Sotheby's to offer the first work of classical African art in any Contemporary Art Evening Sale this June

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Sotheby's to offer the first work of classical African art in any Contemporary Art Evening Sale this June
The Clyman Fang Head. Fang-Betsi Reliquary Statue, Gabon. Estimate $2.5/4 million. Courtesy Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s announced that they will offer The Clyman Fang Head – one of the most important works of African Art ever to appear at auction – in their Contemporary Art Evening Auction to be held in New York the week of 29 June. On offer from the The Collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman with an estimate of $2.5/4 million, the reliquary statue will be the first work of classical African Art to be presented in any contemporary art evening sale.

During the marquee sale week this June, Sotheby’s will also present African Art from the Collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman in a dedicated auction and a selection of fine art from the collection will be offered across the Contemporary, Impressionist & Modern and American art sales.

Clients and visitors can expect extra precautions to ensure the safety of employees and visitors, as well as creative opportunities for those wishing to preview the exhibitions and participate in the auctions – from in-person and virtual appointment viewings to enhanced digital experiences. Sotheby's will announce a more detailed schedule in due course, including relevant exhibition plans.

Alexander Grogan, Vice President and Head of Sotheby’s African & Oceanic Art Department in New York commented: “The Clyman Fang Head is a legendary and iconic work of art, and we are privileged to showcase a work of its quality and provenance on one the biggest stages in the art world at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale. It is unprecedented to present a work of classical African Art in a contemporary art auction, and our decision to do so celebrates the Clyman’s visionary taste and foresight in pairing African Art with modernist and abstract 20th century art, and highlights the natural aesthetic affinities between these works. The Clyman Fang stands out as an indisputable masterpiece of the Clyman’s collection, and we are excited to share it in a new setting this June.”

David Galperin, Head of Sotheby’s Evening Auction of Contemporary Art in New York said: “We are excited to present the exquisite Clyman Fang Head to a new audience of collectors for the first time in our Contemporary Art Evening auction. Beyond its renown as a legendary icon of classical African Art, what struck me about this singular sculpture when I first saw it in the Clyman home alongside their collection of Post-war art was how its form appeared so radical and purely modern. It is a privilege to position the Fang Head in dialogue with groundbreaking 20th Century artists who were deeply influenced by African art such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. As one of the finest examples of its kind, the Clyman Fang Head transcends categories. Offering this work in our Contemporary Art Evening Auction is a testament to the sculpture’s enduring aesthetic relevancy and represents a shift not only in how we showcase masterworks at Sotheby’s, but how collectors look across traditional boundaries to seek the very best of modern visual expression.”

“African art is not realism and not completely abstract. Rather, it combines both in a new form of art that inspired and excited the modern masters in the beginning of the [20th] century and which was incorporated in their masterpieces. When African sculpture and the work of expressionism, cubism and abstraction are placed side by side, they "work" together and "belong". This is what we find so exciting. The unique imagination of these self-trained craftsmen in their work for mystical, religious and other purposes was a far cry from the conventional art we all knew. Even though years have passed, the thrill of seeing and holding these wooden sculptures has not passed.” * - Sidney & Bernice Clyman

The Clymans began their long collecting adventure as clients of the renowned dealer Gaston De Havenon in the early 1970s when the market for collecting African Art emerged in America. In over half a century of collecting, the couple assembled a small but superb group of masterpiece-caliber examples of the major sculptural styles of sub-Saharan Africa. Through the influence of visionary gallerist Allan Stone and the pioneering African-American dealer, Jazz musician and painter Merton D. Simpson, the Clymans also began collecting abstract 20th century art. These dealers and the artists they represented opened an exciting universal world of artworks, and this concept found a fertile and harmonious place in the Clymans’ Scarsdale home in a dialogue between African art and 20th century artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, Willem De Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Jean Dubuffet, Franz Kline and Nicolas de Stal.

Auction Week of 29 June
The stunningly elegant female head from a reliquary ensemble expresses the universal artistic ideas developed by pre-Colonial African artists which were transmitted to modern Western masters in the early 20th century, including Constantin Brncuși and Amadeo Modigliani. This artistic connection is particularly evident in Modigliani’s famed stone head sculptures. Fang art, from present-day Gabon, has been described as ‘the very summit of African creativity’ and is perennially the style of African art most coveted by collectors. The Clyman Fang Head is one of the finest exponents of this tradition with its exceptionally elegant geometric form, and important history.

Throughout its lifetime, the Clyman Fang Head has frequently been in dialogue with and positioned alongside modern and contemporary art. The first known Western owner was Charles Ratton, the Parisian doyen of African art dealers and connoisseurs who handled many of the most revered masterpieces in the field. Ratton published the head in 1931 in Masques Africains, an important work in establishing the canon of great African art. In the 1930s the head was acquired from Ratton by James Johnson Sweeney, the visionary American modern art curator and writer, who, with the assistance of Ratton, organized the legendary 1935 exhibition African Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sweeney kept the head in his Mies van der Rohe designed New York apartment along with his small but exquisite collection of modern art, which included major works by Mir, Mondrian, and Calder. When Sweeney’s estate was sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 1986 the head was acquired by William McCarty-Cooper, who had inherited the art historian and collector Douglas Cooper’s fabled collection of Picassos and other Cubist works. The sculpture last appeared on the market in 1992 when the Clymans acquired it at auction in New York.

It was shown in 1995-96 at the Royal Academy in London and at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in the monumental exhibition Africa: Art of a Continent and was later included in the 2008 exhibition Eternal Ancestors: Art of the Central African Reliquary at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Contemporary Art Evening Auction also includes works from the Clyman Collection by Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky.

Auction Week of 29 June

Featuring 32 works, African Art from the Collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman is one of the finest collections of Sub-Saharan African Art in the world and one of the last remaining collections from the golden age of African Art collecting in the US during the 1960s and 70s. Epitomizing the taste of American collectors of that period, the Clyman Collection is particularly strong in classic reliquary sculpture of Central Africa, including major examples of Fang and Kota Art from the equatorial forests of the Atlantic coast. Leading the dedicated auction is a masterpiece by the greatest of all Kota artists, a Reliquary Figure by the Sebe River Master of the Skull Head (estimate $500/700,000), which was previously in the legendary collections of Charles Ratton, Morris J. Pinto, and Murray Frum, and appeared in the exhibition and publication Eternal Ancestors: Art of the Central African Reliquary at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007-8. An extraordinarily large and radically abstract Mahongwe Reliquary Figure (estimate $300/500,000) from Gabon was also included in Eternal Ancestors and represents one of the largest and finest surviving examples from this small but iconic corpus. Complimenting the Clyman Fang Head is a full-figured Fang Reliquary Statue (estimate $250/350,000) of cubistic aesthetics, which was previously in the collection of Gaston de Havenon.

Other highlights include an early and expressive Songye Mask (estimate $70/100,000) acquired by the Clymans from Merton D. Simpson, and a rare and exceptionally fine Senufo Male and Female Couple (estimate $100/150,000), in which the male is depicted on horseback, and was published in the landmark MoMA project “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art in 1984.

*Three African Traditions: The Art of the Dogon, Fang and Songye, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1999.

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