Richard Edward Dennett’s stay among the Vili (1879-1886)

Seven Years Among the Fjort Dennett nkisi

In case you are still looking for some summer reading material, Seven Years among the Fjort, Being an English Trader’s Experience in the Congo District, published in 1887 by Richard Edward Dennett (freely downloadable here) might be an interesting suggestion. Dennett was an English trader who left the UK for Congo in the employment of Hatton & Cookson, who mainly imported ivory, in 1879. The above book, published in 1887, recounts the seven years he spent among the Kongo-Vili (then known as Fjort). In chapter III (pp. 46-72), he discusses nkissism and on page 66 we find one of the earliest descriptions of a nkisi nkondi. Facing page 48, we find the below photo of Feteiches and Curios. Raoul Lehuard translated the book in French as Sept ans parmi les Bavili: Les expériences d’un marchand anglais dans la région du Congo (Collection Arts d’Afrique noire, 1991).

Seven Years Among the Fjort Dennett nkisi picture Vili

In 1889, Dennett donated over 70 objects collected by him to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s World Cultures collection. You can see some of them here – with such an old provenance definitely worth a look !

Image courtesy of the RAMM (#9/1889/53).
Image courtesy of the RAMM (#9/1889/53).
Museums News

Boston Museum of Fine Arts returns 8 objects to Nigeria

Boston Museum of Fine Arts returns 8 artifacts to Nigeria

Eight Nigerian artifacts that were probably stolen decades ago and illegally sent to the United States have been returned to the West African country by the Museum of Fine Arts. The decision to return the artworks was the culmination of an 18-month provenance research project by MFA’s Victoria Reed. Along the way, the MFA discovered that one item, a brass altar figure, had probably been stolen from the royal palace in Benin City as recently as the 1970s. All of the works were purchased by William and Bertha Teel, longtime supporters of the MFA, whose 2013 bequest gave the museum more than 300 works. Read more about the story here. For pictures of the 8 returned objects click here. Besides the Benin figure, the group include two Nok terracotta figures and a terracotta Ife head, archaeological materials that are known to be at high risk for theft and looting. It also includes an ekpu, or ancestral figure dating to the 18th or 19th century, which was part of the collection of the Oron Museum, near Calabar, Nigeria, as late as the 1970s. Two terracotta heads produced in the Kingdom of Benin and a group of Kalabari screen figures appear to have been illegally exported.

In 2012, the MFA received 28 bronzes and six ivories from the Benin Kingdom from the Robert Owen Lehman collection (info). Not long after this announcement, Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments demanded the return of all these objects stating they were looted during the Benin Massacre of 1897 and illegally taken by the British Expedition as spoils of war (info). I don’t know how this was settled, but it looks like the MFA rather starts with the Teel donation, before going into Lehman’s gift.

UPDATE: some additional information about the origin of the 8 objects (found here):

Teel had bought the eight restituted pieces in good faith, five of which he acquired from the Davis Gallery in New Orleans. The two oldest are Nok terracottas, around 500BC to AD200, which came from the Davis Gallery and the Brussels dealer Marc Leo Felix. An Ife terracotta head dates from the 12th to 14th century. A Benin bronze ancestral altar figure, a fairly modern piece dating from 1914, was found to have been stolen from the royal palace in Benin City in 1976. An Oron ancestral figure, 18th or 19th century, was discovered to have gone missing from the Oron Museum, near Calabar, at some point from the 1970s. Four of the pieces were accompanied by forged Nigerian documentation. Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments has not yet announced where they will go on display.


New York bans trade in ivory

To the chagrin of New York antiques and tribal art dealers, lawmakers in Albany have voted to outlaw the sale of virtually all items containing more than small amounts of elephant ivory, mammoth ivory or rhinoceros horn. One assemblyman said that the bill would help rescue elephants from “ruthless poaching operations run by terrorists and organized crime.” Everybody of course knows that the real threat to elephants and rhinos comes from the enormous illicit market in tusks and horns based in China and other Asian nations, so this bill won’t change anything. As Clinton Howell, president of the Art and Antique Dealers League of America, said: “It is masterful self-deception to think the elephant can be saved by banning ivory in New York”.

Crucial to the bill is a section that outlaws the sale of all ivory objects unless an item is both at least 100 years old and consists of less than 20 percent ivory. Federal rules require that items be 100 years old but do not set any content restrictions.

As a result, a carved tusk or rhino horn from the 19th century, which would be well over 20 percent in content, could be sold under federal rules, but not in New York. (Both state and federal laws exempt ivory-based musical instruments owned before 1975).

