakers to the north. The carving of elongated heads on the harps is most probably an extension of a northern tradition.

The Mangbetu harp had five strings, reflecting the traditional pentatonic tuning system and commonly of plant fiber (more specific the midribs of oil palm leaves). The tuning pegs of the Mangbetu harp were on the player’s right (if the instrument was held with the carved figure facing the player), whereas the Zande type (kundi) has its pegs on the opposite side. Resonators are usually of an oval or hourglass shape. There is considerable variation in the angle of neck attachment and in the curvature of the bow. Often the conjunction between the neck and body is wrapped with cord. The carved figure forms the entire neck of some the more elaborately decorated instruments. Nearly all those harps cataloged as Mangbetu in the American Museum of Natural History collection have anthromorphic carving. Some of the older Mangbetu today claim that the heads on the harps represented Queen Nenzima and King Yangala, and that after their deaths the custom of carving them gradually declined. Many harps produced in the first quarter of the 20th century had full figures – male of female – carved into their bows. Many types of material were incorporated into the carved forms. The bows, of various lengths, were made of wood or ivory. A variety of animal skins was used to cover the resonators, including pangolin scales, okapi and leopard pelts, and the skins of monitors and several kinds of snake. Combinations of the above materials, along with the anthropomorphic bows, created visually striking instruments.

Schweinfurth gave a detailed description about the importance of music in the local daily life: ‘Apart from the special characteristics that distinguish them, more or less pronounced marks of race that pick out the different groups of the human family, the Niam-Niams are men of the same nature as others; they have the same passions, the same joys, the same pains as us. I have exchanged any number of jokes with them, I have taken part in their childish games, accompanied by the sound of their drums or mandolins, and I have found in them the same gaiety and verve found elsewhere.’ & ‘But the Niam-Niams have other pleasures; they have an instinctive love of art, and owe to it more elevated pleasures. Passionate about music, they extract from their mandolins sounds which resonate in the deepest fibers of their being and which thrown them into genuine intoxication. The concerts they offer themselves are of unimaginable lengths. Piaggia has said that a Niam-Niam would play his instrument for twenty-four hours without leaving it for a second, forgetting to eat or drink; and even though I know well this people’s appetite, I believe Piaggia was right. Their favorite instrument is related at once to the harp and mandolin. It resembles the former by the disposition of its strings and the latter by the form of the body. Built precisely according to the laws of acoustics, the soundboard has two openings. The strings, solidly held by pegs, are sometimes made of vegetable fibers, sometimes of giraffe tail-hair. As for the music played on these mandolins, it is highly monotonous; it would be difficult to discern in it the slightest semblance of melody. It is never more than an accompaniment to a recitation, sung in a plaintive (even whining) tone, and of a decidedly nasal timbre. I have many times seen friends going arm in arm playing this way, beating time with their heads, and plunging each other into a profound ecstasy.’ (1874:210 & 222-223)

An Azande playing a harp. Photographed by Herbert Lang in Bafuka’s village, March 1913. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, #224095)
An Azande playing a harp. Photographed by Herbert Lang in Bafuka’s village, March 1913. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, #224095)

Auction review: The Allan Stone Collection, part 1 – 15 November 2013

Image: BC.
Image: BC.

The first part of Sotheby’s sale of the Allan Stone Collection of African, Oceanic, and Indonesian Art was a big succes to say the least. The auction lasted more than 4 hours (for 154 lots), with the auctioneer taking his time to extract each and every single dollar in the room, on the phone or online. Some statistics (including the Oceanic and Indonesian Art) explain why Heinrich Schweizer & co. can be very happy.

The sale total was $ 11,5 million (including buyer’s premium) against a high estimate of $ 8,8 million, thus exceeding the high estimate by more than 30,6%. The sale was sold 94% by lot and 97% by value. Seen the very personal character of the collection, I think this is very praiseworthy. Clearly this was not a collection made by a classic African art collector, but an assembly of dramatic objects, strong in effect, which fitted the very personal taste of Allan Stone. The documentary about his life made it clear what a truly remarkable character he was. Eclectic in his taste, African art was just one of his many passions. Nevertheless, due to his good contacts with important dealers such as Merton Simpson, Michael Oliver and Maureen Zarember, Stone was able to acquire many important pieces.

