Christie’s (25/20/13.5% buyer’s premium) held a select Masterworks sale offering just nine lots on May 14, within the broader context of the auction house’s 20th century week series.
Six of these found buyers, with the highest accolade reserved for the catalogue cover lot, a striking geometrically carved Kifwebe mask produced by a master carver of the Songye region in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is known as the Walschot-Schoffel mask after two of its owners: the pioneering female art dealer/collector Jeanne Walschot in whose collection it was pre-1933 and the collector Alain Schoffel.
he auction house described it as “the most beautiful and important example of this type of mask to come to market”, singling out the waves of incised lines filled in with white clay that creates “an optical illusion that can be perceived as hypnotic”. It sold for $3.5m (£2.69m).
The Kifwebe mask was one of two works once owned by Walschot. The other, a Ntomo mask by a master artist from the Bamana people in what is now Mali, failed to find a buyer.
Maori master carving
Sotheby’s (25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium) was fielding two auctions for its May 13 spring showing in the Big Apple: an 82-lot single-owner sale of Pacific art from the collection of the Los Angeles dealer/collector Harry A Franklin (1903-83) and a large, mixed-owner selection of African, Oceanic and American works.
Leading the Franklin consignment was a masterpiece of Maori carving. The impressive 3ft 1in (92cm) high wooden gable figure or Tekoteko from the Bay of Plenty area of New Zealand’s North Island had been carved by a skilled artist working presumably at the behest of an important chief in the 18th or early 19th century.
The carving would have originally been placed at the apex of a storehouse in the sacred space of a Maori settlement. It is topped by an ancestor figure whose features are rendered more dramatic by the use of obsidian inlay to form the eyes.
Like many of the most desirable pieces, this work came with an illustrious provenance.
It belonged to the pioneering British Oceanic collector William Oldman, then the Surrealist and tribal art enthusiast André Breton and to Helena Rubenstein, the cosmetics magnate in whose Paris apartment it was photographed in 1937 opposite Brancusi’s sculpture Negresse blanche II. The Tekoteko sold for $600,000 (£461,540).
Another large multi-figure carving headed the auction house’s mixed-owner sale on the same day, but a piece of Native American work in this instance. This was a 2ft 4in (73cm) carved scale model of a totem pole from the Haida on the north-west coast.
It was collected in situ in 1880 by George T Emmons, a US Navy lieutenant and pioneering ethnographer whose naval duties brought him into close contact with the Tlingit and Haida people in Alaska in the 1880s-90s. It sold just over upper estimate for $75,000 (£57,690).
Epstein’s Hei Tiki pendant
Reliquary figures from the Kota peoples of central Africa (Gabon) are among the most distinctive forms of tribal art with their trapezoid bases and oval faces.
It was one of these that led Bonhams’ (27.5/25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium) May 13 African and Oceanic art offering in New York when it sold for $250,000 (£196,240).
The 20in (51cm) high figure had a provenance back to the Ecole de Pasteurs et d’Instituteurs Kimpese and pre-1970 to the Swedish Missionary Society Museum in Maniango, Lower Kongo.
Notable provenance also distinguished another highlight from Bonhams’ sale: a Maori nephrite Hei Tiki pendant from New Zealand.
This particular example, which was of significant size at 5¾in (15cm) in length, had once belonged to the sculptor Jacob Epstein and then the well-known French dealer collector Paul Guillaume.
The eyes were outlined in red sealing wax – something which the Maori adopted to replace the original shell inlay after it was introduced by traders in the mid-19th century. The pendant sold for $75,000 (£57,690).
£1 = $1.30