The Man-Child of the Ntem Valley
2018 SOLD for $ 3.5M including premium
To perform their main function as a deterrent guardian of a reliquary chest of the byeri, these characters are male, highly sexualized with powerful rounded muscles. The three-pointed headdress is a warrior attribute. Yet the big head, the prominent navel and the short limbs have the proportions of a newborn child.
At the beginning of the 20th century European artists were seduced by this model of which all the known examples are of a perfect execution. The Fang-Mvai figure evokes the whole cycle of life in one character without losing any of its aesthetic balance. Expression in art does not need realism to arouse the emotion.
On June 15, 2011 Sotheby's sold for € 2,6M including premium one of these statuettes 53 cm high.
Another example 46 cm high is estimated $ 3M for sale by Sotheby's in New York on May 14, lot 16. With its patina still oozing the ritual palm oil, it is one of the most desirable pieces of tropical African art.
The Pahouin Heads
2020 SOLD for $ 3.5M including premium
The heads have this remarkable characteristic of bringing an individualization of the details within a general shape which is invariant : the forehead is broad and curved, the lips are tight, the chin is minimized, the neck is a cylinder. The artists also executed a superb polishing on their geometrically perfect curves.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when several of these Fang heads, identified as têtes Pahouines at that time, could be described and exhibited together, it was indeed the simultaneous observation of their similarities and of their differences that forever changed the modern European art.
For the family that kept the wooden head, the deceased was identifiable both by the facial features and by an attribute. However it is impossible for a modern observer to state whether a head is male or female, despite the diversity of hairstyles.
A 23 cm high Fang-Betsi head was sold for $ 3.64M including premium by Sotheby's on November 11, 2014 over a lower estimate of $ 600K. The nose is unusually big and the eyes are very near together. The specific attribute is a stick that crosses the nostrils.
On June 29 in New York, Sotheby's sells a 28 cm high Fang-Betsi head, lot 116 estimated $ 2.5M. The large eyes bring a mesmerizing expression. The specific attribute is a pair of wings placed on the ears and widely protruding behind the neck.
Collected 1915 Byeri in Gabon
2011 SOLD 2.6 M€ including premium
On June 15 in Paris, Sotheby's sells a masterpiece of the Fang art from Gabon.
It is a male figure 53 cm high. The anatomy is composed of strong volumes, with an expressive and oversized head, giving an idea of the authority of the character. The finely carved details are typical of the Mvaï group: large hairdress in three parts, wide almond shaped eyes, arched mouth very close to the chin.
The statuette collected around 1915 was transmitted only by family ties, and has never been available on the market. The collection once contained another byeri reliquary statue of similar quality, which was sold 5.5 MF by Loudmer in Paris on June 20, 1996, a price then considered as exceptional in its category.
Sotheby's has not released an estimate in its press release, but Le Monde announced an anticipated price around € 2M.
POST SALE COMMENT
The result is high but consistent with expectations: € 2.6 million including premium. The importance of this Fang figure was not in doubt.
The Eye of the Byeri
2015 SOLD for € 3.8M including premium
The deceased person had knowledge and wisdom and his death must not interrupt his teaching. The anthropomorphic fetish is the guardian of the reliquary containing the bones. The ancestor is not anonymous but the colonization deleted the oral traditions that applied to him.
The statuette is necessary for the initiation rites. The adolescent drinks a hallucinogenic concoction before spending a whole night in the presence of the figures of the ancestors. In this carefully organized delirium, he understands how he shall behave throughout his adult life.
This figure of the night is in blackened wood. Some Fang tribes add a refinement: large circular eyes in glued and pinned copper or brass have a hypnotizing effect. It is not surprising that the figures of the byeri, quite common, have fascinated the first European connoisseurs in the early twentieth century more than any other category of African tribal art.
On December 3 in Paris, Christie's sells one of the most described pieces, the Guillaume-Fourquet specimen acquired in 1965 by André Fourquet at the auction sale of the Paul Guillaume collection. It is estimated € 2M, lot 76.
This figure 55 cm high has two remarkable features: its black oozing lacquered patina is in very good condition and it still has one of its copper eyes. The loss of both forearms at the elbow can not be an accident or a coincidence. It has probably been voluntarily amputated at the time of its collection to prevent that its magic powers benefit the godless Europeans.
