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Re: Auctions and exhibitions

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  • leerubinstein
    Rand et al: Some obsessive-compulsive observations on the most recent Sotheby s catalogue and my birthday wish-list for those who like to shop early and give
    Message 1 of 6 , Apr 23 8:54 AM
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      Rand et al:

      Some obsessive-compulsive observations on the most recent Sotheby's
      catalogue and my birthday wish-list for those who like to shop early
      and give generously…

      The Catalogue of the May 12, 2005 Sotheby's Auction

      Of the 96 African lots included in the current auction, about a dozen
      were indeed offered through Sotheby Parke-Bernet in the 60's and
      70's; and another 8 or so are traced through J.J. Klejman (including
      the few from the Helen Benjamin collection) in lieu of in situ or
      more direct collection provenance. I, too, would have expected a
      little more "provenance" than the fact that they were previously sold
      either by Sotheby's or Klejman (although how I wish I had spent my
      childhood allowance at Klejman rather than on candy!). Perhaps there
      is more detailed information in the S P-B catalogues, so if anybody
      happens to have any of those old catalogues, I would be interested to
      know whether this is in fact the case. A few other galleries are
      well represented such as those of Pace Primitive and Dimondstein,
      whereas Merton Simpson is seemingly (and only indirectly) linked to
      one object in this particular sale after being more boldly associated
      in some manner with at least one significant offering in most recent
      Sotheby's auctions, it would seem.

      Generally speaking, this particular grouping lacks the extremely high-
      priced/high-profile objects that often anchor these auctions. So,
      perhaps there were exceptions made in order to generate a respectable
      number of mid-priced objects during a less than certain economic
      climate. Given the apparent absence (perhaps intentional omission)
      of "major" pieces, it would seem that the motivating factors
      underlying this auction might have been: 1) to offer first-time
      sales opportunities for objects not previously offered through
      Sotheby's for and/or to new or special clients and collectors
      (although most offering collectors are anonymous) and 2) to generate
      numerous smaller sales to create respectable revenues while also
      serving to bring more pieces into the circle of objects generally
      traded through the auction houses.

      It does appear generally that ethnographic information has been
      inserted to fill the void that is often dedicated to exhibition and
      publication histories, histories in which this Spring's auction lots
      seems to be lacking. While the ethnographic details are very much
      appreciated, I can't help but wonder whether these details are here
      intended to obscure the lack of verifiable provenance among the
      offerings. On the other hand, good information is good information;
      and I'll gather it anywhere that I can find it! Perhaps the benefit
      of these leaner seasons is that it promotes a shift of focus that is
      ultimately more educational than immediately commercial, reflecting a
      commitment to long-range planning rather than immediate impact). The
      catalogues, too, are generally so well produced and photographed. And
      this one is no exception save for a few minor typographical errors
      and bibliographical omissions.

      A close inspection of the African selections suggest the application
      of some marketing analysis with the break-down by group an almost
      mathematical reflection of general public interest in specific
      regional traditions although this appearance could be purely
      coincidental. Then again, included with my (each, I'm sure)
      catalogue was a flyer for Sotheby's Financial offering Loans Using
      Art Objects as Collateral so clearly the Marketing Department is at
      work. Also this article on art collection as investment strategy
      may be of interest to those people who are spending every spare
      nickel on art (or even those spending within their projected

      Back to the catalogue:

      Perennial (or semi-annual) stylistic favorites including Bamana
      objects – 13, including 5 Tji Wara including one collected by F-H Lem
      (Sculptures Soudanaises), Dogon -- 10 objects ranging from masks and
      doors to Tellem and N'duleri figures, 7 Senufo and 7 Baule pieces
      make up nearly 2/5 or almost 40% (37 of 96) of all African lots
      offered. 32 additional traditions are represented by between one and
      four objects offered from each tradition. The second-tier in
      emphasis of particular traditions -- with four objects offered from
      each -- are Yoruba, Makonde, Dan and Igbo (again suggestive of pretty
      clear market demand!).