The bill would also make it a felony to deal in banned ivory or horn that is valued at $25,000 or more.

Read the full article on the New York Times here or my previous reporting on the subject here.

Auctions Opinions

Auction review: Christie’s, Paris, 19 June 2014

Yombe phemba maternity Blum Collection Christie's Christie’s sale of the Rudolf & Leonore Blum collection last week did very well. The sale made € 2,978,200 (excl. premium), just above the total high estimate of € 2,919,000. Single owner auctions always tend to perform better than various owners sales. 56 (or 89 %) of the 63 lots were sold. But, important to remark, about half of those objects were sold under their low estimate. The reserves were very low so the heirs must have been keen not to have any objects back. The bidding for an excellent bronze Yoruba bell from the Ortiz collection for example started at only € 2,000 – while it was estimated € 15,000-20,000 – and a lucky bidder could buy it for € 3,800. A Mangbetu box, estimated € 12,000-18,000 sold for € 3,200 (excl. premium). The only reason why 7 lots remained unsold is because nobody bid on them, even at a very low reserve (€ 2,000 for the excellent Yoruba mask, lot 29, for example); otherwise this would have been a sold out sale. What I did enjoy to see was that some lots, while starting very low, like the enigmatic Cameroon figure (lot 38) at € 20,000, did sell within or just above their estimate (€ 72,000 without costs with an estimate of € 50,000-70,000 in this case). This shows that buyers — or their advisers — these days do their homework scrupulously and no matter what the starting price is, a piece is sold at its value.

What made this sale, was a small group of high quality objects. About 25 % of the lots were sold above the asking price. A Bamana mask (est. € 60,000-80,000) from a known hand sold for € 210,000 (excl. premium) to a telephone bidder. The Senufo maternity figure (lot 11) doubled its low estimate and sold for € 440,000 (excl. premium). One of the biggest surprises of the sale was the Benin aquamanile in the shape of a leopard (lot 26) which sold for six times it high estimate at € 420,000 (excl. premium). Another surprise was a Mangbetu drum (lot 48) which sold € 100,000 above its high estimate at € 135,000 (excl. premium) – 1875 being an extremely early collection date for such an object. The cover lot, a Luba-Shankadi headrest (lot 58) sold for € 550,000 (excl. premium); I had expected that it would sell for more. The star of the sale for me was the Yombe maternity figure (lot 49), a steal for € 65,000 (excl. premium). Its masterly carved scarifications and charismatic head with beautifully rendered facial traits for me make it one of the best examples of its kind. Curiously enough, the child in the mother’s lap appears to be grasping his own right foot; one can only wonder what that originally meant.

Christie’s various owners auction that followed the Blum sale was not as successful. The total sale made € 1,268,800 (excl. premium), with a total low and high estimate of € 1,159,800 – € 1,698,000. The reserves being much closer to the low estimate, about half of the 66 African art lots remained unsold. Of the 34 sold lots, 12 ended under the low estimate, 11 between the low and high estimate, and 11 above the asking price – very well balanced thus. Paul Guillaume’s Dan mask, sold for ten times its high estimate at € 600,000 (excl. costs). An old metal label on the Inagaki base on the back (which used to hang on the front) stated this mask was from the 5th century (see the picture below). Surely, it wasn’t that old, but it dated certainly from the mid 19th century – which is ancient for a Dan mask. It’s incredible result shows that prices continue to reflect not only the intrinsic value of objects, but the quality of their history as well. An object that missed such an illustrious provenance and publication history, the Fang monkey featured on the catalogue’s front cover, thus not suprisingly stayed under its low estimate of € 80,000 and was hammered down at € 65,000 (excl. costs). Another important lot, the Punu mask (estimated € 180,000-200,000) was sold for € 120,000 (excl. premium). A Songye kifwebe mask (lot 200) (est. € 50,000-80,000) sold for € 140,000, while an Hemba ancestor figure (lot 201), published by François Neyt and estimated € 150,000-250,000 failed to sell. This sale again illustrates how selective buyers are these days. The Dan mask alone was responsible for almost half of the total result. In my view one can say a lot on the current state of the market for African art, but one thing one can not say is that it is growing. Back Paul Guillaume Dan mask Inagaki base



Please note that blog posts sometimes are updated, so it’s always worth checking them back after a while. Two examples: a reader informed me about the origin of the mysterious ‘double spoon’ and I finally found a picture of the two bronze objects returned to Benin earlier this month.

Auctions Discoveries Objects

Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893-1898

Boa figure. Height: ca. 50 cm.
Boa figure. Height: ca. 50 cm.

