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African & Oceanic Art Sale at Sotheby's in Paris totals $10.5 million well clear of high estimate
An exceptional Fang reliquary figure attributed to a Master Sculptor from the Upper Ntem Valley, which fetched the day’s highest price of €1,632,750 / $2,030,700 (lot 13, est. €400,000-600,000). Photo: Sotheby's.
PARIS.- The sale of African & Oceanic Art in Paris brought a remarkable €8,441,275 ($10,498,667), one of the highest-ever totals for a Tribal art sale at Sotheby’s France. The sustained bidding in a packed saleroom, complemented by telephone bidders from around the world, reflected the sale’s remarkable quality and series of coherent ensembles: the Oliver & Pamela Cobb Collection and Thomas G.B. Wheelock Collection of art from Burkina Faso, both from the United States; and an ensemble of African masks and other major works never seen on the market before.

To Marguerite de Sabran, Head of African & Oceanic Art at Sotheby’s Paris: ‘The price obtained for the masterpiece of Fang carving from the Cobb Collection was a magnificent illustration of our efforts and commitment to encouraging appreciation of outstanding works from Africa and Oceania, and to promoting them at the highest level.’

The auction began with the Oliver & Pamela Cobb Collection (lots 1-21), which doubled its €1.8m high estimate to yield €3,580,450. The highlight was an exceptional Fang reliquary figure attributed to a Master Sculptor from the Upper Ntem Valley, which fetched the day’s highest price of €1,632,750 / $2,030,700 (lot 13, est. €400,000-600,000).* This magnificent specimen of ancestor statuary with its rounded volumes, produced for the Betsi people from northern Gabon, is one of the very few works of Fang statuary identified as by the hand of this master.

Collectors were equally swift to recognize the importance of a Kuba anthropomorphic cup (published by Basler in 1929) as a masterpiece of its kind: bidding soared to €780,750 / $971,042 (lot 17, est. €50,000-70,000).

A superb, ancient ancestor effigy figure attributed to the Northern Hemba, counting among the most significant in Hemba art, reached €492,750 / $612,848 (lot 18, est. €250,000-350,000). Although the identity of the chiefs they commemorated is now lost, these effigies served to keep alive the memory of those they honoured while protecting the chief and members of the clan.

Sotheby’s also offered the second part of the Thomas G.B. Wheelock Collection - the most expansive and remarkable collection of art from Burkina Faso, in terms of both quality and age. The star lot here was an exceptional Bwa butterfly mask, shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1996, which soared past its €250,000 high estimate to €624,750 / $777,020 (lot 57). A Bobo mask, considered the most imposing of its type, sold for €77,550 / $96,451 (lot 63, est. €25,000-40,000).

Then came a fascinating ensemble of masks from across Africa celebrating the aesthetics of power, including the Igala headpiece (Nigeria) from the Ben Heller Collection which cleared its €300,000 high estimate to make €360,750 / $448,676 (lot 69). This was probably used during ceremonies commemorating either a famous warrior or the decapitated captive of a local hero. The rich patina suggests it may be 100-150 years old.

Another keenly disputed mask was a masterfully expressionistic Guere mask from Ivory Coast, which tripled its €180,000 high estimate at €576,750 / $717,321 (lot 30).

Previously unpublished masterpieces were to be found throughout the sale, like an exceptional Bete/Guro mask (Ivory Coast) from the Jean-Baptiste Filloux Collection that belongs to one of the most iconic and restricted bodies of work in the history of African Art. It was collected between 1911-13 and is similar to a mask in the Tzara Collection, acquired by the French State in 1988, and to a mask in the Art Institute of Chicago; it fetched €384,750 / $478,525 (lot 40, est. €250,000-400,000).

Polynesian items enjoyed the greatest success among the section devoted to Oceanic Art. A male figure from Easter Island, used in domestic cults, claimed €216,750 / $269,578 (lot 133, est. €100,000-150,000). It belongs to a precious yet little-collected family of objects; the wear and use which have rounded its sharp corners down the years reflect its active ceremonial life, and help make it among the most iconic of Easter Island works of art.

Two wooden clubs, reflecting the virtuoso technique of Polynesia sculptors, also aroused fierce bidding: an akatara pole club from the Cook Islands, which brought €120,750 / $150,180 against a top estimate of €70,000 (lot 134); and a u’u club from the Marquisas Islands, sold for €96,750 / $120,331 (lot 132, est. €70,000-100,000).

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