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“In Pursuit of Record Prices”: The Myron Kunin Collection at Sotheby’s New York (11 November 2014)

Myron Kunin Sotheby's New York Senufo deble figure world record Primitivism

One week after the sale of Myron Kunin’s collection of African art at Sotheby’s New York, it is time to take a closer look at the results. Note that since the estimates do not reflect commissions, all below prices are without the buyer’s premium (unless indicated otherwise). The 157 African art lots in total brought in a little less than $ 35 million – described as ‘historic’ by the auction house, but was it ?

The presale total estimates were $ 18,8 million and $ 29,1 million – the sale thus brought in more than $ 5 million above the high estimate that Sotheby’s had set before the sale. Of the 157 African art objects in the collection,  38 (or 24 %) remained unsold – however, sales continued after the auction. Most of the lots that were passed, did so not surprisingly – most often when the estimate and quality level did not correspond.

Of the 119 lots that were sold, 45 (or 28,5 %) did so under the low estimate, 31 within the estimate and 43 (or 27,5 %) above the high estimate – it is of course this last category that made the auction. The sale itself took a very slow start, the first four lots all coming from the Dogon. To many’s surprise the reserve prizes each time were well below the low estimate, for example the opening bid for the Dogon granary shutter (lot 4) was $ 15K (est. $40-60K) and it sold for only $ 24K. A first real test was the Djennenke figure, which tripled its low estimate and sold for $ 1,3 million to a telephone bidder. The next few lots were less exciting, but the tone of the auction was set: the lows would be low and the highs high. A much coveted Dan figure (which I’ll discuss in a future post) sold for $ 290K, while a supposedly early 18th century Dogon figure (lot 6) sold for only $ 28K.

A next important lot was a seated Baule figure (est. $ 300-500K) which was hammered down for $ 700K. Impressive also was the $ 580K a Guro mask (lot 41) made (est. $200-300K). But the real highlight of the sale was of course the cover lot, Kunin’s famed Senufo figure (est. $ 6-9 million); the bidding started at $ 4,9 million and the action was mainly between the different telephone lines, coming to a stop after a few minutes at the impressive sum of $ 10,6 million – as much as an average Sotheby’s sale. Mission accomplished for Sotheby’s. They clearly had worked hard on the star lot of the sale – as many of the top objects, it had traveled to Paris and Doha before coming back to NY. This piece alone helped nudge the sale to a record total.

I had much higher expectations for the Yoruba shango staff, which sold only $ 10K above its low estimate at $ 260K. A lot of money for such an object of course, but it was hard to dislike this piece, even if you were not a fan of Yoruba. An incredible object was the Wum mask from Cameroon selling five times its low estimate at $ 200K. A jaw-dropping result was obtained by the Brummer Fang-Betsi head, estimated $ 600-900K, it sold for $ 3,1 million. One of the highlights of Yaëlle Biro’s exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde, last year at the Metropolitan, Kunin had bought this historic head at Sotheby’s New York in 2002 for $450K – in twelve years the price thus six folded. The following Fang-Ngumba figure (lot 83) also did very well and doubled its low estimate when selling for $ 650K. As with many of the pieces in this sale, the estimates were often very high (reflecting the price level Kunin was buying at), for example with the Vuvi mask, estimated at $ 200-300K (lot 90), which sold for $ 320K – abstracting the fact that it’s only just above the high estimate, a very impressive result.

After Gabon, it was finally time for the Congolese objects. The big Kongo nail figure (lot 100) doubled its low estimate and sold for $ 650K, a very reasonable price for such a big and important figure. Rubinstein’s Teke figure sold for almost five times its estimate at $ 470K to a bidder in the room. Picasso’s Luba stool sold for more than double its low estimate at $ 675K, while the sticky Luba neckrest (lot 125) made $ 380K (three times its low estimate) – solid results for classic examples of royal Luba art. The Luluwa figure sold for a very reasonable $ 280K and the Kanyok couple made an unbelievable $ 320K. After a long battle, the janus Songye figure (lot 141), was sold for $ 2,15 million and doubled it’s estimate – it was the last important Songye that  had left the Alan Stone collection before he died and his estate was sold by Sotheby’s. Two other Songye figures (lot 143 & lot 146) failed to sell (probably due to their high estimates or over saturated market for this type of object). While the janus Songye stool performed as expected and sold for $ 420K. Lot 147, the Songye-Luba kifwebe mask, sold for an amazing $ 500K.

