Tribal art achieves incredible prices at auction

One of the highest prices ever achieved by a African tribal work of art at auction




  • Christies
  • The Exceptional Sale 9 July 2015
  • London, King Street

Price Realized £6,130,500

Estimate £1,500,000 – £2,500,000


Lot Notes

An African Polykleitos among the Luba

By Dr. Bernard de Grunne

The ground-breaking exhibition ‘Mains de Maîtres. A la découverte des sculpteurs d’Afrique’ which I brought to life in Brussels in 2001 was the first exhibition covering the entire scope of sub-Saharan statuary styles identifying artists and ateliers from fourteen different tribes ranging from the ancient Soninke in Mali to the Tsonga from South Africa. My selection was strictly based on the aesthetic qualities of these fourteen artists

A world premier for the art of the Congo Basin was the display in my show of six works of art from an outstanding artist which I consider superior to the Kateba (ex ‘Buli’) Master and his two pupils, despite him being late in being recognized as such. This recognition was thanks mainly to Ezio Bassani’s exemplary publication of 1990

This anonymous sculptor has been assigned various conventional names which I list here in chronological order: The Frobenius 1904 Warua Master by Susan Vogel in 1986, the Warua Master by Ezio Bassani in 1990, The Master of the Court of Sopola by François Neyt in 1993 and again the Warua Master by Heinrich Schweizer in 2015 (3). I had suggested in my 2001 catalogue the name Kunda Master, a denomination used subsequently by Petridis in his publication. The Kunda were one of the most important and ancient royal clans of the Eastern Luba, which produced such amazing talent as the Kateba workshop and the great Boyo art styles

The highest concentration of geographical provenance of works by this sculptor are found on both sides of the Luvua River, at the crossroads of Luba, Hemba, Tabwa and Boyo art styles. Of the nine works by this Master, we have the exact geographical origin for one piece, the bow stand from an American Private Collection. It was given to the private collector by Chief Kahulu Ngoy in the village of Kishiale near Piana-Mwanga, the capital of the Batempo Chiefdom, not far from Kiambi. According to Maesen, the Tervuren figure was also collected between 1902 and 1903 not far from Kiambi by Rusmont in the village of Pweto, on the north bank of the Luvua River  The statue from my father’s collection was found in a village near Kiambi according to Dartevelle

In order to finally put to rest this naming process, one could propose to do a slight linguistic shift from Warua Master to Luvua Master reflecting much more precisely the known geographical distribution of three of his works, though it remains to be seen if this will accepted in future publications.

This Master carved only nine works: two stools, four bow stands and three statues. I have listed them below in a detailed chronological sequence based on their first date of collection and very careful archival research:

The beautiful, crisp but never cold style of the Warua Master is one of crystalline purity, of balanced synthesis between the ample spherical form of the head and the geometric rigor of the arms, breast and coiffure. My group photos from the 2001 exhibition shows without doubt that all six sculptures are by the same artist, even if some of his works are more perfectly balanced than others . For instance the bow rest from the Frankfurt Museum seems awkward because the two side prongs from the bow stand are modern restorations executed by Gustave Dehondt before he sold the piece to the Museum. This modern addition explains the stiffness of the Frankfurt bow rest and lack of elegant curvature which is evinced by the other three bow stands. The two stools, obviously by the same hand (Figs.  share the same serene elliptical shape of the head and geometric rigor of the bent arms. The Warua Master stands alone in the landscape of Luba-ized art style.

