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Sotheby's announces upcoming African & Oceanic art auction in Paris this December
Yoruba, Nago Figure, Benin. Haut. 48 cm., 18 4/5 in. Estimate: 400 000-600 000 €. Photo: Sotheby's.

PARIS.- Sotheby’s next sale of African & Oceanic Art in Paris on December 14 will include a highly selective ensemble of 100 lots. Some have remarkable provenance, whilst others are appearing on the market for the first time.

Two Exceptional Yoruba/Nago Figures (Benin)
The two Yoruba/Nago altar-figures which Sotheby’s has to offer for sale are extraordinary for both their quality and rarity. Very few altar-figures from this part of Benin are known. They are the work of a remarkably talented and imaginative artist, and served as complementary ritual items intended for a specific altar. As with many ancient altar and veranda figures, they reflect how Yoruba society was balanced between the assertive power of men, as hunter-warriors and horsemen, and the concealed, more intimate power of women (est. €400,000-600,000 each).

Five Emblematic African Masks
A Boa mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a type cited by William Rubin as an aesthetic influence on Picasso, offers a contrast between its powerful expression and the geometric purity of its form. The peoples in this region seldom used masks, making those of the Boa all the rarer, and aesthetically among the most emblematic (est. €200,000-300,000).

With its tense lines and sharp forms, a powerful Bete-Guro mask from the Ivory Coast counts as one of the most remarkable examples of a very limited body of work in an ancient yet highly-developed style; two of the most remarkable of these masks are in the Musée du Quai Branly and the British Museum (est. €120,000-180,000).

A very old Yoruba-Nago mask in wood, used during the Efe-Gelede ceremony, is a characteristic work of Yoruba art from South-West Benin, and notable for the finesse of its modelling. Its face and penetrating eyes capture the essential beauty and authority of female ancestors (est. €150,000-200,000).

Paradoxically, some masterpieces of African sculpture were not actually seen during the ritual ceremonies for which they were made. Such was the case with black Punu masks, whose colour symbolized their relationship with the forces of the spirit world. A very small number of these masks, which have a similar morphology to white masks but are stained entirely black, exist. An Ikwara mask from South Gabon, today revealed to the world after being used for so long in secret rituals in the equatorial forest, is a rare work of great significance, both for its exceptional formal quality and its great age (est. €350,000-450,000).

A rare mask formerly in the collection of Félix Fénéon is an outstanding example of the ‘enveloping horns’ type of Kwele mask, identified as emblems of the Beete initiatory society forwarriors and dignitaries, whose role was to call on magic forces to resolve crises, chase away danger, and bless the village’s collective life. In its highly stylized interpretation of great antelope horns, this iconic mask evokes both a guardian ancestor and a forest spirit (est.€200,000-250,000).

Large, commemorative effigies of Yombe chiefs, which were created to perpetuate the memory of the individuals they honoured, are very rare and count among the highlights of such major institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The pose of these Yombe figures expresses the moral, political and religious code of the Kongo civilization to which they were linked. The effigy figure offered for sale here stands out for its magico-religious powers, attested to by the large cavity hollowed out of the abdomen, signifying the importance of the individual portrayed and of his powers of intercession and protection (est. €250,000-400,000).

Among the very limited corpus of large Lekat figures, the Bangwa figure from Cameroon to be offered by Sotheby’s is one of the most majestic. The intense facial expression is matched by the powerful volumes and numerous magico-religious receptacles of the body. The eastern Bangwa produced a highly expressionistic form of art, exemplified by these large ‘Lekat’ figures which were conserved for generations rather than being replaced; few were ever ceded to outsiders (est. €250,000-350,000).

After the record €5.4m result for the Harry Bombeeck female caryatid stool by the Buli Master in Paris in December 2010, Sotheby’sforthcoming sale will include a reliquary head attributed to the same sculptor, just over 3 inches (8cm) tall. The discovery of a previously unknown work by the famous Luba sculptor is a major event, all the more important in that no other reliquary item by the Buli Master is known. Apart from illustrating the historical links between politics and religion in Luba society, the head counts as a very rare and moving work-in-miniature by the Buli Master (est. €70,000-100,000).

Three Ivory Masterpieces
A hitherto unpublished Hungaan anthropomorphic figure (D.R.Congo) is a superb testament the ‘Golden Age of Ivory Carving’ that must have flowered over 200 years ago in the Congo. The figure can be added to the four others of this type known, including one from the Charles Ratton Collection now on view at the Pavillon des Sessions (Louvre Museum). These figurines can be linked to fertility, metempsychosis or the ancestor cult (est.€30,000-50,000).

Also from the D.R. Congo, a Lega figure formerly in the collection of Julius & Josefa Carlebach, New York, perfectly reflects the stylistic complexity of Lega ivory carving. This isengo (sacred initiation object), with its attractive glossy patina, is the work of a creative genius (est.€200,000-300,000).

The section also includes an enormously elegant Kikuyu bracelet(Kenya). The finest example of its type, the bracelet was collected in situ in 1906. Formed in two sweeping crescents, the perfection and audacity of the bracelet’s form is complemented by the remarkably rich and complex patina; honey-coloured and reddish-brown on the outside, deep brown on the inside (est. €80,000-120,000).

Ritual Items from Oceania
An exceptional, delicately carved Polynesian god stick belongs to the celebrated corpus of traditional carvings from Rarotonga (Cook Islands). Sculptures of this form are extremely rare; this is one of only sixteen full-sized god sticks of this type known to be conserved in private or public collections. These objects are interpreted as providing an emblematic ‘home’ for divine spirits during religious ceremonies. It has also been suggested that they are genealogical staffs made for the royal family (est. €200,000-300,000).

Moai tangata moko ‘lizard-men’ figures are amongst the most enigmatic of Easter Island sculptures, and Sotheby’s will be offering one that is astonishingly expressive. Easter Island mythology accords special importance to the lizard and the notion of metamorphosis, although little is known of the precise meaning of these figures. For nearly forty years the avant-garde writer and gallery-owner Daniel Cordier, who took part in the famous Surrealism exhibition at the Galerie Charpentier in 1964, considered this figure to be one of the most important works in his collection (est.€150,000-200,000).

A rare, hitherto unpublished figure from the Biwat people, Papua New Guinea is of remarkable social, ceremonial and religious significance. Biwat art is undoubtedly the source of the most powerfully expressive human figures created in New Guinea. The Biwat themselves held these carvings – placed atop great sacred bamboo flutes – as their most important and sacred sculptures (est. €80,000-120,000).

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