Auctions News

Catalog online: Christie’s, PARIS AVANT-GARDE, 17 October 2019

On October 17th, the African art department of Christie’s Paris is teaming up with their colleagues at the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art departments for the fourth edition of the highly successful sale concept PARIS AVANT-GARDE. Taking place at the art market’s most dynamic week in France, this sale will for the first time include African art besides and exceptional selection of carefully selected and fresh to the market paintings and sculptures.

Among the artists who had a special relationship to the French capital, Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, André Breton, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger along with Nicolas de Staël, Pierre Soulages, Hans Arp, Jean Dubuffet and Zao Wou-Ki, all will be present with works in this curated sale. As for the African art, we’re proud to present one of the best seated Baule statues known, collected by Roger Bédiat and previously in the collection of Myron Kunin, and an exquisite Baule mask once in the collection of Helena Rubinstein – to which the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac will dedicate an exhibition in November. You can download a pdf with the African art selection HERE or visit the sale’s page on our website here.

The sale takes place in Paris on October 17th at 7pm and the viewing days are:

12 Oct, 10am – 6pm
13 Oct, 2pm – 6pm
14 Oct, 10am – 6pm
15 Oct, 10am – 6pm
16 Oct, 10am – 6pm
17 Oct, 10am – 4pm

As you can see in the catalog the selection is truly exceptional, and we’re very proud to be the first auction house ever to mix paintings of this quality with top-level African art in a single sale. As always, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can be of any assistance. Hope to see you there. As for the catalog for our main sale on October 30th, it should be online in the coming days, you’ll be the first to know so stay tuned.




GBEKRE – an excerpt of ‘Baule Monkeys’ (Bruno Claessens & Jean-Louis Danis, 2016)

Baule mouse oracle. Photographed by Martin Lippmann (who accompanied Hans Himmelheber), 1935. Image courtesy of: Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (#EBA-B 02563).
Baule mouse oracle (gbekre-sè). Photographed by Martin Lippmann (who accompanied Hans Himmelheber), 1935. Image courtesy of: Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (#EBA-B 02563).

The term “gbekre” has long been used to designate the monkey figures of the Baule. In my book Baule Monkeys I tracked down the origin of this unfortunate appellation.

The word gbèkrè first appeared in a now little-known article written by Maurice Delafosse in 1897 for the Museum of Natural History in Paris[1]. Describing the animals indigenous to the Baule region, he noted that the baboon, Cynocephalus sphinx, was widely found throughout the area and was known as Gbèkrè or Wotoumo.

Under the heading of ‘religion and superstition’, Delafosse mentions the existence of two types of ‘idols’ in his Baule dictionary of 1900: waka akatya – in the form of a chimpanzee, and waka gbèkrè – in the form of a baboon[2]; in both cases waka may be translated as ‘wood’[3]. Akatya is not mentioned later and seems to have been forgotten, perhaps because the heads of so many such figures were indeed more reminiscent of a baboon[4]. The same dictionary mentions two other uses of the word gbekre, namely the differently pronounced gbékré (mouse) and gbekre-sè (mouse box).

However, a better-known publication by Delafosse is at the root of the misunderstanding that has persisted to the present. In his article on the art of the Baule published in 1900, he identified gbèkrè as the ‘baboon god’ in the subsection entitled ‘Génies’[5]. Consequently, every apelike Baule figure would be referred as gbekre (without diacritics) in the literature. As early as 1956, Holas wrote in the introduction to his article on Baule bowl-bearing figures that, owing to Delafosse’s 1900 article, such figures were wrongly described as gbèkré [6] (note, however, that Holas was also imprecise in his use of diacritics). Despite its having been long known to be erroneous, this term is still prevalent in 2016.

With or without diacritics, gbekre always means ‘mouse’ and should be avoided when referencing Baule bowl-bearing monkey figures. If you want to discover how we should call these statues, you’ll have to read the book 🙂 You can order it here.


[1] Delafosse, 1897: pp. 193–197.

[2] Delafosse, 1900b: p. 31. There was little room in that dictionary for discussing the use of these figures.

[3] Waka sona or waka sran is Baule for ‘statue’.

[4] According to Boyer, akatya (or kakatiwa) is the name of a bush spirit (personal communication, 8 December 2014). Interestingly, Kakatika was a common name for bush spirits in the Akwe area (personal communication with Susan M. Vogel, 3 August 2015).

[5] Delafosse, 1900a: p. 556

[6] Holas, 1956: p. 408.