The Mendès-France bow stand offered here has always been considered one of the great masterpieces of Luba art and certainly the most perfect of the four bow stands by the Warua Master, on account of a number of very subtle refinements such as the slight tilt forward of the torso, the tension in the openwork coiffure and the elegance of the bent legs, all details that can admired from the profile view. One needs to correct an erroneous fact about the provenance of this very famous piece: it never belonged to Georges de Miré. This piece was first published in an auction catalogue of a sale held at Drouot in Paris on May 7, 1931. According to archival research, the work was consigned by another well-known collector, André Léfèvre, (Fig. 1), the financial backer and major share-holder of the paintings gallery Percier (13). It was purchased at that sale for FF 3100 by René Mendès-France, (Fig. 2) painter and employee at the Galerie Percier (14). Mendès-France immediately loaned it for the (‘Arts Indigènes’) room at the Exposition Coloniale Internationale (Paris, 6 May – 15 November, 1931), organized by Jean Gallotti who illustrated it for the second time (15). The bow stand was then sold by Jean Roudillon on 2 October, 1975 to Morris Pinto (16). Mrs. Camila Pinto consigned it with many other pieces to Sotheby’s London in 1980 where it was purchased by Carlo Monzino (17). The erroneous de Miré provenance was added in the entry of the Sotheby’s catalogue in 1980 and has been repeated ever since. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that de Miré did indeed consign some Oceanic objects from his collection to this 6 May 1931 auction. However, George de Miré’s African collection was sold six months later on 16 December, 1931

Carved wooden bow stands in the form of a standing female figure surmounted by a trident shaped fork are among the most strikingly idiosyncratic forms of Luba art, and powerfully testify to the relationship between hunting and kingship in this ancient kingdom. Indeed the Luba cultural hero Mbidi Kiluwe was a renowned hunter and his most cherished possession was his bow. Scholars are in agreement that the ultimate origin of this unique form appears to date to the very foundation of the Luba Kingdom many centuries ago, when the three-branched tree trunk was used as a ritual post by hunters to display the skulls of human or animal victims

The standing female figure supporting the three-pronged fork represents the highly important chiefs’ mothers who led the migration to the Luvua region as well as other founders of specific royal clans. Precise fieldwork on the symbolism of the female figure of the Malcolm bow stand, which represents Ngombe-Madia, the mother of the chief who led the migration of the Tempo clan to their present location (20), corroborates this interpretation.

The first mention of a bow stand is by the explorer Verney Cameron in 1877. He describes them as ‘bow rests’, which turned into what French scholars have subsequently and mistakenly called ‘porte-flèches’ (arrow-carrier)

Indeed, porte-flèches are altogether another type of regalia which, in my view, have no formal affiliation with bow stands. The three-pronged fork at the top of arrow stands can be used to rest a bow on one of the side forks but appear too narrow and impractical for holding long arrows. The suggestion that the bow stand somehow evolved from the iron porte-flèches seems too farfetched. The iron fork-shaped arrow stand, an ironwork tour de force which has a wide distribution throughout southeastern Congo, northern Zambia, Bemba, Bisa and Malawi, are another sacred symbol of Luba royalty (22). According to Maesen, the principal Luba chiefs preferred iron arrow stands whereas the secondary chiefs received wooden examples (23).

The uniquely accomplished individual style of the Warua Master manifests in a profoundly geometric composition of the sort deemed “le rythme statuaire” by the French prehistorian André Leroi-Gourhan. This sculptural innovation is evinced in a three-dimensional object when it includes the repetition of identical (or as he calls it, “isometric”) intervals (24). The sense of a Palladian harmony in all works by the Warua Master comes from the very intelligent use of these isometric intervals in the different parts of the body.

