african maskssothebys report05-part2
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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Sothebys New York report 11 Nov 05 part2

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by Paul De Lucco [pauldelucco]

Addendum to Report by Lee Rubinstein on Sotheby’s 11 November Auction  
Sothebys New York report 11 Nov 05

I enjoyed Mr. Rubinstein’s analysis of the 11 November 2005 auction and thought it might be interesting for the discussion group to consider my comments on the Congolese pieces that were offered in that sale. I have collected tribal art in central Africa for the last 25 years and have made an effort to keep abreast of markets but I am not trained in art history and my opinions are my own.

I regret that I have not been following the discussions of the group recently. It may well be that my observations have already been made by others in the group. To avoid bringing up old subjects, I am only sending this message to David Norden and Lee Rubinstein who are welcome to distribute it to others in the group if it seems worthwhile.

I have often regretted that no one comments on the African market in the way that Souren Melikian, say, comments on contemporary or Middle East art. If everyone in the discussion group sounded off, however, it could be equally entertaining and informative.

Of the 130 African pieces offered for auction, 39 (30%) were of Congolese origin. 27 of the 39 (69%) were sold for a total of $546,000, representing 36% of total African sales ($1,781,000) by number of pieces and 31% by value. 

Mr. Rubinstein singles out 3 of the Congolese pieces as being among the; sold objects which brought in the highest bids -- and generally are supported with good information and/or references in their descriptions… These 3 are:

Lot 105 Mangbetu Harp $102,000
Lot 108 Lengola Ubanga Nyami $ 90,000
Lot 140 Lwalwa Pair $ 60,000

Although I agree with Mr. Rubinstein that these 3 lots appear very fine in the murky catalogue photos, I think it is important to raise the issue of provenance here. It appears from the acquisition dates cited in the catalogue that the Britt Family collection was amassed from the late 1970’s on, an advanced date in the history of Congo art, a period when the art market was already awash with Congo fakes, many of them of high quality. Under the circumstances, it is probably insufficiently convincing to cite the Britt Family as a sole provenance. Copies of the Lengola figure, for example, have been so often made and sold over the last 30 years that it would be foolhardy to purchase one at auction without being assured of a convincing provenance prior to 1970. The Han Coray provenance for the harp is strong. The “Alvin Abrams 1976” provenance for the Lwalwa pair is strong enough, especially coupled with the fact that the pieces are so rarely seen in collections; evidently, they are not copied, - certainly I never saw examples in Zaïre - although, as this catalogue gets around, more will certainly turn up. 

The provenance for a number of the other Congo figures, however, is so weak and the figures themselves, at least as represented by the dark photographs, so undistinguished, that one wonders how Sotheby’s accepted them. I think it is remarkable that Lot 106, Yombe Mask, with no provenance given, sold for $9,600. Only 9” tall, it seems small for a Yombe mask. Interesting patination. Lot 115: “Fine Central African, Probably” Kongo Mask. No provenance at all and Sotheby’s does not even make an effort to attribute it, with polite question mark, to, say, the Yombe. In fact, at 14” it seems a more typical Yombe mask than does Lot 106; but the sculpture is crude and the mask looks heavy. The $20,000 to $30,000 pre-sale estimate is puzzling.

I do not know much about Kongo crosses, but the descriptions, photographs, and Anspach provenance seem convincing. The finial also seemed convincing and appropriately priced. Lot 121, Kongo Power Figure, is also convincing although the Stoecklin 1979 provenance is rather late for a Kongo figure. I would like to see the figure more closely. What about the holes in the shoulders? Has anyone seen such holes in other Kongo figures? Lot 122, Kongo Ntadi. No provenance. I never saw such an Ntadi before; 13” seems a bit small, especially if that includes the base as I think it does. No patination - it looks as if it had been washed – it certainly does not look as if it had been half-buried in the earth for a few decades. One wonders why someone would bid up to $10,600 for such a piece.