News Publications

OUT NOW: “Baule Monkeys” (by Bruno Claessens & Jean-Louis Danis – Fonds Mercator, 2016)

Baule Monkeys Bruno Claessens Jean-Louis Danis Mercator Fonds Ivory Coast

It’s time to go bananas! After 2,5 years of hard work, I’m proud to finally announce the launch of my second book: “Baule Monkeys”. My new, beautiful baby has 118 illustrations and counts 192 pages (with 25 chapters divided into four sections and 408 must-read footnotes); there’s also a French version. The seeds for this book go back a long time: about ten years ago, I encountered a Baule monkey figure from Ivory Coast for the first time during a visit to Bruneaf in Brussels’ Sablon quarter. I was utterly amazed by this bowl-bearing figure and the encounter with this statue was one of the very first times that an African art object really grasped the novice I then was. The opportunity to explore these enigmatic figures would come only years later. The Africarium Collection (which I at that time had been co-curating for a while) in June 2013 acquired the incredible cross-legged bowl-bearer illustrated on the front cover. This purchase would turn out to the catalyst to this book. The Africarium had already assembled an important group of monkey figures at the time, and this acquisition justified to dedicate these figures to the first monograph on the subject. Sharing my passion for them, Jean-Louis Danis, Africarium’s founder, agreed, and so we came to write this book.

“Baule Monkeys” wishes to explores the many aspects of these fear-inducing sculptures far from the traditional art canon of the well-known delicate Baule masks and figures. The book explores the creation, usage and morphology of the bowlbearers, and sheds light on the cultural and ritual context in which they operated. There’s also a general chapter on monkeys in African art. Through extensive research, “Baule Monkeys” combines new and fascinating discoveries with all earlier research on the subject. It as well includes several unpublished field-photos from Susan M. Vogel (who also wrote the foreword). The book focuses on fifteen examples from the Africarium Collection and a further forty monkey figures from public and private collections all presented in beautifully detailed full page spreads.

“Baule Monkeys” (and its French version “Singes Baule”) are published by Mercator Fonds – you can order it on their website here – and if you scroll down you can also find a small preview of the inside.

This Thursday (9 June), I’ll be signing the book at Vasco Books in Brussels (who also have the book in stock) from 3 to 5PM – I hope to see you there!

ps there’s also a private event in Brussels on Friday (contact me to get on the guest list).


A Baule statue in The Disembodied (1957)

Disembodied 1957 Baule Statue

An attentive reader spotted a Baule figure in the movie poster for The Disembodied (1957). This movie prop is featured a couple of times in the movie, which is about a voodoo cult deep in the ‘African’ jungle. The only ritual use this figure ever had was in its scenes with the witch doctor’s wife, Tonda (Allison Hayes). Its style clearly is very degenerate, and especially the ‘headdress’ is something that doesn’t exist. You can find more info about this voodoo thriller (yes, that’s a genre) here.

allisonhayes Baule statue disembodied


Tonda’s arm position on the above picture in turn reminded me of a classic Djenne pose 🙂


Djenne crossed arms


African and Oceanic art in “Bell, Book and Candle” (1958)

kim novak kota gabon reliquary bell, book and candle

Bell, Book and Candle is a 1958 American romantic comedy Technicolor film directed by Richard Quine, based on the successful Broadway play by John Van Druten, which stars James Stewart and Kim Novak. During the Christmas holiday season, Greenwich Village witch Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak), a free spirit with a penchant for going barefoot, has been unlucky in love and restless in life. She admires from afar her neighbor, publisher Shep Henderson (James Stewart), who one day walks into her gallery of African art to use the telephone..

In the opening title sequence we get a nice view of that gallery..

The African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian objects for the movie set were provided by Julius Carlebach, who at the time had a gallery in New York. I was already able to identify the seated male Baule figure; it was sold by Christie’s Paris on 6 December 2005 (lot 184) and has passed through several dealers ever since. The Kota was last seen at Sotheby’s New York (24 February 1982, lot 437). There’s a lot more African and Oceanic art in that gallery, I’m sure further sleuthing would reveal the present location of other objects.

Height: 64 cm. Image courtesy of Christie's.
Height: 64 cm. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

UPDATE: several readers at 1:39 attentively spotted the name of Eliot Elisofon as the ‘special color consultant’. He’s better known as an avid Africa traveler; his photographic archives are kept by the Smithsonian (info).

Discoveries Research

The Baule figure in “La maladie noire” identified

Baule figure. Height: 68 cm. Image courtesy of The Barnes Foundation (A221).
Baule figure. Height: 68 cm. Image courtesy of The Barnes Foundation (A221).

Thanks to a tip of a kind reader, I’ve been able to localize the Baule figure featured in the previously described “La maladie noirepostcard: it’s currently held by the Barnes Foundation (info). Albert C. Barnes in all likelihood acquired it directly from Paul Guillaume between 1922 and 1924 (like the majority of the collection).

Further sleuthing revealed the original black&white image of the statue which Albert Guillaume used as an inspiration for his postcard; it was published in 1926 by Thomas Munro and Paul Guillaume in Primitive Negro Sculpture” (p. 89 & 91, #21). Albert Guillaume only slightly exaggerated the buttocks and clearly truthfully reproduced the statue in his postcard.

Baule figures Barnes La maladie noire Guillaume

This makes this postcard even more exciting, as it may have represented an event that really happened – so I started wondering about all those characters: the portrayed collector might be Dr. Albert C. Barnes himself (although he was not bald). Anyhow, the man behind him clearly is no one other than Paul Guillaume ! Note his typical mustache and hairdo.

