2018 SOLD for $ 3.5M by Sotheby's
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.
A Fang-Mvai figure was sold for $ 3.5M by Sotheby's on May 14, 2018, lot 16. With its patina still oozing the ritual palm oil, it is one of the most desirable pieces of tropical African art.
2011 SOLD for € 2.6M by Sotheby's
On June 15, 2011, Sotheby's sold for € 2.6M 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.
2021 SOLD for € 7.7M by Christie's
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.
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.
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. As early as 1906, Vlaminck, Derain, Braque and Matisse shared the new craze for African art, soon followed by Picasso.
On June 23, 2021, Christie's sold for € 7.7M from a lower estimate of € 2M a 35 cm high Fang-Betsi head that had belonged to Vlaminck, lot 9. Most of these reliquary pieces have a specific feature enabling to the tribe to identify the ancestor. It is in this case the trefoil headdress on the back of the skull.
2014 SOLD for $ 3.64M by Sotheby's
2020 SOLD for $ 3.5M by Sotheby's
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.
2017 SOLD for € 2.63M by Sotheby's
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.
A Fang head was sold for € 2.63M from a lower estimate of € 1.5M by Sotheby's on December 12, 2017, lot 24.
It had 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.
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
Fang Reliquary Figure
2015 SOLD for € 3.8M by Christie's
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, 2015, Christie's sold at lot 76 for € 3.8M from a lower estimate of € 2M 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.
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.
Please watch the video shared by Christie's :
Kota Reliquary Figure
2015 SOLD for € 5.5M by Christie's
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 was sold for € 5.5M by Christie's on June 23, 2015, lot 37. The video shared by Christie's to introduce this lot is a tribute to Rubin's exceptional vision.
Kota Helmet Mask
2021 SOLD for € 3.26M by Christie's
to be narrated later
2006 SOLD for € 5.9M by Enchères Rive Gauche
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 kaolin crust, the mask from the Vérité collection was sold for € 5.9M by Enchères Rive Gauche on June 17, 2006.
On October 30, 2018, Christie's sold for € 2.4M 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.
On the opposite, the mask sold for € 930K by Christie's on December 13, 2011 had been used without a coating.