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Sotheby's to Offer African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
Important Nayarit Seated Couple in the Ixtlán del Rio Polychrome Style from the Protoclassic period, ca. 100 B.C-A.D. 250 (est. $250/350,000). Photo: Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s spring sale of African, Oceanic and Pre Columbian Art will be held on May 15, 2009, and will offer collectors a selection of tribal arts from important American and international private collections. The sale will comprise an especially rich offering of Oceanic works of art, several of which are the best of their kind. Works from the sale will be exhibited simultaneously with the single-owner sale of The Sculptor’s Eye: African and Oceanic Art from the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation beginning May 9.

Amongst the most prominent collectors of art from Papua New Guinea in the twentieth century are Marcia and John Friede from New York. Mr. and Mrs. Friede were pioneers in the field, starting their collection mid-century when the appreciation for the art of New Guinea was just beginning, and have made sharing their collection one of the central missions of their life. Counting more than 3,000 works, the collection they have put together is the greatest assembly of New Guinea art in the world.

One of the great masterpieces from the Collection of Marcia and John Friede, the Half-figure of the god IRIWÁKE, from the Papuan Gulf region of Papua New Guinea, is a representation of monumental majesty and magical power (estimate in excess of $1 million). Twodimensional carving from the Papuan Gulf region was popular among 20th century artists, and its influence can be seen in their work, most notably in the work of Jean Dubuffet. The IRIWÁKE figure was previously owned by Loed and Mia van Bussel from Amsterdam, who, like the Friedes, pioneered collecting of New Guinea art and assembled one of the world’s top collections. The figure’s discovery is well-documented; it was collected in 1966 by a German scientist, who later recalled to scholars that while much of the village had been destroyed, the figure had been well preserved, indicating it was still of outstanding cultural value to the inhabitants. Only one other figure of this extremely rare iconography is known to exist. IRIWÁKE, a powerful god of both war and headhunting, was carved with stone tools and dates to the pre-contact period. The god is depicted with large arms outstretched and raised; scholars have suggested that the white bolts that run the length of the figure’s arms represent lightning. The figure also wears a nose-stick and pendant made from the shell of the giant, or “murder,” clam – which can weigh up to 450 pounds. The stone-like shell is a prestigious material, given the size of the animal and the difficulty involved in harvesting and sculpting it. The IRIWÁKE figure from the Friede Collection is one of the major cultural remnants from the Papuan Gulf, one of the central images of an entire culture, and one of the major works of art from Papua New Guinea in the world.

Other featured works from the Friede Collection include a Magnificent Torres Strait Drum from Papua New Guinea (est. $300/500,000). The Torres Strait Islands are a group of at least 274 small islands that lie in Torres Strait, the waterway separating far northern continental Australia’s Cape York Peninsula and the island of New Guinea. Its inhabitants have produced some of the most impressive art in all of Melanesia. This hourglass-shaped drum, made from a single piece of wood, is carved with a wide mouth at one end, resembling a whale or large fish. It is a perfect blend between beauty and power, and is arguably the best example of this iconic genre.

A Superb Middle Sepik River Female Suspension Hook from Papua New Guinea will also be offered from the Friede Collection (est. $100/150,000). The hook boasts a strong provenance; it was formerly in the famed tribal art collection of Pierre Vérité in Paris. Carved with stone tools to represent an ancestral spirit and with a deep blackened patina from generations of use, the hook would have been used to hang bags or baskets from the ceiling.

The spring auction will also feature works from the Collection of Morton and Estelle Sosland of Kansas City, sold to benefit the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, which Morton Sosland helped to create in 1978. In just 30 years, the Community Foundation has partnered with an estimated 20,000 individuals to grant more than $1 billion to the community; has more than $1 billion in assets; and is recognized as a national leader in making sure every philanthropic investment returns the greatest emotional, civic and financial benefit possible.

Among the highlights from the Sosland Collection is a Magnificent and Extremely Rare Fijian-Tongan Composite Breastplate from the Republic of the Fiji Islands (est. $250/350,000). Breastplates made of mother of pearl with segments of sperm whale tooth attached, called civanovono, were an important royal adornment worn around the neck and secured to the chest by Fijian chiefs. A similar breastplate, in the collection of the Fiji Museum at Suva, is said to have been traded from one Fijian king to another in exchange for the owner’s life after his defeat in the 1850s. Civanovono breastplates rarely appear at auction, and are highly sought after by collectors for their rarity, craftsmanship and exquisite materials; the Sosland plaque is the most important example to appear at auction in thirty years.