116 Kongo Sundi Est250-450K sothebys 11NOV05 NS1Lot 116, Sundi Female Power Figure, raises serious questions in my mind. It is a big piece, 37”. The provenance is, indeed, “long and illustrious,” to quote the catalogue. The pre-sale estimate of $250,000 to $450,000 is high but this is a very rare masterwork. Where were the museums? Where were the high-rollers? Was there any bidding at all on it? Although the catalogue photo is not very good, the face and volumes of the sculpture are strong. I am very surprised it did not sell. There is not much high-quality Kongo art on the market. 

In the June 2005 Sotheby’s sale in Paris, an iconic Songye cupbearer, Lot 179, sold for EUR280,800 (app. $370,000). I assess the two pieces as being of equal importance and am puzzled as to why the Songye sold and the Sundi did not. 

Lot 111, Bembe Couple. No provenance. No sale. [Note: This sculpture is from the Bembe culture from the area around Malebo Pool straddling the border east of Brazzaville/Kinshasa; they are not the same people as the Fizi-Baraka Bembe south of Bukavu (Lot 138) neighboring the Boyo.]

Lot 107, Ngbaka Mask. 11”. I liked this piece. I almost bought a similar mask in Kinshasa in 1980 but was outbid by another American. The provenance is solid enough. The pre-sale estimate (the reserve price?) might have been a shade high.

The feeble Pende prices surprised me. The rather Hugaan-looking snuff mortar, with an undated Merton Simpson provenance, went for $10,200 but none of the masks sold. I thought both masks, Lots 126 and 127, the latter from the Katherine White Collection, were good pieces, reasonably appraised. The photograph was weak and taken from a bad angle, but the Pende axe, Lot 135, looked authentic. Lot 133, the nicely-finished staff with a “Virgin Mary”-looking figure on the finial, possibly the product of a mission atelier, sold for $2,400, at the midrange of the pre-sale estimate. 

The Pende stools ($3,000), Lot 131, Lot 128, Mangbetu Stool ($11,500), and Lot 134, Shoowa Ivory Pestle ($4,800), would, 20 years ago, all have been sold in Kinshasa as “ethnographic” pieces at prices much lower than “art.” Collectors who invested in decorative tribal household items twenty years ago have seen their investments appreciate significantly. 

Lot 124, Yaka Figure, 9.75”, is a good piece and a good buy at $6,000. The headdress and the “lunging” stance of the figure show Mbala or Pende influence but that is very common in the cultural stew of southwest Bandundu. No provenance for this figure; maybe $6,000 was judged a bit high under the circumstances? The Yaka Mask, Lot 141, is not particularly strong but its age and provenance are well documented. It is surprising it did not sell. Yaka works without the upturned nose may be a hard sell. These were the only Yaka objects in the auction.

Of the Congo pieces offered for sale, the Lega pieces provoke the most questions. Lot 109, a tiny 4.5” mask with a couple of feet of raffia beard sold for $30,000. It had a respectable provenance in George Stoecklin. Lot 110, no provenance whatsoever, 8” tall, stylistically correct but sculpturally weak - $30,000! One wonders if there was spirited bidding over Lot 110 or if someone, certainly not a gallery owner, made a pre-emptive bid. 

For me, Lega masks are the most difficult of all the Congolese masks to expertise. Lega art is based on simple forms and clean lines. The wood is light and patination can be subtle. I see dozens of masks every year - from Kasongo, from Shabunda, etc. Every now and then, I buy one and then half of the time I regret it for months. I keep them in a file drawer in my office because I am too embarrassed to take them home and show them to my wife. They are the Modiglianis of African art and professional dealers, such as David Norden!, take great pains to confirm provenance. 

113 Lega Est5-8K Sothebys NOV05 S3I liked Lot 113, Lega Female Figure. I believe I remember seeing this in a Willis Gallery ad in African Arts, in the ‘80s or ‘90s, no? 12.5” tall. This is a nice piece and the price was very good for a Lega figure with sound provenance. 

I also liked Lot 114, Lega Ivory Figure. No provenance and $9,000 was probably a bit high for this 5” figure but it is a nice piece. It does not appear to be very old but at least no one stuck it in the fire to artificially age it. The warm honey-colored patina gives it a nice glow.