Two objects in the sale sold above the one million dollar mark: the ex Josef Müller Kongo figure for $ 1,805,000 (est. $ 400K-600K) (Mr. Barbier-Müller will probably not be amused) and the cover lot, the four-horned Songye figure which sold for $ 2,165,000 ($ 600K-900K), living up to the expectations Sotheby’s had for it. The high hopes for two other pieces failed to realize; the proto-Dogon figure (est. $ 400K-600K), sold for only $ 425K and the rare Kuba headdress (est. $ 600K-900K), which was hammered down below the lowest estimate at $ 581K – nevertheless still an incredible price for a Kuba mask.

100 of the 154 lots sold above the high estimate. That’s 65 % of the sale ! Many of the “smaller” objects were very reasonably priced, which generated of course some extra attention. A smart move of Sotheby’s, not hindered by any restrictions of the Stone estate. Good examples of this strategy were the Tellem figure (est. $ 2K-3K), selling for $ 14,375; the Kongo miniature figure (est. $ 2,5K-3,5K), which sold for $ 7,5K or the Kongo figure fragment (est. $ 15K-25K) selling for $ 81,250.

All my personal favourites did very well. The incredible Lagoon figure (est. $ 120K-180K), easily doubling its estimate to $ 269K. The fantastic Wobe mask (est. $ 7K-10K) with bulging eyes, which sold for $ 32,5K to a French dealer who also had noticed its exceptional quality. The small cubistic Luba figure (est. $ 3K-5K), selling for $ 12,5K and the rare Makonde helmet mask representing a sikh (est. $ 15K-25K), which sold for $ 21,250. For me, the absolute winner of the sale was the Kongo figure (est. $ 150K-250K) called Chingunge’N. Collected in situ by Robert Visser before 1903, this figure presented a once in a decade oppurtunity to acquire an exceptionally well documented Kongo figure. At $ 293,000 still a very good deal in my opinion. A revelation for me, was the Dayak fragment, illustrated below – in real life an extremely powerful sculpture.

Only 20 lots (or 13 %) sold within the estimate range and 24 lots (16 %) sold under the low estimate. For the connoisseur some real bargains could be made. What to think of the Wurkun shoulder mask (est. $ 7K-10K), which sold for a mere $ 4,375. Though it was not in a very good condition, that’s no money for such an old and big piece. Another smart buy was the rare Ejagham janus headdress (est. $ 8K-12K), which sold for $ 5,250. The reserve price always being a little more than half the low estimate, there were definitely some opportunities for the attentive bidder.

Only 9 from the 154 lots (or 6 %) failed to sell (all African by the way); the most important being the Songye kifwebe mask in the “Mussolini”-style (est. $ 300-500K). Its association with Picasso’s Les Demoisselles d’Avignon in the catalogue of course didn’t made much sense seen the fact the Picasso only could have seen a kifwebe mask much later.

One object was removed from the sale, lot 75, the Igbo maiden spirit mask (possibly a forgery by Odo of Imelike or his workshop).

While pre-sale some dealers doubted the favorable outcome of this sale, Sotheby’s once again proved its possibility to successfully place a collection in the market. Being either for or against their recontextualisation of the once very private Stone collection, everybody has to admit that they succeeded in making Allan Stone known as a collector of African art. This sale confirmed the solid state of the African art market. Selling one big Songye figure after the other, most above the high estimate, this auction will also be remembered as an important momentum in the appreciation of Songye sculpture.

Dayak fragment of an ancestor image, Borneo. Height: 73,7 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby's (lot 27).
Dayak fragment of an ancestor image, Borneo. Height: 73,7 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s (lot 27).
Exhibtions Museums

African Galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts reopened

Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

After a 10 month and $ 745K renovation, the African Art galleries at the Minneopolis Institue of Arts recently reopened. In an online review we read:

The museum’s curator of African art, Jan-Jodewijk Grootaers, has totally reworked MIA’s African art collection, buying new things, sending others to storage, adding technological whiz-bang, and reinstalling it all in renovated galleries.

The result is a stripped-down display of about 125 objects, roughly half the number previously on view and only a sliver of the 2,100-piece African collection. Arranged thematically, they are a mix of masterpieces and utilitarian objects from across the continent. To give visitors an intimate experience, the museum has largely dispensed with display cases, instead setting most things on wide, open-air platforms that people can stroll around.

Intended as a teachable introduction to African art and culture, the show incorporates touch-screen maps, iPad pictures and videos, and engaging, jargon-free labels with handy drawings to help visitors navigate the many cultures, histories and art forms.

Auctions News


Sorry for the lack of posts last week. I was in NY for curatorial activities (and the auctions of course). A review of the Allan Stone sale is following. The catalogues of the next Christie’s and Sotheby’s Paris auctions in December are already online by the way. To finish, an interesting article about the recent record prices in the contemporary art market can be found here.