african masksBenin-Bronze
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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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read also about the Vienna symposium on Benin Bronzes

benin bronze Oba

A Fine Benin Bronze Figure of an Oba, 18th/19th century 
Estimate: $60,000-80,000

Sale 1278, Lot 63 April 3, 2003 Christies New-York
Benin bronze


Oba of Beninfound at: April 2003

18th/19th century
Standing with the arms held forward, the right hand holding a ceremonial sword, eben, the left with the palm facing downwards, wearing a beaded headdress with pierced side flanges and feather to one side, cylindrical projection at the center, beaded lattice tunic, beaded crossed baldrics, the kilt, belukus, decorated with a horizontal band with Portuguese heads, leopards, sword and other motifs cast in relief within a border of interlaced ornament, one end drawn up above the left elbow, tall beaded collar, many cast anklets with tassels, large twisted loop of cruciform section to the top of the head, cylindrical support between the legs, dark patina with traces of laterite, painted number 1033, on Inagaki base
21in. (53.5cm.) high

Provenance: Knoedler Galleries, New York, 1940
Mrs. George W. Crawford

Literature: Masterpieces of African Art, Brooklyn, 1954, no.60 (illustrated)

Exhibited: The Brooklyn Museum, 1954, no.60

Lot Notes:The imposing figure in elaborate regalia must be that of an oba rather than a chief because the form of the beaded crown with the lateral flanges curving forward is traditionally held to have been introduced by Oba Osamwede (c.1815-c.1850) and used for the memorial heads on his altars. With the introduction of additional ornament to the oba's costume he may well have had such figures cast to display on the altars of his father, Oba Ogbebo. Philip Dark lists eight figures with the large loop; viz. the British Museum, cat. 97-550 (P.J.C. Dark, Benin Art, 1960, pl.61-62); Lt.Gen. A.H.L.F. Pitt-Rivers, Antique Works of Art from Benin, 1900, pl.31, figs.232-234; two in Liverpool (Bulletin of the Liverpool Museum, p.62 and 63); Chicago (P. Ben Amos, The Art of Benin, London, 1995, p.92.fig.73); the Smithsonian Institution on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum, with the loop missing, (Freyer, Royal Benin Art, Washington, D.C., 1987, pl.4); and the Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, (P. Ben Amos, Benin Art, 1980, p.66, fig.70). Of these only that in the British Museum has the hand outstretched as in the present figure. In the others the oba holds an elaborate staff with cast figures in the form of the idiophones of the sixteenth century.

In a personal communication Dr. Barbara Blackmun has informed us that "the ceremony represented is fairly certain. In most examples, the figure holds a unique staff that is used during Emobo. In this case, and in the British Museum figure, the left hand is outstretched, palm down. This is probably another reference to the same ceremony.

"From time to time during Emobo, the Oba makes a repeated motion, with both hands held palms down. It looks as though he is patting the air, or pushing it away from himself. Since Emobo is the ritual that sends away all the spiritual forces that have been invited into Benin's palace during the long period of Igue, this seems to be a gesture of dismissal."

The disproportionate size of the loop above the figures has not been explained satisfactorily. Paula Ben Amos (op. cit., 1980, p.66) was informed by Chief Ihama that the loop above enabled the easy removal of the figure for polishing but the cruciform cross section would make it uncomfortable to hold and a handle would have been a more practical solution. The function may have had a dual purpose, both to enable the figure to be carried and to protect the cylindrical projection at the top of the head which probably had spiritual connotations.

read also Tim's Lost treasures and the  tribal-art sales highlights

Legendary lost tribal masterpieces

by Tim Teuten

Found at:

Lot Image

Sale 1278, Lot 95 April 3, 2003 Christies New-York
A Superb Songye Power Figure
Estimate: $80,000-120,000

There would be no exaggeration in describing the Russell B. Aitken collection of African art as a collection of lost masterpieces. None has been seen by the public since 1954 when seventeen objects were loaned to the major exhibition, 'Masterpieces of African Art,' at the Brooklyn Museum. By that time the fine Yoruba horseman had been recognized as a unique sculpture by an unknown master of the 19th century, had been exhibited in the seminal 1935 exhibition, 'African Negro Art,' at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had appeared in no fewer than eight publications and has been photographed by the renowned photographer, Walker Evans.

Russell Aitkens and his first wife, Annie Laurie Crawford, who were married in 1957, had both formed independent collections, largely in the late 1930s. They bought from major New York galleries of the period such as Knoedler, Jacques Seligmann and Sachs, and both took advantage of the dispersal of one of the finest African art collections of the time, that of Frank Crowninshield, the sophisticated magazine editor.

Aitken and Annie Laurie Crawford between them acquired no fewer than 23 objects either directly from Crowninshield or through major New York dealers. The superb quality of Crowninshield's collection was due in no small measure to the assistance he had been given by the painter, John Graham. Graham visited Paris in search of major acquisitions and knew all the leading dealers in that city. He was able to take his pick of the array of objects from the French colonies available at that time. He chose the superb Fang figure, which retains its thick black oily surface from the libations of palm oil.

From the most successful and celebrated of all dealers, Charles Ratton, he chose a fine and rare Baule mask from the ivory Coast, representing the moon. As is typical with major objects acquired in Paris in the 1930s, several were mounted by the Japanese-born Inagaki, the most famous of all stand makers for African and Oceanic art.

The Aitken collection contains three major bronzes from the kingdom of Benin which would have all left Africa at the time of the British punitive expedition of 1897.

An important plaque depicting an oba (monarch)—perhaps the great warrior king Esigie—would have once adorned the palace of Benin City. At the end of the 19th century it was in the collection of the well known English collector, Augustus Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, who created a museum in Farnham, Dorset, having generously endowed the University Museum in Oxford. He was so impressed with the plaque that he chose to publish three different views of it in his book on Benin artefacts, Antique Works of Art from the City of Benin, published in 1900.

A rare standing bronze figure was acquired by Annie Laurie Crawford from Knoedler in New York in 1940; and a fine Benin bronze head for the altars of the oba was acquired from the widow of Dr Hans Meyer, whose collection formed the core of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig.

Aitken was a successful ceramic artist and journalist (he wrote more than 300 articles for natural history, outdoor and hunting and fishing magazines, and even published a runaway best seller Great Game Animals of the World, 1969, Macmillan), as well as being an internationally renowned shot and a keen hunter. He made many trips to Africa and spoke several native languages. Many objects such as the Masai and Kikuyu sheilds were acquired by him on his numerous safari trips.

Tim Teuten is Head of the Tribal Art Department, Christie's Paris

read also a Benin Oba description below and Christies New-York sales highlights and read also: Fang and Kota by Louis Perrois 


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