This unique approach to sculpture reminds us of the methodology used by artists from Ancient Greece. Amongst the earliest examples of this preoccupation with balance and form comes from the Cycladic period, exemplified here by the Spedos Master (active around 2400 B.C.). Another outstanding sculptor is of course Polykleitos, remembered for producing a canon, which demonstrated that such philosophical qualities as ‘the perfect, the good or the beautiful’ could be expressed through the harmony of parts in sculptural forms and geometrical proportions. He envisaged the human figure differentiated into torso, limbs and parts of limbs, and his work explored how these parts related to each other and to the whole. Like the Warua Master, Polykleitos mastered his art by studying the physiology of the human form. His Canon stood as a system of mathematically and geometrically determined proportions resulting in a human form which, according to Quintilian, a Roman commentator of the 1st century A.D., was ‘supra verum‘ (25). As Pollitt explains: ‘the goal of Polykleitos’ system of symmetria was to describe an ideal nature in man. …He also concentrated on harmonizing opposing force.’ (26) Polykleitos’ approach was so perfected that although no original sculpture by his hand survives, one can easily ‘feel’ the presence of a harmonious system in the numerous Roman copies of his work (27). For the Warua Master, he does not seem to have had disciples, though a fourth stool in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Inv. 2006.18) is clearly by a less gifted follower of his unique style (28).

A Important central Polynesian figure

Christies Oceanic art African & North American Art

  • 14 June 2011
  • Paris



Lot 171


Polynésie centrale
Hauteur: 53 cm.


Ernest Ohly, Berkeley Galleries, London acquired in 1958 A Important central Polynesian figure

Price Realized  €961,000

Estimate €300,000 – €500,000



There is a corpus of wood carvings from Central Polynesia which continues to be an enigma. They originate within the triangle formed by the Society, the Austral and the Cook Islands. The grouping together of so many figures from this area in Steven Hooper’s exhibition Pacific Encounters (London 2006) seemed to pose more questions than answers. David King, whose book on the London Missionary Society should be published about the same time as this catalogue, has had the same thwarting experience, with two exceptions – see paragraph 6 below.

In 1796 four ministers and twenty-six laymen set out from England, on the Duff, to convert the islanders of the Pacific Ocean. This was a private venture by the London Mission (later the London Missionary Society [LMS]. They established missions on Tonga, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands but met with little success. Eventually, in 1812, they baptised Pomare II of Tahiti and this became their base for future activities, with Raiatea their favoured island. It was to Raiatea that A’a (British Museum inv.LMS19) was taken from Rurutu in 1821 for onward transmission to London, and later the thirty-one ‘idols’ from Aitutaki. This led to the Society Islands being the incorrectly recorded origin of many carvings from the Austral and Cook Islands.

If we examine the traits of the Ohly figure it is closest in overall form to the one in Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland, with the arms carved free of the slightly distended body and falling from square shoulders, an ovoid head with triangular chin, long nose and domed forehead. As with the present lot, the Basel figure is carved on a post, albeit of a different shape (see Ed. Oliver Wick and Antje Denner, Visual Encounters, Beyeler Foundation, Basel, 2009, Section IX, no.5). The Basel figure was admitted to the Museum (inv.Vc1521) der Kulturen in 1981 from the Basel Mission which was founded in 1815. It has a label in German giving it a Tahitian provenance.

Another figure, better known, also on a post and with similar stance, is in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow (see Peter Buck, Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands, 1944 reprinted 1971, p.342, fig.212), Steven Hooper, op. cit. no.197 andVisual Encounters, no.4).

Pierced ears are not usually found in Polynesian figures, but a flywhisk finial figure, with an 18th century Tahitian provenance, in the British Museum has very similar ears (Hooper, op.cit. p.175, fig.127). In fact the pose with the hands on the abdomen, with or without three or four fingers, is common in figures from the Society Islands. The same characteristic is seen in figures from the Cook Islands, such as the figure from Aitutaki in the Ethnographic Museum (inv.190), Munich, which shares the same low slung abdomen with the Ohly figure (Beyeler, op.cit. Section IX fig. 2). The contented expression, with the treatment of the eyes and mouth similar to the Ohly example, is found on the finial of an Austral/Society Islands fly whisk handle in the muse d’Histoire naturelle, Lille (Océanie, La découverte du paradis, Paris, 1997, p.160 and p.161, fig. 145).
W.O. Oldman had several enigmatic figures in his collection which are now in New Zealand. Dunedin has no. 436, said to represent Terongo and his three sons, which Oldman bought from E Little in 1922 (The Oldman Collection of Polynesian Artifacts, 2004, Plate 4). William Ellis (Polynesian Researches, 1829, facsimile 1967, p. 220 and frontispiece Vol II) attributes this figure to Tahiti, but Buck points out the similarities to the rough Aitutaki figure drawn by John Williams (Missionary Enterprises, London, 1837, p.64). Also on display in Dunedin is Oldman no. 437 (Plate 4) for which David King has kindly told us that he has found evidence in the archives of the L.M.S., School of Oriental and African Studies, (SOAS), London, that it was collected by Williams, Bourne and Papeiha between 9 and 28 July 1823 on Aitutaki, the same month as the Williams carving.

