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Sotheby's announces the first, and most probably only, dedicated “Bears & Skulls” auction
Paola Pivi’s, Life is Great, 2007, est. £50,000-70,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- This March, Sotheby’s invites you to Bear Witness, a week-long exhibition and auction of one of the most extraordinary collections to have ever been assembled. Acquired over decades of peripatetic travel by a single, roving collector, Bear Witness will transform the entire 18,000 feet of Sotheby’s historic New Bond Street premises into a wonderland of astonishing art and curious artefacts from the 4th to the 12th March 2015.

Major works by the pioneers of post-war and contemporary art will feature alongside countless artefacts, curiosities and objets d’art drawn from across the globe. From Warhol, Hirst and Rothko to Renaissance-era marble skulls and 19th-century theatrical props - from the classical to the kitsch - it is a collection with no parallel or precedent. This remarkable collection, guided by the unique passions of the collector, is unified by two recurring motifs - the bear and the skull. Without doubt, they are two of the most potent symbols in the history of human culture: the bear, a totem of power, strength and life; the skull, a reminder of our own mortality, a memento mori.

Three sales will take place over three consecutive days, culminating with the first, and most probably only, dedicated “Bears & Skulls” auction on 12 March. The sheer breadth and diversity of the works on offer is reflected in their estimates, which range from as little as £20 to in excess of £2,000,000.

“This truly idiosyncratic collection is a modern day Wunderkammer, assembled to inspire and amaze. Crossing every continent, from Mexico to Japan, Indonesia to China, “Bear Witness” encompasses everything form the contemporary to the curious. Quite possibly the most extraordinary exhibition Sotheby’s has staged in its 270-year history – it is a unique opportunity to see works by the likes of Hirst, Warhol and Koons alongside the objects and ephemera that inspired them. When else will you see Sotheby’s selling a Rothko in the same auction as a can of coke?” - Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art, London.

Bear Witness refuses to be limited to one national tradition, stylistic school, or artistic moment. It directly inherits the tradition of the Wunderkammern – or Cabinet of Curiosity - the encyclopaedic collections that emerged in Renaissance Europe as precursors to the modern museum. Wunderkammer were assembled to inspire awe and amazement, and formulated with the fundamental questions of humanity in mind. Like its historical forbears, the Bear Witness collection is similarly unified by its focus on the enduring preoccupations of human civilisation.

Artists throughout the ages have used the human skull as a symbol to refer to the inescapable fact of our own mortality. From the crystal skulls of the Aztecs, to Hamlet’s “Poor Yorick”, to the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors, it has stood as a Memento Mori or Vanitas, a reminder of one’s mortality and the vanity of earthly pursuits. Bear Witness charts this continuing human preoccupation through works as diverse as an oak skeleton from a 17th century funerary monument, a Japanese skull–shaped carved ivory Okimono and Edvard Munch’s haunting, The Kiss of Death. Today’s artists also continue to be obsessed with this eternal theme: Marina Abramovich’s Carrying the Skeleton shows the artist struggling under the weight of her own demise in a piggyback of bathetic morbidity, while Damien Hirst’s Untitled Birthday Card, literally records death itself, capturing the exact moment that live butterflies flapped onto the sticky surface of household gloss paint, never to take off again.

From death, the collection moves seamlessly into that other pillar of humanity: sex, which it covers unashamedly and in detail with Keith Haring, Allen Jones and Warhol. The bear, of course, is the other great guiding motif of the collection, most eye-catchingly embodied in Paola Pivi and Bertozzi e Casoni’s life-sized polar bears and extending through bear-themed posters, candlesticks, cigarette cases and cocktail shakers; even a vintage “bear-hunt” arcade game.

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