      These mathermatical musings are not meant to indicate by any means
      that I don't find a great number of the objects very appealing AND
      more affordable than usual, although the delectations of this auction
      are still more than I generally can afford or am inclined to spend.
      I enjoy eating too much…every day even...and my (Kuba) cup runneth
      over at the moment with barely an inch to place another object!

      But if I have to pick some show-stoppers, I would have to go with…

      Firstly, #31, Dogon N'duleri Male Figure If the Dogon offerings
      provide a core of interest in any sale of African objects, this
      figure is a good emissary to promote the persistence of that
      interest. One of the reasons for such interest in the Dogon works
      lies in the extreme stylistic diversity of this captivating cultural,
      geographical and artistic complex that is the Dogon… I find it
      interesting, though, that the forgiving and accepting allowance of
      impression rather than fact in establishing a piece's credentials in
      this catalogue -- a catalogue so filled with references to related
      pieces in lieu of exhibition and publication histories (thus, the
      lower average price point and the birth of newly "provenanced" pieces
      if these objects sell!) -- is offered early on, specifically in the
      short text accompanying Lot #27 – more a statement of philosophy than
      a description. In "describing" an example of Dogon Monkey Mask
      referred to as "Fine" and "from a Belgian Private Collection," the
      authors designate "related examples" (the real stars of this year's
      show) and then proceed as follows:

      "The range of carving style of the black monkey mask is vast,
      explained perhaps in part by the diverse geographic origin but more
      importantly by the capacity for invention of the Dogon sculptors
      themselves."(p. 31.)

      It is a true statement indeed on all counts – geographical variation
      and personal artistry -- but these disclaimers hardly set the stage
      for presentation of anything approximating scientific proof. Nor
      does the closing pronouncement regarding the mask's "worn and eroded
      surface" as "a testment[sic] to its age." (p.31.) Suggestive
      perhaps, but conclusive?

      The climate is indeed forgiving and welcoming…and I do agree that
      there is greater value in the openness that leads to consideration of
      stylistic variations along the vast and impressive geography of the
      Bandiagara region of Mali as well as the fascinating if seemingly
      impenetrable (or regionally diverse) interpretations and variations
      on cosmogonical premises among villages within this awe-inspiring
      culture amid a breath-taking and challenging terrain…which leads us
      back to Lot #31, the N'duleri figure. The "provenance" of this piece
      beyond its attribution to a "New York Private Collection" is
      generated through the related examples. Unfortunately, in this
      particular instance, reference is made to the rare and costly (but
      oh, so desirable) Statuaire Dogon (Dogon Statuary) by Helene Leloup,
      which is, alas, not readily accessible. But the diversity of styles
      and the ability to trace their correspondence to specific regions and
      villages throughout the Bandiagara region is among the features of
      this range of objects that has led numerous impassioned collectors
      (e.g., Wunderman) to devote themselves solely to the Dogon artifacts
      to the exclusion of all others.

      Personally, I am more enthused by the presentation of objects
      supported by the identification of specific geographical coordinates
      from which the origin of objects can be logically traced than by the
      listing of key publications and exhibitions in which like objects
      have been presented. Thus, the description provided for Lot #34 --
      Bamana Headcrest is illuminating as it directs the viewer to
      recognize the various regional styles of Bamana artistry . This line
      of investigation into the distinct styles within Bamana tradition is
      pursued and/or visible further in Lots 40-44, a diverse grouping of
      Bamana Tji Wara "Antelope Headdresses." Such comparisons of types
      within related forms through a range of geography can yield insights
      and revelations into the local character that may be seen to adhere
      to specific objects, when these objects are treated as very real
      signposts leading to specific places and events of which these
      objects remain as traces of specific cultural realities and
      historical moments.