Albert C. Barnes

Paul Guillaume

In the just-published catalogue about the African Art collection of the Barnes Foundation (details here), where the sculpture is published as Plate 20b, Susan Vogel notes (p. 132) that “the figure was among the most expensive African sculptures that Barnes acquired, and it remained one he considered very important: he had it reproduced in tile at the museum entrance and it was prominently published”. Barnes himself published the figure as 14th century in an essay, “The Temple” in the May 24 issue of Opportunity (reproduced by Christa Clarke on p. 57). That date might seem funny, but know that Paul Guillaume used to attach metal labels with such dates on the Inagaki bases he had made for his objects 🙂

ps apologies for the radio silence on my blog these last weeks, I was very occupied with the Paris auctions – on which more later..

UPDATE: a reader has suggested the man on the left in all likelihood is no other than the Felix Féneon !

Felix Feneon


UPDATE2: David Zemanek just informed me that the round object hanging on the curtains in the back in fact is a Songye dance shield – Bonhams sold a similar (rare and unusual) shield in 2007 (info).

Image courtesy of Bonhams.
Image courtesy of Bonhams.
Discoveries Opinions

Postcard of the day: “La maladie noire”

Salon de Paris La maladie noire Guillaume postcard Bruno Claessens


I love this postcard. It’s called “La maladie noire” – which freely translates to “The craze for African art”. It is a drawing by Albert Guillaume – I don’t know if he’s related to the famous Paul Guillaume. Looking at the dresses of the women I would say it’s from the 1920s. That the scene is taking place in Paris we know from the title “Salon de Paris”. Central in the scene is a wooden female figure from the Baule (Ivory Coast). On its right we see it’s owner, cigar in the mouth, hands in his pockets, he’s pleased to show off his new acquisition, but his mind is already somewhere else. On his left, his wife rests one hand on his shoulder, while supporting her head with the other; “Mon dieux, what do I have to do with this black goddess in my house?” you see her thinking. Her friends, sitting down, are as mystified about the presence of this enigmatic, yet voluptuous sculpture central in the salon. Most left, an art-critic (or a merchant?) raises his hands, awe-struck by this exotic beauty and praising the eye of the collector. On the right, behind the owner, we find two fellow-collectors. The first, chin up, clearly is convinced that this statue is inferior to the one he has in his own collection; while the man most right has a rather mean posture – with hate observing this craze for African art that is taking place all around him in the Parisian art circles. In other words, most likely a perfect rendering of what was happening in the salons those days – and sometimes still is..

UPDATE: a reader was so kind to send me a link with more information about Albert Guillaume, find it here.

UPDATE 2: in the meantime, I was able to localize the Baule statue, identified 3 of the featured persons and discovered what that round object in the background is – read all about it here.


A CT scan study of a Baule monkey figure (Ivory Coast)

A CT scan study of a Baule monkey figure Ghysels Scantix Germain
Scantix‘s Marc Ghysels recently scanned a Baule monkey figure on behalf of Jacques Germain. You can watch the results here. Click on the full-screen modus, sit back and enjoy the show !


Field-photo of the day: a Baule woman dressing up

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz.
Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz. (# VIII A 14566 a)

The above field-photo was made by Hans Himmelheber among the Baule in 1933-34. It’s rare to find a photo documenting these large brass anklets, as well as the typical ivory bracelets. You can find more than 100 additional field-photo’s from Himmelheber on the website of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin here (search for Himmelheber). In wooden sculpture you never encounter these large anklets, but the ivory bracelets sometimes are represented.

Seated Baule figure. Height: 56 cm. Image courtesy of Adrian Schlag & Roger Asselberghs. (published in Tribal Art Classics, 2005: p. 15)
Seated Baule figure. Height: 56 cm. Image courtesy of Adrian Schlag & Roger Asselberghs. (published in Tribal Art Classics, 2005: p. 15)

(ps note how the feet are turned inwards, a detail to remember)

UPDATE: never say never; a reader was so kind to send me this (unfortunately blurry) picture of a female figure wearing anklets.

Published in El Primer Eros, Barcelona, 2004.
Published in El Primer Eros, Barcelona, 2004.
Auctions News

African art from the Jan Krugier Collection

Left a detail of Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) with the head reminiscent of the Baule mask on the right.
Left a detail of Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) with the head reminiscent of the Baule mask on the right.

As previously discussed here, Christie’s NY sold several African art objects from the collection of Jan Krugier (1928-2008) – once the world’s foremost Pablo Picasso dealer – on 4 November 2013. A Baule mask, published in Rubin’s Primitivism, belonging to André Breton before arriving in the hands of Pablo Picasso, was sold for $1,445,000 (Estimate $500,000 – $800,000) ! Since its semi-circular mouth with pointed tongue appears in several of Picasso’s paintings, most notably Guernica (1937), this African mask found its place in Western art history, resulting in this extraordinary price. The story goes, that Picasso enjoyed keeping the mask on a rocking chair in his studio, so it was always ‘charging’ and in motion. Also on sale were a Guro mask from Paul Guillaume ($ 197K), Fang bellows ($ 137K) and a Bwa mask from Hubert Goldet ($ 52,5K). Again, a good example how context defines value.