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Sotheby's to Sell the Philippe Guimiot & Domitilla de Grunne Tribal Art Collection
A Fang Mask, Gabon. Estimate: 70,000—100,000 EUR. Photo: Sotheby's.

PARIS.- The success of the sales of African & Oceanic Art in New York on May 15 shows that collectors' interest in rare objects in this field remains strong whatever the price-level. The two auctions – devoted to the Renée & Chaïm Gross Collection and items of varied provenance – totalled $10.5m, and yielded several world record prices.

On 17 June 2009 Sotheby’s France will present an exceptional sale of tribal art, featuring the personal collection of Philippe Guimiot and his wife Domitilla de Grunne, alongside works from European and American collections.

The sixty-five selected works in the collection from Africa, Oceania and South-East Asia include a number of masterpieces. Several have been widely exhibited in major international exhibitions such as Africa: Art of a Continent (London 1995-96), Mains de Maîtres (Brussels 2001), and Utotombo (Brussels 1988); many other sculptures have never been seen in public.

Philippe Guimiot was one of the greatest of all tribal art dealers, and was one of the very few to have spent nearly fifteen years in Africa pursuing his passionate interest in discovering different styles of tribal art, and revealing them to the western world. Now, after ceasing his activity as a dealer five years ago, he has decided to unveil his personal collection – formed over twenty years with his wife Domitilla de Grunne – to the public for the first time.

The collection has exquisite quality throughout. Each sculpture exudes its own individual appeal – reflecting Philippe Guimiot's "eye for the absolute." Emotional power, he says, is vital: "The emotion within a work is largely proportional to its degree of perfection in attaining the essential truths which sculpture seeks to express." Armed with this belief, Philippe Guimiot and Domitilla de Grunne repeatedly showed their commitment to individual masterpieces. Over the years Philippe presented works of great quality from across the continent of Africa and the islands of Oceania to both institutions and international collectors. Domitilla and Philippe used the same conviction in acquiring works for their own collection.

Philippe Guimiot & Domitilla de Grunne Collection: Highlights
Perhaps the finest tribute paid by collectors and connoisseurs to Philippe Guimiot's eye and approach is the widespread acceptance today of his definition of Arts Premiers (considered as non-western art, covering the leading artistic productions of aub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and Oceania) as "vital evidence of ancient art dating from the origins of humanity."

Among the Guimiot-de Grunne collection highlights is a large Urhobo female figure from Nigeria, 4ft6in (1.38m) tall, collected in situ by Philippe Guimiot in 1969 (estimate €300,000-500,000*), formerly in the collection of Comte Baudouin de Grunne and exhibited at the important show, Utotombo, in 1988. Guimiot bought the figure back from de Grunne in 2000. The figure's monumental appeal derives from its sheer size, its magnificent carving, and its superbly dignified pose and linear precision, an example of Urhobo art at its peak. Such edjo re akare statues (or "spirits in sculpted form") were made in homage to ancestors: the importance of the ancestor commemorated here is clear from her necklace and head-dress, typical of high-born women in the 19th century. Alongside the maternity figure in the Musée du Quai Branly, and the male figure formerly in the Roger Vanthournout Collection (both also collected by Philippe Guimiot in the late 1960s), it counts as one of the leading masterpieces of Urhobo art. It was Guimiot who brought these monumental statues to worldwide attention in the early 1970s.

Another iconic sculpture, which equally stands out through its exceptional monumentality, is a highly important and rare Bamileke Queen figure with Child, 5ft 2in (1.58m) tall, from the Bamenda Grasslands, Cameroon (est. €500,000-800,000). This royal portrait belonged to the fabled collection assembled by the British-American sculptor Jacob Epstein in the early years of the 20th century. The maternity figure was photographed in his London flat (alongside other major pieces, like the Fang figures now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée Dapper) shortly before his death in 1959. This archetypal royal statue from western Cameroon, one of the most ancient sculptures in the Epstein collection, counts as a masterpiece of African monumental statuary.

A Bongo memorial figure from Sudan, 4ft 8in (1.32m) tall, was collected in situ by Christian Duponcheel between 1969 and 1971 (est. €250,000-400,000). This carved effigy of a great hunter was revealed by Philippe Guimiot at the Sculptures Africaines exhibition in Antwerp in 1975, and subsequently shown at Africa: Art of a Continent (London 1995) and Mains de Maîtres (Brussels 2001). The figure is considered one of the most inspired creations of long-neglected East African art, which Philippe Guimiot worked tirelessly to promote, notably by ensuring the best Duponcheel figures found such prestigious homes as the Menil Collection, Houston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The figure belonged to Count Baudouin de Grunne for nearly 30 years before it was acquired by Philippe Guimiot and Domitilla de Grunne.