      Interestingly, the entry for Lot #39 Boli (Bamana, Kono Association,
      Power Figure) , which naturally precedes Lots 40-44, once again
      offers a definition but nary a description for the most part – in
      this case of the Boli figure which has been preceded by a
      presentation on Bamana Iron Work that again generally seems to
      introduce general knowledge combined with undisclosed "private
      sources" (of various nationalities) as an alchemical mixture from
      which to turn a relatively unknown object into a valuable,
      provenanced one by presenting them within a well-photographed, highly
      glossy presentation.

      Where provenance is offered and involves objects which were collected
      by – not necessarily from the collection of – some seminal figures in
      20th century African Art literature, I must admit that while I
      consider the recent ownership not so compelling as the consideration
      of indigenous cultural symbolism associated with or illustrated
      through (on various levels) African objects, there is something
      endearing and seductive about a figure gather by Lem Lot #44 – an ex.
      Helena Rubinstein Tji Wara to boot!) or Himmelheber (Lot #54 – the
      Dan Spoon from the "Belgian Private Collection" ex. The Himmelheber
      Family Collection).

      But beside the N'duleri, the only other Lot that really seduces me is
      Lot #52 -- Senufo Helmet Mask . Again, this is from a "Belgian
      Private Collection" and the entry offers "related examples" and some
      geographical-regional variation details on the form but no specific
      provenance. Generally, the discussion, while interesting indeed
      remains very general and does not seem rooted in any real knowledge
      of the piece itself but once again avails itself an opportunity to
      educate and offer a class of objects to the collector/buyer that is
      indeed worthy but raises questions regarding which (and whose)
      objects are included in such a sales event. This is yet another
      beautiful, but unproven, object in search of a provenance. I love
      the mask's uniqueness, even a whimsicality and a nonchalance of
      figure (and symmetry, I might observe) juxtaposed with a simple
      helmet – "…dome-shaped…with a square opening to the front…" The adze
      marks on the helmet and the wonderful figure atop it combine to form
      a striking object indeed, made even more intriguing and human by its
      lack of precision and symmetry! An additional ellipsis of factual
      knowledge appears to me in the closing statement:

      "The rarity of these masks is suggested not only by the few early
      examples that are published, but also by their use – that they were
      only brought out for the `Great Funeral'…" (p.54).

      I see the logic of the point that an object would be less frequently
      produced when used only at 4- or 5-year intervals; however, this is
      merely a logical premise and not a proven theorem with regard to
      verifying authenticity. Indeed, the rarity of the object could also
      be derived from other equally (and even more) feasible explanations,
      such as the more established fact of the specifically regional
      character of the particular mask form, which, however, do not serve
      the desired purpose of attesting to (in fact, merely suggest the
      possibility of or hope for) the piece's authenticity. In other
      words, I'm not certain how an object's rarity can sometimes be used
      as proof of authenticity when such a fact of rarity may as easily be
      used to serve the purpose of discrediting such an assumption of
      authenticity. But again, coming from (and being sold on behalf of)
      a "Belgian Private Collection," there are agendas at work here that
      are not included in the description or the estimated value. This
      calls to mind the "Rare" Kuba Female Figure (*Lot #126, pp146-7.)
      from a private European collection (specified on-line but not in the
      printed catalogue) that grossed $39,000 with Buyer's Premium at the
      November 11, 2004* New York auction "described" as follows:

      Sculptures of female figures are rare among the Kuba,
      and there is little documented information as to how they were used.
      Vansina (1978: 212) speculates that they 'were used in the late
      nineteenth century by the central Kuba...[and] employed during boys'

      Torday (1910: 281, figure 397) described the meaning of various Kuba
      coiffures. In comparison, it seems likely that the coiffure depicted
      on this figure was worn by a woman who was pregnant for the first
      time. Undoubtedly, this would have been considered a very important
      and symbolic reference, especially in the context of a male
      initiation ceremony.