The above Boa figure was collected by Camille D’Heygere. D’Heygere was stationed in the Congo Free State between 1893 and 1898, first as a deputy prosecutor in Boma, later as a judge in New Antwerp. His collection was sold last week at a small auction in Brussels; all objects were heavily underestimated – which of course attracted a lot of attention. The above Boa figure was sold for € 61,000. Only a handful Boa figure are known, among which three by the same hand as this one. Two other objects with this same provenance were sold: a Mbole figure (which made € 68,000) and a Hungana pendant – sold for € 26,000. All three objects were never published before. The early provenance makes this Mbole figure possibly the first to arrive in the West.

UPDATE: the Mbole figure was bought by Pierre Dartevelle (who exhibited it during Parcours des Mondes 2014) and the Boa figure was acquired by Bernard de Grunne (who showed it during the Biennale des Antiquaires, also in Paris).

Mbole figure. Height: ca. 70 cm.
Mbole figure. Height: ca. 70 cm.
Hungana pendant. Height: ca. 8 cm.
Hungana pendant. Height: ca. 8 cm.

UNESCO’s ‘General History of Africa’ series

Unesco History of Africa

In case you would want to brush up on your knowledge of the history of Africa, you can download Unesco’s ebooks on the subject for free here. The eight volumes:

Volume I: Methodology and African Prehistory
Volume II: Ancient Civilizations of Africa
Volume III: Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century
Volume IV: Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century
Volume V: Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century
Volume VI: Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s
Volume VII: Africa under the Colonial Domination 1880-1935
Volume VIII: Africa since 1935

For more information about this project (which started in 1964) click here.


Postcard of the day: “A hysterical acrobat” (Sierra Leone)

Poscard published by Lisk-Carew Bros. Without date.
Poscard published by Lisk-Carew Bros. Without date.

An old postcard showing a crowd of villagers in front of a thatched dwelling, watching an acrobat swinging between two tree trunk poles. This card, as well as many others, spanning over a century of Sierra Leone’s history, was found here.

Sierra Leone Medicine Man

Auctions News

Auction review: Sotheby’s, Paris, 18 June 2014

Some statistics from yesterday’s Sotheby’s sale (all prices excluding the premium, and only taking the African art into consideration):

  • The sale made € 5,131,300 – a little below the middle of its total estimate of € 4,682,000 – € 6,552,500.
  • From the 53 lots, 18 (or 34 %) failed to sell.
  • 14 lots (or 26,5 %) sold under their low estimate, 14 (or 26,5 %) within the estimate and 7 (or 13 %) above their high estimate.
  • The top lot was the Fang-Mabea figure (lot 36), featured on the front cover, which sold for € 3,800,000 – € 300K above its high estimate and responsible for more than half of the total result of the sale. Fang remains a market darling; especially with a history like this one.
  • Three high-estimated lots failed to sell: the Yaure mask (estimated € 350K-450K), the Sangu reliquary (lot 72) (estimated € 130K-160K) and the second Cameroon Fang figure in the sale (lot 77), estimated € 150K-200K.
  • The ex Tristan Tzara Bete-Guro mask (lot 40) which was exhibited in 1935 at the MOMA, failed to sell – notwithstanding its prestigious provenance.
  • My favourite object was the Luluwa figure, which at € 300K sold spot on the money.

Overall the sale obviously did better that the second Allan Stone auction last month (reviewed here). The top lot sold and made the sale, but there weren’t any surprises. With almost a third of the African art lots unsold it wasn’t an overwhelming success. Personally, I found the estimates on the high side again – 40 % of the 35 sold objects were in fact hammered down below the low estimate. Prices for African art are getting more realistic again, but the estimates often still need to follow that trend.

Fang Mabea Sotheby's Fenon


Object of the day: a 19th century Songye kifwebe mask

Vandevelde Songye kifwebe mask 19th century

Currently on view at the Initiates exhibition at the Musée Dapper in Paris, the above Songye kifwebe mask was the first to arrive in Europe in the late 19th century. It was collected by Liévin Vandevelde (1850-1888), a Belgian colonial officer of the Congo Free State, who gave it to his sister in 1885. Stanley, who Vandevelde accompanied during one of his trips considered Vandevelde ‘his second self’. Vandevelde had assisted the German explorer Eduard Pechuël-Loesche on an earlier trip and would later die during his third voyage in Congo in 1888. In 1885, he collaborated with the government of Angola to eradicate witchcraft in the region. He never traveled in the Songye region and probably acquired the mask from a Portuguese. The Musée du quai Branly holds another famous Songye object collected by him, the incredible headrest illustrated below.

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#73.1986.1.3).
Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#73.1986.1.3).