Some personal favorites I did not yet mention: the 19th Century Dan mask (lot 19) in the Flanplo style; the Igbo headdress (lot 57), incorrectly listed as Eket (discussed here) that made $ 80K (estimated much too low at $15-25K) and an old Igbo mask in a known style sold for $ 16K (a steal seen its quality). I loved the Vili figure (lot 96) which sold to a French dealer for € 160K (est. $ 60-90K), one of the best in its kind and certainly 19th century. A Suku figure (or Tsaan ?) sold for $ 75K (est. $ 25-35K) was a superb piece of sculpture with a great patina – very rare too. I adored the small a-typical Luba figure (selling for $ 15K), which will go to the same collection as the Luba-Zimba stool (lot 133), that was somehow similar in spirit (perhaps due the beaded eyes and stylization).

Even in an important sale like this there was the possibility to buy at very competitive prices for the attentive connoisseur, for example: an ancient Bwa mask was sold for only $ 7,5K and a Mende mask was bought for $ 28K (originally being sold for $37K in 2008). After the sale, most professional regretted not having bought the rare Bete figure for a mere $ 120K, under its low estimate and certainly worth much more. The $ 3,800 for the Wurkun figure (lot 65) was a very good price for the collector with a limited budget, while an excellent Yoruba epa mask (est. $ 10-15K) failed to attract a single bid with the reserve price being $ 4,8K – a steal for such a big and rare mask. All Yoruba didn’t do very well – and three other lot (73, 76 and 77) also failed to generate any interest notwithstanding the low reserves (respectively $ 15K, $ 9K and $ 15K). Lastly a Punu mask sold for $ 28K (est. $ 40-60K) and a small Lumbo figure sold for half its low estimate at $ 3K. Surprisingly a small bronze Baule turtle was able to make $23K, against an estimate of $ 2-3K which left the room a bit puzzled. Lot 47, a Senufo figure, was a fantastic piece of sculpture and thus not really surprisingly generated a lot of interest estimated at only $ 25-35K and was sold in the room for $ 130K.

Three important lots so far remained undiscussed, as I want to use them to illustrate what in my eyes was the lesson of this sale:

  •  the Yombe maternity figure doubled its low estimate selling for $ 3 million. In 2011 this lot was sold for $ 1,8 million (including premium);
  •  the kneeling Kongo figure (lot 99), estimated $ 150-250K, sold for $ 420K. In 2008 this small (11,5 cm high) gem was estimated $ 30-50K and sold for $ 289K (including premium);
  • the Ngbaka figure (lot 119) sold for $ 3,5 million (tripling the estimate of $ 1,2-1,8 million) and was acquired by Kunin in 2009 from the Chaim Gross estate for $ 1,25 million (including premium).

These three objects thus all were acquired fairly recently, and while some conjectured that it was much too soon to have them back on the market, especially since all three were sold for record prices, each of them pulverized their previous result without even a struggle. This clearly shows the strength of the market at the top level where the sky remains the limit. Another factor however may be at hand: an important buyer at a sale like this would have been Kunin himself; with his death Sotheby’s lost one of their top buyers. Additionally, just before the sale another top client suddenly died (info) – the absence of these two major players might have caused the re-entry of several high-end collectors who had left the market after persistently being overbid in the past.

Conclusion: starting publicly during Parcours des Mondes, for months before the sale (short videos included), experts at Sotheby’s had been marketing the Kunin sale (more in specific a small group of masterpieces) as an event filled with once-in-a-lifetime pieces of an outstanding quality. It worked. Thanks to the numerous record prices the sale totaled above its high estimate and many records were broken. Sotheby’s hasn’t released any information on the buyers yet, but as far as I heard more than 50 % of the objects were bought by US collectors. Anyhow, since art appreciation these days generally is connected with its monetary value (“only records make the news”), this sale is of course excellent news for the position of African arts and we can only applaud Sotheby’s for enabling this.


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