Fang reliquary head

A new record for African and Oceanic tribal art was set by Christie’s in Paris when this Fang reliquary head sold for €12.6m (£10.8m) at Christie’s in Paris.

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Last sold before the Second World War, a widely published and exhibited Fang reliquary head considered one of the most refined known examples, sold for €12.6m (£10.8m) or €14.77m (£12.6m) including buyer’s premium.

For perhaps the first time in the market, the very best ethnographic art is now priced in a similar sphere to the modern Western art it inspired. With 13 of the 100 Barbier-Mueller lots going for hammer prices of €1m-plus, the sale on March 6 recorded several new benchmarks for the collecting field including a record for any tribal art collection at €73m (£62m).

The core of the collection was assembled in the middle of the 20th century by the Swiss-born connoisseur Josef Müller (1887-1977) and later augmented by his daughter Monique (1929-2019) and son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller (1930-2016). The Barbier-Mueller Museum, a collection of over 7000 pieces in Geneva, was founded in 1977. The decision to deaccession a portion of the collection followed the recent death of one of the Barbier-Mueller heirs.

Purchases from leading dealers

Living in Paris for much of his life, Josef Müller had bought his first Picasso there at the age of 19 and his first Cézanne from Ambroise Vollard shortly afterwards. However, from the mid-1930s, African art works began to appear regularly in the notebooks in which Müller meticulously recorded his acquisitions.

He acquired the 14in (36cm) ebony ‘Tête de reliquaire Fang’ in 1939 from Antony Innocent Moris (1866-1951), the owner of a boutique in the rue Victor-Masset who was among the most important ethnographic dealers of his time. It was one of 14 lots in the sale to carry an ‘estimate on request’.

The previous high for Gabonese sculpture was a Fang head once owned by the Fauve artist Maurice de Vlaminck that sold for €6.5m (£5.91m) as part of the Michel Périnet collection at Christie’s Paris in June 2021. The 61-lot Périnet sale had also held the previous record for a tribal art collection, realising a premium-inclusive €66m (£57m). Its masterworks included a white painted tapuanu mask from the Mortlock Islands in Micronesia sold at €7.8m (£7.1m), the record for Oceanic art.

Vitu Islands mask

One of five lots bought by the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac at Christie’s Paris sale of the Barbier-Mueller collection, this mask from the Vitu Islands took €300,000 (£256.000).

French institutions were among the successful bidders in the Barbier-Mueller sale. The Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris acquired five lots including, at a hammer price of €300,000 (£256.000), a helmet mask from the Vitu Islands in the Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea.

Decorated in blue-green, iron red and white paint, it had been acquired by Monique and Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller in 1978.