I invite you to watch the video shared by Christie's :
Collected < 1920 Kindness of a Fang Ancestor
2013 SOLD 1.45 M€ including premium
The date of their collection in Africa is not known, but these works are fairly accurately attributed to the Betsi population of the right bank of the Gabon River. The Vénus Pahouine, currently preserved at the Musée Dapper, is admirable for the accuracy of proportions, the beauty of shapes and carvings and the tranquility of expression.
A male figure 57 cm high for sale by Sotheby's in Paris on December 11 is one of these four major works, estimated € 500K.
This ancestor is intelligent, with the prominent and perfect sphere of his forehead. He listens to living people with his wide ears and his sulky mouth reflects his seriousness. The hands are joined to hold an offering cup.
This artwork was created more than one hundred years ago. The artist was obviously anonymous, which does not prevent to consider him as a master. Comparisons on the style and attitude of the body led to identify other statuettes made in the same workshop.
This remark is promising for the knowledge and understanding of African art. Indeed, the connoisseurs who found some unity of style in the Cycladic idols of the Schuster Master or much earlier in the paintings of Mathias Grünewald or of the Master of Flémalle have also started their expertise by comparing some specific features.
POST SALE COMMENT
The estimate was too conservative for this figure identified as a masterpiece by the catalog and the video. It was sold for € 1.45 million including premium.
I invite you to play the video shared by Sotheby's:
collected < 1920s Primitivism from De Miré to Rubin
2015 SOLD for € 5.5M including premium
The flat face in leaf shape is more or less stylized. It is placed on a wider oval on which they could hang ear ornaments. The hair is a crest looking like a military helmet and the hollowed diamond shape constituting the body is undoubtedly a symbol of female fertility.
Collected at an unknown date, which is the case for most of these pieces, a Kota figure 66 cm high had highly influenced the art of the twentieth century by the constructivist purity of its face limited to a central ridge between the two eyes positioned halfway up the head.
Its provenance is exceptional.
Its earliest identified owner is Georges de Miré in the 1920s. De Miré was one of very few connoisseurs at that time who knew to see an intrinsic artistic quality within a tribal piece.
Following financial difficulties, De Miré sold his collection at auction in Drouot on 16 December 1931. The Kota was purchased at this sale by Helena Rubinstein.
It was acquired in the early 1980s by William Rubin, the director in New York MoMA and former friend of Picasso who was able to interview the artists to explain the depth of the tribal influence on modern art, becoming the most subtle theorist of primitivism.
This figure is estimated € 6M for sale by Christie's in Paris on June 23, lot 37. The video shared by Christie's to introduce this lot is mostly a tribute to Rubin's exceptional vision.
The Kota Graveyard
2012 SOLD 1.08 M$ including premium
The Kota reliquary figures are familiar to lovers of African art, with their bodies in hollowed lozenge. This is not surprising. Their role is to identify the location of the receptacle containing the bones of the deceased, same as the Christian cross in a cemetery.
Their prices can vary enormously, depending on the size, on the quality of the carving and whether they are or not enhanced with metal. Some of them are Janus faced.
On 14 June 2011, Christie's sold € 1.2 million including premium a Kota reliquary figure from southeastern Gabon, 56 cm high, having belonged to the Ratton and Goldet collections. This wonderfully stylized piece is one to those which allow a parallel between African tribal art and modern art of the last century.
From Congo borderline to Gabon, a very different specimen is estimated $ 1M, for sale by Sotheby's on May 11 in New York., lot 131.
70 cm high and having belonged to the Arman collection, the mono-face Kota Ndasa reliquary figure is beautifully carved with both the realism of a portrait and an intense expression accentuated by the beauty of the scarifications.
POST SALE COMMENT
Good price but no surprise for this top quality Kota: $ 1.08 million including premium.
(exhibited 1933) The Head of the Ancestor
2017 SOLD for € 2.63M including premium
Full length bodies referred to family ancestors although their naturalistic appearance does not constitute recognizable portraits. They were used in ceremonies. Heads are rarer and had a more intimate ritual role. Coated with oil and powder, they were more likely designed to communicate with the primordial ancestor.
