The Fowler Museum recently launched an online presentation of the collection of Lega art they received from Jay T. Last (info). You can find it here; if you click through you get each object’s details and a larger picture. Excellent study material now available for everyone. Some more info:
Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa highlights the impressive collection of Lega art amassed by physicist Jay T. Last, who has generously donated these holdings to the Fowler Museum. When Dr. Last started collecting Lega art in 1962, his passion for aesthetics developed into a life-long pursuit of the meaning and history of the beautiful works he sought. In discussing his interests, Dr. Last has commented, “This linking of art with moral culture, the use of art objects to serve as a teaching and inspirational device during Lega ceremonies added a great deal of meaning to my collection.” By gifting his collection to the Fowler Museum, he ensures its access, study, and preservation for decades to come. Most works date to the 19th century and were collected during the 20th century. All the works are in the permanent collection of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, gift of Dr. Jay T. Last.
ps Jonathan Fogel wrote about the Jay T. Last collection in the Autumn 2013 issue of Tribal Art Magazine (here).
So the last sales of the year are over, and again it was a pleasure to witness them from the front row. The Paris sales started with Sotheby’s auction of Alexis Bonew’s collection of Congolese art (info). It achieved a total result of € 6,175,125 and was sold 94 % by lot (32 of the 34 lots). The total low and high estimate was € 1,246,300 and € 1,743,200 – the total result thus being five times the low estimate. When adding the buyer’s premium to the hammer price, 27 lots sold above the high estimate, 5 at or between estimates and none below the low estimate. In other words, this was a very successful sale.
One single piece – a Lega mask – was responsible for more than half of the sale total, being sold for € 3,569,500. Estimated at € 200,000-300,000, this mask was highly sought-after with two (of the eight) bidders driving the final price to the second highest price in auction history for an African mask. No. 1 remains Verité’s Fang mask, sold for € 5,7 million in 2006 – no. 3 is Werner Muensterberger’s Luluwa helmet mask, which was sold for € 2 million. Before the sale everybody agreed that the mask certainly was worth more than it’s prudent estimate and was bound to pass the € 1 million mark; that it would go that high nobody had really foreseen. Crazy as it may seem, it is in fact not so much. As often these last years, exceptional pieces result in exceptional prizes. In an excellent condition and carved in a hard wood, this may in fact be one of the oldest wooden Lega masks known (in private hands), even more – unlike many Lega masks – it was actually used as a face mask. Unpublished and virtually unknown, Alexis Bonew considered it an ‘unicum of beauty’ and the pinnacle of his collection – interesting detail: he acquired it a few weeks before his thirtieth birthday. Which brings us on an important facet of this result, the marketing behind Sotheby’s establishment of the Bonew name as an illustrious provenance. This third single-owner sale in a row (after Allan Stone and Myron Kunin) was cleverly marketed for several months making Bonew a new household name in the Who’s Who of African art. However, only about a third of the lots can truly be considered masterpieces. However, past success sales such as the one of Werner Muensterberger – even smaller with only 6 lots – have shown that it definitely pays off to create a separate catalogue, identity and marketing strategy for such a collection.
But let’s go back to the auction itself. A Lega mask with the same provenance as the above (lot 12) was sold for € 20,000 a couple of minutes after the previous world record for a Lega mask – which should say something about the importance of provenance alone. The sale itself had started with a surrealist Lega ivory figure of a head placed on a foot (info, it even has its own blog). Selling for € 103,500 it easily doubled its estimate and the auction had made a bright start. While most were still trying to process the record price for the Lega mask, two other exceptional Lega objects were quickly sold. An ivory figure which had endured numerous ritual scrapings (lot 8) and a super rare miniature mask in copal resin (again, also collected by Raymond Hombert). Estimated € 10K-15K, it sold for only € 37,500. In my humble opinion it’s a quintessential bwami object – made in a very unusual material, it’s transparency can only have been associated with a very special kind of prestige within the context of bwami initiation. What stories it could tell… Continuing, the sale held multiple objects that once were exhibited in the Antwerp Stadsfeestzaal (now a shopping mall) during the Kongo-Kunst exhibition in 1937-1938. A Kongo figure and a Songye figure were visible on installation photos and estimated with six-number estimates; the Songye selling for € 361K and the Kongo figure for € 1,553,500 (almost double it’s high estimate – it did get six pages in the catalogue after all). The latter had one of the most beautiful ears I had ever seen on a Kongo figure. Both perhaps could have been sold for even more if the market wouldn’t have been so saturated with Kongo and Songye material after the Allan Stone sales. Another object from the Antwerp exhibition worth a mention was a Luluwa mortar of an exceptional configuration – next to the copal resin Lega mask my favorite object in the sale, and, as the Lega head on a foot, quite a surrealistic object.
