Object of the day: a Songye figure

(image courtesy of The British Museum)
(image courtesy of The British Museum)

A rare female Songye figure collected by Emil Torday in Lusambo in 1908, currently in the collection of The British Museum (#1908.Ty157). One of my favourite statues of the Songye; it’s head is truly amazing. Note that this specific shape of the lips is always a good indicator that you have an old example at hand.

You can browse the online collections of the British Museum here. Since many object records don’t yet feature a photo, don’t forget to tick the ‘images only’ box. A search on “Torday” gives a nice example of the scope of their holdings. Read more about Emil Torday here or in this book.

(image courtesy of The British Museum)
Portrait of Emil Torday holding a dead bird. Original Description: “Mokunji [sp.?] bird tabued by Batetela & Basonge.” (image courtesy of The British Museum)

Auction review: Sotheby’s Paris – June 18, 2013 – Part 2

Though not as dramatic as the sale of the Corlay collection (reviewed here), the second part of the last Sotheby’s Paris auction (18/06/13), with only just more than half of the African lots sold (29 / 56), wasn’t a big success either. 27 lots remained unsold (most notably the Sapi headSenufo couple and Yoruba bowlbearer). Including the premium, 10 objects sold under the estimate (for example the hide Lega mask), 14 within the estimate (for example the golden Baule menage à trois, which had higher expectations) and 5 above the estimate, with special mention to the Crowninshield Baule mask. Estimated at € 120-180K, it sold for € 781K to a telephone bidder in the US. Heavily cleaned and stripped from a fiber beard, it corresponds with a certain modernistic aesthetic which I personally don’t like at all, but which is very popular among many collectors (as proven by its price).

The most important work in the sale was a Songye headrest from the Jean H.W. Verschure collection collected F. Vandevelde before 1891. It didn’t fail to impress and quadrupled its estimate (€ 120-180K), selling for € 505K. The anthropomorphic neckrest did not show much use, but with its exceptional early provenance and counterpart in the Louvre was a one time only opportunity not to be missed.

The most memorable lot for auction in the sale was the Yoruba bowl from the Samir Borro collection. It was estimated at € 1,2-1,4 million but failed to sell. Bidding started at € 800K, went very slow and stopped at € 880K, after which the lot was passed. This final bid would already have been a record price, but apparently the reserve price was even higher. I would have taken the € 880K – already three times its actual value if you ask me.

A personal favourite was this Lower Niger bronze bell. With its 34 cm, this rare bell was very impressive in person. Showing that online bidding is now an integral option, the Luluwa figure was bought by a online viewer for € 32K. Worth a last mention, was a Hemba ancestor figure which was bought by a Belgian dealer for € 121K. If the workmanship of the body had matched the incredible head (in the much loved naturalistic style) this statue could have been sold for more than a million euro.


Sotheby's 67 Songye neckrest

Sotheby's 93 Yoruba bowl Borro

94 Baule mask

110 Hemba sotheby's

(all images courtesy of Sotheby’s)


Auction review: Sotheby’s Paris – June 18, 2013 – Part 1: Corlay collection

The Sotheby’s Paris auction of the Françoise & Jean Corlay collection (18/06/13) was anything but a success with only 16 of the 50 offered lots selling for a total € 752,700 (premium included). With a mere 32 % of the lots sold this dramatic result left the packed auction room in silence after quiet a noisy sale. Luckily for Sotheby’s, the cover lot, a rare janus Songye figure was sold – though also only just below the lower estimate with a final bid of € 340K (est. € 350-500K).

Explanations ? Firstly, from the 16 sold lots only 6 lots sold above the lower estimate (excluding the premium). One could thus conclude that Sotheby’s was a bit too enthusiastic with its pre-sale estimates. What to think of the estimate of € 4-6K for two ordinary Kuba boxes? There are many other examples were the difference with the real market price was too big to generate any interest. Stimulated by previous results and a tendency to overprice, the reserve prices often didn’t let much room for bidding. The ivory Mbuun whistle (Est. € 20-30K) for example only got a single bid (€ 15K).

Together with the high estimates, the Kinshasa provenance of many lots didn’t help either. Many collectors have been brainwashed by dealers that it is impossible to find authentic objects in situ. They know better of course; and in their turn were suprised with the huge difference between the Kinshasa prices (once paid by the Corlays) and the current estimates.

Lastly, the quality of some pieces left much to be desired. Lot 25, a Yombe figure, was withdrawn from the sale. Probably Sotheby’s was misguided by the fact that it was published in Lehuard’s Art Bakongo. Some objects were colonial (for example the Songye knife) and the estimates of many other lots didn’t correspond with their quality, for example this mediocre Songye figure (Est. € 6-9K) or its big ugly brother (Est. € 300-400K!).

So, who’s to blame? I doubt the Corlay family insisted on having such high estimates; though it might have been a bait by Sotheby’s while persuading them to entrust them with their collection. Despite the praising introductory texts of Frank Herreman and François Neyt, the collection was also missing some importance. The majority of the featured objects was never published or exhibited and the Corlay name remained largely unknown. Despite all efforts to present the collection as highly important, they thus failed to generate extra value with this presentation.

But, with the big grin of the janus Songye in mind, he who laughs last, laughs best; since the new owner of this fantastic masterpiece did make a bargain.

Janus Songye Figure Corlay

(image courtesy of Sotheby’s)


Auction results Bonhams NY, 15 May 2013

A short review of the results of the Bonhams sale of May 15th in NY. Before aftersale, about 50 % of the lots were sold. Overall results were as expected. Many of the excellent objects of daily use from the collection of Marc & Denyze Ginzberg were sold for next to nothing. The Chokwe figure on the front cover failed to sell, which shouldn’t be a suprise seen the high estimate.

Bonhams 15 May 2015

Some personal favourites:

– a rare Mossi doorpost, which sold for $ 3,125 inc. premium. A wonderful abstract form at a bargain price.

Mossi post Bonhams

– an interesting Yoruba door, which sold for $ 5,000 inc premium. It is featured in Henry Drewal’s African Artistry: Technique and Aesthetics in Yoruba Sculpture; a must read by the way.

Yoruba door Bonhams

– a miniature Songye figure with a turned head, wich sold for $ 20,000 inc. premium. Seen the difference in patination the body most likely once was covered. Two other figures from this artist are known.

Songye figure Bonhams

(images courtesy of Bonhams)