The Fang head for sale by Sotheby's in Paris on December 12 has a great history of provenance and exhibition at the time when that type of work was rightly considered as the best demonstration of the virtuosity of African artists. Louis Carré exhibited it in Paris in 1933. He sent it and commented on it in 1935 for the seminal exhibition of African art at the MoMA, also indicating the name of the collector who had brought it back from Gabon.
It retains a patina of use as well as traces of erosion created by ritual sampling. The curves are perfect without chisel error. This piece is estimated € 1,5M, lot 24.
Despite its naturalistic beauty it cannot be identified if this figure is a beardless man or a woman. The braid hairstyle does not close this issue in the Fang culture. It is likely that this ambiguity was voluntary and may be related to the ancient African tradition of hermaphroditic interpretation of the primordial ancestor.
Please watch the short video shared by Sotheby's.
@SothebysFr #Exposition #vente #enchère Tête Fang, Gabon. Socle de Kichizô Inagaki. Des provenances fabuleuses puisque collections Louis Carré, Charles Ratton, Gaston de Havenon, Claude Berri. Elle fut présentée à la mythique exposition @MuseumModernArt #NewYork @SophieDufresne pic.twitter.com/XDZZB9QNMS— lecurieuxdesarts (@PresseKraemer) December 8, 2017
2006 SOLD for € 5.9M including premium by Enchères Rive Gauche
narrated in 2011 before the sale of another item at Christie's (see below)
These are real masks as they hide the wearer's face without taking the lines of an ancestor's head. The art of the Ngil masks is minimalist and severe, and had a profound influence on the international art of the twentieth century.
These masks are simple and effective. Eyebrows highlight the forehead, the nose is small and straight and the mouth, when it is shown, does not help. The very small eye holes refer to a symbol of other civilizations: the blind justice.
The star lot of the huge Vérité collection was a Ngil mask 48 cm high, remarkable for the preservation of its white layer of kaolin despite intensive use. It was sold € 5M before fees, 5.9 M including premium by Enchères Rive Gauche in Paris on June 17, 2006.
A Ngil mask 58 cm high collected in the 1920s by a colonial administrator was sold by Christie's for € 930K including premium on December 13, 2011.
The White Face of Justice
2018 SOLD for € 2.4M including premium
To terrorize the evil-doers, the Ngil members were busy at night with much noise. To avoid being identified with an individual from the community, the dancer wore a helmet mask. Of course this practice soon became incompatible with the colonial administration and very few of these masks were preserved.
The Ngil mask shows a very elongated face whose features are refined. The prominent eyebrows join the bridge of the nose. The eyes are reduced to small slits and the mouth is minimized or absent. To accentuate their nocturnal power while evoking the livid world of spirits, they were whitened with kaolin. When examples were brought in Europe, they influenced modern art including Modigliani.
With an exceptional preservation of its white crust, the mask from the Vérité collection was sold for € 5.9M including premium by Enchères Rive Gauche on June 17, 2006. On the opposite, the mask sold for € 930K including premium by Christie's on December 13, 2011 had been used without a coating.
On October 30 in Paris, Christie's sells as lot 98 another Ngil mask which has preserved a very long and abundant hair, a small raffia beard and scarifications in the shape of a double arrow on both temples.
< 1950s The Spirit of the Equatorial Kwele Ancestor
2009 SOLD 970 K€ including premium
In the rainforest at the boundary of Gabon, Cameroun and the current Congos, magic and funerary practices have generated masterpieces. In their search for perfect beauty, Kota and Kwele artists sought to express a relationship with the afterlife.
Thus we focus on a Kwele sculpture, for sale by Sotheby's in Paris on June 17. It is a convex head attached to a stool shaped pedestal by a long pedunculate neck. We imagine that this false stool is intended to protect the head from the dirt and mud of the soil, but it can also collect magical substances. The total height of the object is 41 cm.
The slightly flattened oval of the head, the arched shape of the thick eyebrows, the slit eyes, the triangular nose, the chiseled cap attached on the back of the head, are geometrically perfect. The pale complexion and no mouth reinforce the mystery of this spirit of asexual ancestor, which we are told that it looked over the skulls of the dead.
The patina is old, but as always, or almost, it is not possible to identify the date of creation. However, it dates from before the eradication of witchcraft in these regions, in the 1950s. The estimate is 450 K €.
POST SALE COMMENT
The excellent result, 970 K € premium included, confirms that this statue was the masterpiece of this day of sales.