Immediately following, Sotheby’s various owners sale (info) achieved a result of € 5,8 million (including the Oceanic art) – more than the double of the total low estimate of € 2,5 million (the total high estimate was € 3,5 million). 55 of the 71 objects were sold (equalling 77,5 %). 29 or 52,7 % of the sold lots did so above the high estimate. Two Easter Island objects, one breaking the world record for a work from there, were responsible for almost half the total sale result: a rapa sold for € 1,889,500 (against a pre-sale estimate of € 300,000-400,000) and a pectoral reimiro tripled its high estimate, achieving € 901,500. The UK consignor – unaware of their value – certainly will be pleased. A first African object of note was a Bamana chiwara with a beautiful patina and of an excellent quality which doubled its high estimate and sold for € 51,900. A personal favorite was lot 68, a Bangwa pole mounted with a figure holding a decapitated head. Collected by Gustaf Conrau before 1899 and illustrated on a drawing by his hand, it was previously in the Berlin Museum and surprisingly sold below its low estimate for only € 37,500. However, I’m not so sure it it is by Ateu Atsa or his workshop as stated in the catalogue. The next lot, a Zande (or Mangbetu?) harp in its turn, and again surprisingly, more than doubled its high estimate at € 433,500 – probably becoming the most expensive African musical instrument ever sold at auction. Next up were a series of small abstract Zande figures published in 1962 by Herman Burssens (lot 70, 71, 72, 75 & 76). Still under appreciated, only one (lot 76) succeeded selling for more than € 15K. A Banda figure from the so-called Mobabye Master performed as expected and sold for € 337,500. A refined Sapi figure was sold for only € 8,125 – a steal seen its quality. Lots 86 to 92 were a collection of ‘Mangbetu’ objects bought in one time in 2011 from Didier Claes – I know since I was the ghostwriter of the exhibition’s catalogue (unmentioned by Sotheby’s). The biggest surprise was a big Mangbetu hair-pin, selling for more than 4 times its high estimate at € 63,900 – even a century after its creation, it remains a prestige item. To conclude there were some good Gabonese objects: a Punu mask selling for € 217,500; a rare Fang helmet mask (lot 95), which made € 59,100; an ancient Kota figure selling within its estimate at € 163,500 and last but not least a one-of-a-kind Fang spoon, previously discussed here, breaking a record at € 169,500. All in all, this certainly was a very consistent sale and at each price level there were high quality objects available – sometimes even below their real value.
The above Lega mask – 15,3 cm high – was sold at auction in The Netherlands earlier this month. The grandfather of the Belgian owner had collected it between 1906 and 1909 while working as a cartographer in the then Congo Freestate. With an estimate of only € 15,000-20,000 this little mask obviously attracted a lot of attention. It is a very rare opportunity to find a previously unknown ivory Lega mask of this quality, so I was convinced it wouldn’t stay unnoticed. Well, this little treasure didn’t sleep and in the end sold for € 300,000 (without costs) – probably the same result if it would have been sold at one of the bigger auction houses. After having spent fifteen minutes with it, I can say it’s totally worth it.
PS the title of ‘Sleeper’ in this case is thus totally incorrect 🙂
The LA Times just reported that collectors Jay and Deborah Last have given the Fowler Museum at UCLA 92 wood and ivory figures, masks, and implements, all from the Lega (D.R. Congo). The gift, said to be worth $14 million, is in honor of the Fowler’s 50th anniversary. The Fowler organized a show of Lega art around the Last collection in 2001, and a version of that exhibition will appear at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, this fall – read more about both here.
$ 14 million for 92 pieces, that’s $ 150K on average for each piece – or twelve 1 million dollar pieces together with eighty $ 25K objects – either way it does seem a bit exagerated, though it is definitely a major acquisition for the Fowler museum.
One of my favourite Congolese masks, formerly in the collection of Jay T. Last and currently held by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles. A very rare idumu mask without eyes. We can only guess about its meaning, but its beauty is on a transcendent level. In Art of the Lega (Los Angeles, 2001), Elisabeth Cameron wrote (p. 209):
It has been suggested that Bwami members attached cowrie shells to serve as eyes, but this seems unlikely since the kaolin on these examples is even, showing no scars to indicate missing elements. Perhaps, instead, the masks illustrate the saying “Big-One of the men’s house, the guardian, has no eyes” (Biebuyck, 1986: p. 77). Although this important high-level Bwami member does not see with his eyes, he sees with his heart and guards the affairs of the community.
The autumn edition of Tribal Art Magazine contained an interesting interview with the US collector Jay T. Last. Over the course of fifty years, he formed one of the world most comprehensive collections of Lega art, now held by the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles. A catalog of the collection, Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa, written by Elisabeth Cameron in 2001, remains a central reference on the subject.
The good news is that a revised version of this exhibition will be on view this autumn at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Also, a new edition of the catalog in French is being produced to accompany it – something to look forward to ! John Buxton mentioned on his blog there are 242 pieces selected.
We just completed an appraisal of the 242 pieces of Lega art from the Fowler Museum and Jay Last bound for an exhibition at Quai Branly in Paris.
And to quote Jay T. Last himself: “You learn so much more by seeing groups of things that are related, and each tells you something about the other”. In the same way, the philosopher Martin Heidegger observed that tools form systems, so that any given tool is defined with respect to the remaining tools in a systematic totality, “zeugganzes” – a totality of tools (from Being and Time, 1961). To understand an object, is thus to imagine a system of objects into which it fits – with this upcoming exhibition visitors thus will have a great opportunity to have a look at the Lega “zeugganzes”.
The most important part of this famed collection was sold by Sotheby’s Paris on 10 September 2007 . In New York, Jacaranda also has been offering objects of daily use with the noted Ginzberg provenance. And now, Bonhams sold another 100 pieces. To my suprise many below the estimate .
For attentive buyers there were some interesting bargains to be made; some examples:
Volume 6 of the fantastic series Ivory Sculpture in Congo is due to be out on June 5th. A must have. This volume features articles on the Lega by Kellim Brown and Bernard de Grunne, as well as a study on non-figurative ivories of the Shi by Thomas Bayet & Pierre Loos.
Available during Bruneaf at Congo Gallery with a 50 € discount, so don’t sleep !