Ernest Ohly inherited the Berkeley Galleries on Davies Street, London on the death of his father, William in 1955. Born in 1920 in Frankfurt, he went to school in Switzerland and joined his father in London after the War, working at the gallery and living in Barnet among the artists his father had grouped about him, many of them Australians. Founded by William in 1941, the gallery sold antiquities from the Far East, paintings and sculpture as well as Tribal Art and modern ceramics. It is described in Provenance Twelve Dealers and Collectors in England 1760-1990 (Waterfield and King, 2006 reprinted 2010). Ernest ran the gallery until 1977 but his interest in Far Eastern art, tribal art and ceramics never ceased until his sudden death on 8 April 2008. He was a private man with a ‘good eye’, who visited the saleroom views with the sculptor Gunther Bloch.

His family have an inventory he made in the 1770s of the things he took home to Blackheath. In it is “No. 33 A Tahitian figure on peg support, bought from Hutchings, 21in. high, April 1958 35”. It also had a gallery number B445. There is no record of a missionary called Hutchings, but there is a Sidney Hutchins and a John J. K. Hutchin, both of whom worked for the L.M.S. in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. The L.M.S archives hold a few reports and letters from Sidney Hutchins who served in the 1920s, and a great many reports and letters from John J.K. Hutchin, who served from 1882 for nearly three decades, spoke Rarotongan fluently and translated texts. He and his wife appreciated local life and were befriended by the Cook Islanders. However progress was never straightforward. A report Hutchin wrote on 8 January 1904 includes “There is still much superstition, and ignorance among them Just as the rays of the sun struggle to reach the ground, through the thick tangle of the bush, so superstition, ignorance and animalism hinder the progress of many in the spiritual life”. Alcohol was a terrible influence on the locals, especially in the northern Cooks. The Mission’s ship the John Williams visited the Society and Cook Islands and Samoa regularly, also the Austral Islands, New Zealand and New Guinea where there were mission stations. Most of the pastors in the islands were native to those or adjacent islands, but the bond between all members of the Mission was very strong. As late as 1916 an anonymous report from the Cook Islands to LMS headquarters in London reported the death of a native pastor, Obeda, at the age of 95, describing him as “the last surviving link in the Southern Islands with the heathen days. He was born in the year following the introduction of the Gospel to Aitutaki, and before Rarotonga had been discovered by John Williams”. How Hutchin or Hutchins acquired the figure is a mystery.

Ernest Ohly never disputed the Tahitian origin that came with his figure, and we only wish we had discussed it more fully with him when he was alive, instead of just admiring it. Meanwhile its exact origins remain an enigma.
Hermione Waterfield

Un mystère entoure un ensemble de sculptures en bois de Polynésie Centrale, originaires d’un triangle formé par les îles de la Société, les îles Australes et les îles Cook. Toutes ces oeuvres rassemblées par Steven Hooper lors de l’exposition Pacific Encounters (Londres, 2006) semble poser plus de questions que de réponses. David King, dont le livre sur la London Missionary Society devrait être publié en même temps que ce catalogue, a vécu la même exprience, avec deux exceptions – voir le paragraphe 6 ci-dessous.