It is appropriate to leave the Lega and proceed to the art of the north Katanga area. There were five lots of works from the Hemba, Luba, Songye: 139, 112, 136, 137, 125. Lot 112, Luba/Hemba torso, 10”, exhibited in the Mon Steyaert, Gulden Snee Gallery, Brussels, in May 1979, looks good even if 1979 is a late date to throw caution to the winds. Although the rule of thumb is to attribute all such north Katanga female figures to the Luba and male figures to the Hemba, that may be a bit simplistic. Nice sculpture. It sold for $3,000, at the low end of the estimate range. 

136 Luba Stool Est10-15K Sothebys NOV05 S25 Lot 136, Luba Stool, with an absolutely impeccable provenance, outsold its absurdly low pre-sale estimate of $10,000 – 15,000, going for $25,200. It still seems like a very good buy at that price. Supposedly collected “before 1902” could it possibly have been painted black during its stay in Europe?

137 Luba Shankadi Est18-22K Sothebys NOV05 NSLot 137, Luba Shankadi, no provenance and artistically a bit crude, was given a pre-sale estimate higher than that of Lot 136, Luba Stool! In this case, good sense prevailed and it did not sell. 

139 Hemba Est30-50K Sothebys NOV05 S30K I was dumbfounded that a Hemba piece, Lot 139 Hemba Ancestor, without provenance would be presented at a Sotheby’s sale. Even more astounding, it actually sold, albeit, at the low end of its generous pre-sale estimate of $30,000 - $50,000. Maybe it is a better piece than its photo indicates. I lived in Hemba country for 4 years in the early 1980s and visited the ateliers operating in the villages. I am always cautious with Hemba pieces that have lost their lower extremities to termites and rot while somehow staying impeccable above the waist. 

Lot 125, Songye Figure; provenance: Arthur Rothenburg, New York, December 1976. This is certainly a nice sculpture that, at $39,000, outsold its pre-sale estimate by $14,000. “Songye” still sells well. The new owner should do something about the hardware and lizard skin around the waist as they do not appear to be original to this sculpture and detract from the overall appearance.

Both Tshokwe masks sold. Lot 142, the well-known cihongo mask, strong sculpture and good provenance, sold for $2,400, well under the pre-sale estimate of $4,000 - $6,000. 

143 Tshokwe Est6-9K Sothebys NOV05 S12K The very modern-looking mwana pwo Lot 143, with a forehead tshilengyelengye like a modern calligraphic design flourish, exceeded its maximum pre-sale estimate by $3,000, selling for $12,000. For some reason, Tshokwe art has not shown great strength in auctions over the last twenty years. 

There is no accounting for taste. The Sakalava/Vezo figures did not sell well nor did the Ethiopian brass work. I am sure it is not an easy task to organize one of these high-end auctions. I always wonder why Tanzania is so poorly represented or why there are so few works from lesser-known styles of the Congo, e.g Pere, Boa, Mbole, Metoko, etc. Marc Felix produced a book on northeast Congo art that became so popular that you cannot find a copy today. A big monograph on Tanzanian art appeared 10 years ago and also sold well. But there has been little effect on auction appearances; we still don’t see any Fipa, Kwere, Hiya, Hehe, Ruguru, Nyamwezi, etc. It is true that pieces from lesser-known cultures are often represented in lower-end auctions, such as the Zemanek auctions, or in exhibitions such as BRUNEAF. 

Sotheby’s, of course, is a business and makes its decisions based on what its experts think will sell. Hemba, Songye, and Lega have become brands that sell. I suppose we should be happy that a well-provenanced Belanda piece can sneak into a sale from time to time. 

Paul De Lucco is a member of our discussion group, you can also join if you want: 

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In this section:
Sothebys New York report 11 Nov 05
sothebys report05-part2
Sothebys vente Nahon-Vence
sothebys new york nov 06 

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The Tribal Arts of Africa

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