      Cf. Roy (1992: 146, figure 100) for a related figure from the Stanley
      Collection. (2004, p.146.)

      The details are fascinating and inspire further investigation but do
      not to my mind convince me that these objects' rarity provides proof
      of their authenticity or value. Perhaps they are merely mis-
      identified or prematurely classified based on insufficient
      information. In any case, I cannot help but question the specific
      instances (this auction's Senufo Helmet or the November 11, 2004
      Kuba) wherein the benefits of doubt are seemingly offered in a
      setting where such benefit is not uniformly offered or applied. If
      rarity offered sufficient grounds for value, then each unique piece
      would be deserving of such; and specific provenances would become
      superfluous to basic research and comparison studies of known works
      and general ethnography. Rather, though, in these cited cases, the
      generally published requirements of provenance have been fulfilled by
      the hidden presence of an unnamed owner and the willingness to extend
      these research/reference links cum provenance as a part of the client
      services package. Such courtesies in the global marketplace do not
      diminish the aesthetic values that the objects may indeed possess or
      the appreciation they may indeed deserve but simply locates them
      within a socio-economic milieu wherein the objects of one demarcated
      group are transferred to members of another defined (albeit
      anonymously) group, defined by factors quite dissimilar from those
      that linked the members of the group that previously possessed the
      objects and instilled them with their original values. As such, the
      objects and their meanings and values associated with them are
      continually transformed as the pieces travel through time, space,
      cultures and ideologies.

      Another ambiguity that is at once acknowledged and dismissed is that
      regarding alleged authorship or signature attributed to like but
      untraceable objects as a means of generating a provenance where it
      cannot be firmly attributed. Lot #58 is a Senufo Male Torso which
      has been linked through similarity to provenanced, published pieces
      the characteristics of which – are "…almost certainly by the same
      hand, or atelier" and "point to the hand of a single carver." (P.60)
      I do not dispute the similarities nor disagree with the research
      methods but long for a clearer understanding of the instances
      wherein, once more, these generosities are applied. Is there some
      overlapping of pure and distinctive form? Or…is there some
      overlapping of economic and social interests that prompt the
      generosity of these attributions? When do we err on the side of
      caution; when do we not?

      Politics and economic aside…finally…I can say that many of the pieces
      are aesthetically pleasing and ethnographically interesting. Among
      the many objects that I could enjoy are:

      Lot #57 -- Senufo Staff (the deterorated binding!)

      Lot #64 -- Senufo Helmet Mask (Intriguing Form!)

      Lot #66 -- Yoruba Gelede Mask (the upper construction!)

      Lot #70 -- Igbo Mask (the abstract form and the surface details!)

      Lot #74 Mambila Helmet Mask(bold and enigmatic indeed!)

      Lot #75 -- Ijo Headdress(Just fascinating geometry!)

      Lot #81 -- Pende Stool (Exquisite erosion!)

      Lot #85 -- Ngbaka Mask(simple yet detailed with a patina…oy!)

      Lot #90 -- Kete Mask(Compelling geometry and expression!)

      Lot #112 -- Mossi Lidded Container (Brilliant form, bold AND

      Lots #114-118 4 Makonde objects --

      (a wonderful comb plus 3 delightful pieces "Collected by Henrique de
      Brion…between 1914 and 1918. The comb was not from the same original
      collection but, hey, why break up the set?)

      Incidentally, twenty-six (26) of the African lots are described
      as "Fine" with an additional five (5) "Fine and Rare " (or "Rare and
      Fine") and five (5) merely "Rare" (but not necessarily "Fine"?). Six
      (6) Lots have been deemed "Superb." My birthday is in October for
      those who wish to make this coming Birthday a "Fine, Rare and/or
      Superb" Day"!

      Any other thought or interest on this catalogue and/or group of

      By the way, my web-site is under construction and will be coming
      soon. Lee
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