announced the sale of the Rosenthal Collection of Oceanic Art in Paris on 24 March 2010. The collection's origins date back over 40 years: Monsieur Rosenthal, who grew surrounded by works of art, settled in French Polynesia in 1967 and spent the next two decades there. He fell in love with the history and culture of the Pacific Islands, initially targeting works of art from New Guinea, then developing a passionate interest in the art of Oceania as a whole.
Monsieur Rosenthal acquired works in a variety of ways from chance encounters, from art market events, or from specialist dealers. He likens his collection to a "living entity made up of objects linked to one another by the same creative emotion."
The art of New Ireland, with eight pieces, unquestionably takes pride of place. This ensemble, one of the most important to appear on the market for many years, was built up over more than thirty years, starting with a Malangan frieze bought at the Plouvier Collection sale in 1974, and initially discovered during the German naval expedition of 1907-09. Along with Malangan figures and friezes, the ensemble also comprises a Uli figure, a mask, and a mouth ornament all appearing just as they did when these items first caught the attention of western artists, notably the Surrealists who were to play a significant role in spreading their reputation.
Perhaps the stand-out work item is an impressive, rare Malangan-style figure, probably representing a clan chief, standing on a single leg with arms outstretched, and with an openwork ribcage exposing his liver considered to be the source of life-giving force. The figure was formerly owned by Paul Eluard, then Maurice de Vlaminck, and impresses through both the rarity of the subject and the power of its pose and facial expression (lot 7, estimate 250,000-350,000*).
Another colourful masterpiece is a superb mask with a large, intricately carved nose-plank depicting a snake facing the ground in a zigzag movement. The asymmetrical hair arrangement adds to the mask's Surrealist feel (lot 6, est. 50,000-80,000). With its liberal use of blue paint and distinctive fretwork detail, a Malangan male figure, formerly in the Solvit Collection, provides a fine example of the time-honoured carving traditions of northern New Ireland (lot 8, est. 50,000-80,000).
The talent of New Ireland carvers was matched by that of their New Guinea counterparts, exemplified here by a lime spatula attributed to Mutuaga (c. 1860-1920), one of the few Melanesian artists to have been the subject of a book. The imposing, outsized head contrasts with the finesse of the ebony carving with its smooth patina; the lime underlines the relief patterning to the body and face (lot 22, est. 25,000-35,000 - see illustration).
Polynesia also figures prominently in the collection, notably with two figures from Easter Island: an extremely rare moai papa female figure (lot 13, est. 100,000-150,000); and a male moai kavakava (side figure) typical of Easter Island's most famous type of wooden figures with its emaciated silhouette, over-developed ribcage, and striking expression, derived from staring eyes formed by obsidian pupils ringed in bone (lot 12, est. 120,000-180,000). The figure was collected in 1868 by George Harvey, a crew-member of the visiting British frigate H.M.S. Topaze.
One of the jewels of the collection is an exceptional Maori hei tiki nephrite pendant from New Zealand of remarkable size, 7in (17.5cm) high. The eyes retain their rings of mother-of-pearl, incised with a radiating pattern that accentuates their iridescence (lot 11, est. 100,000-150,000). The pendant once belonged to the Comtesse de Béhague (1869-1939), famed both for her influence on Paul Valery and as a patron of the arts; her extensive picture collection adorned her aptly-named Riviera villa La Polynésie.