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

African Art books I like | Genuine African Masks announce Single Owner Oceanic Art & African Tribal Art Auction from the Private Collection of John “Jack” Edler

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May 08, 2010 Time: 12:00 pm
Location: 2764 East 55th Place, Indianapolis, IN 46220
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Oceanic Art from the Private Collection of John “Jack” Edler

Dear $email,

Antique Helper is honored to offer more than 200 lots from one of the largest collections of Waskuk artifacts in the U.S. This large grouping includes many yena, mindja, and nogwei figures from the Nukuma and Kwoma tribes. The collection also features yipwon cult figures from the Karawari River, Bahinemo clan spirit figures of the Hunstein Mountains, and Iatmul clay storage jars in addition to many other unique pieces. Jack Edler has been a collector for decades, even collecting many pieces himself while living in New Guinea in the 70’s. Jack has sold exclusively to museums and now is ready to share his rare collection with the public.



Dan Ripley’s Antique Helper announces an important auction of art and artifacts from the collection of renowned ethnographic archaeologist and anthropologist, Dr. Jack Edler.

A pioneer in the area, Edler has spent his life researching, writing, and consulting in the field of Melanesian art and artifacts, specifically pieces from the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea.

 “Hardly short of an obsession,” Edler says of his lifetime of studies.

The offerings in this auction reflect more than 40 years of research and travel to rarely visited areas within Papua New Guinea.


Shortly after receiving his degree in Anthropology in 1967 from Beloit College, Edler went on to study at the Australian National University for one year. That fall, he was offered a job in research at the School of the South Pacific. It was during this time that he made his initial trip to New Guinea. According to Edler, those first six months were occupied with traveling widely over the country and the many outlying islands. The fascinating and unique objects that he encountered quickly led Edler to understand his life’s mission. He stated, “I immediately realized that I planned to spend the rest of my life working in New Guinea.”

There was plenty of work to be done. As late as 1968, there was very little written or even known about Melanesian art and culture. Many groups living in the highland valleys and along the tributaries of the Sepik River had little or no contact with the outside world. According to Edler, contact was not made with the majority of these groups until the mid 20th century. From the 1940s through the 1980s, researchers encountered unique groups who, until that point, had had no contact with the outside world.

It’s not surprising that in the late 1960s, Edler was able to find only three or four books relating to the arts of the South Pacific. Rich in pictures and disappointingly generalized in descriptions, most provided only a regional attribution, with little or no mention of the ethnic group who produced a piece, or the significance or purpose of an object. This lack of information made his purpose even more clear: “I decided I wanted to combine anthropology and archeology, surveying the people and art of Melanesia” says Edler.

Returning to Papua New Guinea in 1969, Edler began to work out systematic ways of visiting specific areas and spending time talking with villagers about their art. He wanted to know their purpose, whether utilitarian or spiritual. Most importantly, he needed to determine the objects’ overall significance within the society.

In order to continue his research, Edler would return to the United States with ethnographic items that he would sell to museums and collectors. In Indiana, most items in the Melanesian collection at the Indianapolis Museum of Art came from Edler. Notre Dame University purchased pieces, as did Butler University, which has an important library on Pacific exploration. Major collectors, including Harrison Eiteljorg and Dr. Wally Zollman were also eager to obtain artifacts and art from this little-known part of the world.

Though small in size, New Guinea is an area rich in diverse cultures. Over 800 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea alone. Edler explains that each language represents a very specific culture. Many cultural groups are prolific producers of art that reflects their religious beliefs. Each group represents their beliefs in very different ways. “It is not unusual,” says Edler, “to travel only 30 or 40 miles and find an entirely different group with artistic traditions completely independent of their neighbors.”
According to Edler, the most significant pieces in this auction have been gathered from a specific geographic location known as Waskuk Hills, located 430 miles up the Sepik River. There are two groups of people found in this remote region. Known as Kwoma and Nukuma peoples, Edler says they are really one in the same. “Both speak the Kwoma language, both share a common societal heritage. Every aspect from the homes to the ceremonial houses is nearly identical. But,” says Edler, “the Kwoma and Nukuma have distinctly different styles of making the same things. So much so, that you would think the art was produced by two very different groups of people.”

Items of special note to be featured in the auction will include a rare Kwoma architectural ancestral figure, Nukuma female nogwei society fertility figure, Arapesh mask and shell money talipun, a Nukuma mindja society spirit figure with totemic snake, also large Nukuma and Iatmul mythological figures, a clan house gable mask, ceremonial flute mask, and monumental yena society ancestor figures.

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