Among the top works of African art is a Superb, Rare and Highly Important Fang-Betsi Reliquary Head from Gabon set on a base crafted by Japanese woodworker Inagaki (est. $200/300,000). This magnificent work of art recalls sculptures by Amedeo Modigliani, who is known to have studied African Art and might have seen this work in Paris during the 1910s and 1920s. The head has remained unseen and tucked away in the Minnesota collection of John P. Anderson for over 70 years. In 1935, Anderson, a young abstract painter, travelled to New York to see the groundbreaking exhibition at the then newly established Museum of Modern Art entitled African Negro Art. Never before had there been a public exhibition of African Art in the United States, and Anderson, like many young artists, went to see the inspirational sculptures that avant-garde artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Leger had studied. The show had a major impact on the young artist, and with money borrowed from his father he purchased thirteen works of African Art from Pierre Matisse Gallery and Valentine Gallery immediately after leaving the museum. The present work was purchased from the Charles Ratton Collection at Pierre Matisse gallery. Anderson never purchased another work of African Art and cherished his trophies until his death in 1999.

The sale will also feature a Superb and Highly Important Yoruba Door by Olówč of Isč, Nigeria (est. $80/120,000). For a traditionally anonymous art form such as African Art, the notion of an individual artist is rare, and only a handful of artists are known by name. Of all great known African artists, Olówč of Isč (1875-1939) is arguably the most famous. His work has been widely published and exhibited, and he is the only African artists whose work has been gathered in a catalogue raisonné published by Roslyn A. Walker in 1998. Olówč of Isč usually sculpted for local kings in Nigeria, and his doors adorned the most glamorous palaces in the area; however this door, with a square divination tray at the center, is thought to have been carved for a high ranking priest or a meeting house of such priests.

Another highlight will be a Superb Dogon, Wakara Style, Female Ancestor Figure from Mali (est. $200/300,000). Within the corpus of Dogon statuary, examples of the Wakara sub-style are exceedingly rare; only three other figures by the same hand are known.

Also among the works on offer from the Sosland collection will be a Superb Bamana Ntomo Mask from Mali attributed to the “Master of the Antelopes” (est. $100/150,000). In 1978, Ezio Bassani identified a group of 57 Bamana sculptures that he believed were created by the same workshop, called the “Masters of Segou.” Bassani went on to identify three distinct hands within the workshop: the “Master of the Slender Figures,” the “Master of the Bird of Prey Profile,” and the “Master of the Antelopes.” The Sosland Mask is a magnificent work by the “Master of the Antelopes,” and one of only seven masks known to exist by this maker, most of which are in museum collections, including the British Museum in London and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.

The Pre-Columbian works included in the sale will offer collectors a strong selection of gold, wood, ceramic and stone artifacts from established private collections. Leading that selection will be an Important Nayarit Seated Couple in the Ixtlán del Rio Polychrome Style from the Protoclassic period, ca. 100 B.C-A.D. 250 (est. $250/350,000). The couple, from a private American collection, is a magnificent example of the chiefly couples or clan rulers as depicted in ancient West Mexican ceramic art, and has been exhibited in major museum shows – in 1970 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in 1998 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Ancient West Mexican societies over 2,000 years ago lacked any system of writing, yet created superb ceramic pieces such as this couple. The pair would have been created to honor ancestors, be they a married couple, siblings, or the founders of a family line, and buried underground with food for the journey to the underworld. The figures are richly embellished with jewelry, body paint, costumes and adornments and hold in their hands artifacts associated with celebration – the female holds a bowl for food or drink while the male plays an instrument. The couple survives today as a celebration of kinship that also offers important information about the inhabitants of ancient West Mexico.

The sale will also include a Rare Zapotec Effigy Vessel, from the Monte Alban II period, dated circa 200 B.C.-A.D. 200 from the Morton and Estelle Sosland Collection (est. $40/60,000). The vessel shows the influence of the Olmec people and their symbolism on regional interpretations. It depicts the omnipotent earth monster or jaguar-dragon of the Olmec people combined with early forms of Zapotec iconography such as the snout, bifurcated fang, and scrolling brows.

Two Teotihuacan masks from the Classic period (ca. A.D. 450-650) will also be featured. The Greenstone Mask (est. $100/150,000) portrays an idealized face with elongated eyes. It is characteristic of the slightly smaller stone heads without ear flanges that served as the central element of the elaborately clad effigies used in civic and ceremonial events in the metropolis of Teotihuacan. The strong lime-green color of the Tecali stone mask (est. $70/90,000) enhances the idealized portraiture of the face, which probably would have been inlaid with shells or semiprecious stones.

Another highlight will be a Rare Veracruz Head with Cutaway Masks from the Veracruz or Possibly Puebla Region, dated circa A.D. 700-1200 (est. $20/30,000). Originally attached to an urn, the head evokes themes of duality and rebirth in its portrayal of the three stages of the life-cycle: the inner smiling face of youth, the wrinkled face of old age, and the bulging face of death.

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