The art was amassed by Paul Tishman, the late New York real estate developer, and his wife, Ruth, in the 1960's and 70's and was sold to Disney two decades ago for $1 million. Experts' estimates of its current value vary wildly, from $20 million to $50 million.
"These works are unsurpassed in rarity and uniqueness," Sharon F. Patton, the museum's director, said, adding, "I think this will be a catalyst that will rekindle enthusiasm among curators, conservators and educators here and attract scholars."
Ms. Patton said the museum had only a modest acquisition fund, "and that does not go very far when prices are so high."
"So we see this as a godsend gift of objects we would never be able to afford," she said.
An 18th-century Edo mask
Michael D. Eisner, who steps down as Disney's chief executive on Friday, came to Washington to announce the gift of the collection, which was acquired by a Disney subsidiary from the Tishmans shortly before he arrived at the company.
"One of the first things I did when I arrived - within two weeks - I was told that you should look at this collection," he said on Thursday at the National Museum of African Art. "So I went into a humidified warehouse, and there was an incredible collection of African art."
Mr. Eisner said that the art, known as the Walt Disney-Tishman Collection, had helped inspire staff members who worked on the movie "The Lion King" and that some objects had been lent intermittently over the past two decades.
Disney had originally planned to display the collection in one of its own sites but never followed through, he said, adding, "We just didn't put our arms around it."
As calls for loans and gifts from the collection persisted - including an appeal from France's president, Jacques Chirac, who secured a loan for the Louvre, and from the Smithsonian's secretary, Lawrence M. Small - Mr. Eisner said he felt pressed to make a decision about it.
So he decided about six weeks ago, he said, to give the collection to the Smithsonian because it was a national institution with a building - the National Museum of African Art - "that could display it right." His wife, Jane Breckenridge Eisner, who accompanied him for the announcement, is a member of the Smithsonian's board of trustees.
Disney gift to Smithsonian
On display as Disney and Smithsonian officials announced the gift were three pieces - including a rare 20th-century female headdress mask from the Lower Cross River in Nigeria fashioned from wood and antelope skin with hair styled like curved horns - that had already been transferred from the warehouses in Los Angeles where the art has been stored.
African art specialists praised the collection, noting that it would be difficult to duplicate today given the rising prices for African art and the proliferation of fakes.
"It's the breadth of the collection and the choice pieces from around Africa that make this a historically important collection," said Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, a California-based art scholar who was the curator of an exhibition of works from the collection last year at the Disney American Heritage Gallery at Epcot in Orlando, Fla. - the first time Disney displayed any of these pieces.
Among the collection's other highlights are an 18th-century copper alloy mask from the Edo tribe in Nigeria, a soapstone carving of a beetle-back man from Zimbabwe, and from Cameroon, a life-size 19th-century statue of a seated king holding a weapon and the head of an enemy.
"There are some key pieces in the collection," including the one from Cameroon, which has been displayed at the Louvre for three years, said Susan Vogel, an art historian at Columbia University and founder of the Museum for African Art in New York. Ms. Vogel was a curator for an exhibition of works from the collection for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1981.
Ms. Vogel said the collection could be worth $50 million "and probably more."
Alisa LaGamma, curator of African art at the Metropolitan, said the Cameroon figure "is very powerful and monumental, and unsettling," and alone may be worth more than $1 million.
Ms. Patton, the Smithsonian's African museum director, said $20 million was probably a more realistic value for the collection, as did James Willis, a San Francisco dealer. He appraised the collection about eight years ago, but noted that prices for African art had increased significantly since then.
The collection, with its emphasis on West African art, will expand the National Museum of African Art's holdings, which are rich in works from Central Africa. The collection has a number of Yoruba pieces, including house posts from Nigeria as well as a 16th-century carved ivory hunting horn from Sierra Leone.
Ms. Vogel said the collection was important because of its range.
"He collected heartbreakingly tender, naturalistic, delicate and refined objects," she said, "and others that were terrifying like the Cameroon king."
Ms. Patton said the additional pieces would allow the Smithsonian's African museum to "make a 270-degree turn," mounting traveling exhibitions while still maintaining a core exhibition of the quality that visitors expect to see.
The museum will open a small exhibition of the works immediately, she said, and then mount a full exhibition with a catalog in February 2007.