After many years in Africa, Guimiot returned to Europe and settled in Brussels – the main market-centre for works of art from the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Belgian Congo). Works from D.R. Congo figure prominently in the collection. The powerful Songye fetish figure, 2ft 10in (87cm) tall was collected in situ by Karen Plasmans (est. €300,000-450,000). This figure was crucial in helping François Neyt identify the carving workshop in the Eki/Kalebwe region in his monumental study of Songe statuary. The figure shows a characteristic hair arrangement of four braids pointing skywards. Power and sensitivity are perhaps the two words which most accurately express the feelings inspired by this mediator between men and spirits.

With superb carving and profound spirituality, a magnificent and rare Chokwe female mask, 9in (24cm) tall, is one of a trio of magnificent pwo masks – symbolizing women's essential role in Chokwe's matrilineal society – which reflect the stylistic variety of the great Chokwe nation at the height of its sculptural prowess (est. €300,000–450,000).

Between 1972 and 1975 Philippe Guimiot travelled extensively through South-East Asia, becoming one of the first dealers to visit Sumatra, Mentawai, Borneo, the Philippines, Sulu Islands and highlands of Vietnam. He set aside for his personal collection the wonderful Jarai funerary figure, 3ft 1in (94cm) tall, from Vietnam's Central Highlands (est. €70,000-100,000). Its balance, concentrated volumes and sensitive carving, imbued with deep religious significance, provide powerful evidence of an ancient art form dating from the dawn of mankind. These large sculptures, evoking ancestors in the foetal position, were carved on posts surrounding burial enclosures.

The grandeur of Oceanic art is thrillingly evoked by a superb Maori canoe prow, 17in (44cm) tall, acquired by Major-General Horatio Robley in New Zealand in 1864, and dating from the late Te Puawaitanga period (est. €250,000-350,000). It illustrates the perfection attained during the heyday of Maori art. With its sinuous lines and subtle carving, a splendid Lake Sentani tribal house-post from Papua Province (Indonesia), 6ft 11in (2.1m) tall, reflects the elegant mastery and emotion contained in the art of Lake Sentani, which so impressed the Surrealists (est. €150,000-250,000).

The sale of African & Oceanic Art also has a further 67 lots of varied provenance, each selected as if to form a collection.

Highlights include a rare Kwele "altar" figure (Gabon), 16in (41cm) tall, whose striking design – with the head on an elongated neck emerging from a stool-shaped support. The figures isone of the most powerful creations of Kwele art (est. €450,000-600,000). The style of this ancient head – probably the image of an illustrious ancestor – combines the amazingly imaginative powers of the Kota with the radical yet delicate stylization of the finest Kwele works.

An array of sculptures from the Democratic Republic of Congo explores various forms and themes in an extraordinary range of styles. Among the sculptures offered is a superb Kongo ivory staff finial, 8in (20.5cm) tall, with powerful volumes and intensely expressive eyes made of lead, with deep blue pâte de verre pupils (est. €150,000-200,000). This figure was reproduced in Tardy's Les Ivoires (1977), the history of ivory carving worldwide.

Other highlights include a rare Lega figure, 14in (36cm) tall, with an imposing head and armless, radically stylized body (est. €80,000-100,000); and a rare Kongo/Vili figure, 15in (38cm) tall (inc. handle), from the Collection of W.D. Webster (1868-1913). This features a standing figure atop a stick, with a powerful profile, delicately worked features, and highly unusual pose (est. €60,000-90,000). A superb Luba cup-bearer, 12in (31cm) tall, is one of the most beautiful known examples of the Lower Lukuga style from one of the most accomplished Luba carving workshops. The figure recalls the sacred authority of cup-bearers in Luba culture (est. €130,000-180,000).

The sale also includes a fine selection of works from Oceania. The tremendous sculptural richness of Pacific art is reflected by the quasi-abstract appeal of a large, fine Urama male figure from the Gulf of Papua (New Guinea), 5ft (1.52m) tall (est. €60,000–90,000); and by the Surrealist appearance of a fine, rare Malagan mask from New Ireland, 3ft 4in (1.02m) tall (est. €35,000–50,000).

Other works embody the striking power of Kanak art from New Caledonia: a 17-inch (44cm) mask with an imposing "parrot-beak" nose (est. €50,000–80,000); a superb finial figure, 3ft 8in (1.13m) tall, incorporating a powerful, stylised figure carved in the round (est. €30,000–50,000); and an impressive door jamb with black, yellow and red patterning, 5ft 4in (1.64m) tall (est. €40,000–70,000).

Sotheby's | Philippe Guimiot | Domitilla de Grunne | Africa | Oceania | South-East Asia | Nigeria |

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