En 1796, quatre prêtres et vingt-six laïcs quittèrent l’Angleterre, à bord du Duff, pour convertir les insulaires de l’Océan Pacifique. Il s’agissait d’une entreprise privée organisée par la London Mission (plus tard la London Missionary Society (LMS)). Ils établirent des missions au Tonga, à Tahiti et aux îles Marquises, mais sans grand succès. Finalement, en 1812, ils baptisèrent Pomare II de Tahiti qui devint la base de leurs futures activités, avec Raiatea leur île préférée. C’est de Raiatea qu’A’a (inv. LMS19) rapportée de Rurutu en 1821 partie pour Londres et plus tard les trente et unes ” idoles ” d’Aitutaki. Ceci explique pourquoi les sculptures des Iles Australes et Cook furent incorrectement notées comme originaires des Iles de la Société.

Si on examine la sculpture Ohly, on remarque que son aspect général est très proche de celle du Museum der Kulturen (Vc 1521), Bâle, Suisse, avec les bras séparés du corps légèrement disproportionnés et tombant des épaules carrées, une tête ovoïde avec un menton triangulaire, un nez allongé et un front en forme de dôme. Ces deux statuettes sont sculptées sur un poteau, mais chacun d’une forme différente (Cf. Ed. Oliver Wick et Antje Denner, Visual Encounters, Fondation Beyeler, Bâle, 2009, Section IX, no.5). La figure de Bâle entra dans les collections du Museum der Kulturen en 1981 et provenait de la Mission de Bâle fondée en 1815. Son étiquette en allemand donnant sa provenance Tahitienne.

Une autre statuette, mieux connue, placée aussi sur un poteau et avec une position semblable, est conservée dans le Musée Hunterian, à Glasgow, (inv.E.360), (voir Peter Buck, Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands, 1944, réimprimé en 1971, p.342, fig.212 et Steven Hooper, op. cit. no.197 et Visual Encounters, op. cit., no.4).

Les sculptures polynésiennes aux oreilles percées sont rares, mais on en retrouve de très similaires sur le personnage sculpté du chasse-mouche du British Museum, (BM TAH 137), avec une provenance tahitienne datée du XVIIIème siècle (Hooper, op.cit., p.175, fig.127). En fait la pose des mains sur l’abdomen, avec ou sans trois ou quatre doigts, est commune aux statuettes des Iles de la Société. On voit cette même caractéristique sur les figures des Iles Cook, comme celle d’Aitutaki au musée Ethnographique de Munich, (inv.190) qui possède le même abdomen allongé que celle d’Ohly (Beyeler, op.cit., Section IX, fig.2). L’expression contente, avec le traitement des yeux et de la bouche semblable à la sculpture Ohly, se retrouve à l’extrémité d’une poignée de chasse-mouche des îles Australe/De la Société au musée d’Histoire naturelle, Lille (Océanie, La découverte du paradis, Paris, 1997, p.160 et p.161, fig.145).

W.O. Oldman avait plusieurs statuettes énigmatiques dans sa collection qui sont maintenant en Nouvelle-Zélande. Dunedin a le n.436, censé représenter Terongo et ses trois fils, qu’Oldman acheta à E Little en 1922 (The Oldman Collection of Polynesian Artifacts, 2004, pl.4). William Ellis (Polynesian Researches, 1829, facsimile 1967, p.220 et frontispice vol II) attribue cette figure à Tahiti, mais Buck souligne ses similitudes avec le dessin grossier d’Aitutaki par John Williams (Missionary Enterprises, London, 1837, p.64). Le n.437 (pl.4), exposé également à Dunedin, pour lequel David King nous a gentiment dit qu’il avait trouvé la preuve dans les archives du L.M.S., l’école d’études Orientales et Africaines, (SOAS), Londres, qu’il fut rapporté par Williams, Bourne et Papeiha entre le 9 et 28 juillet 1823 d’Aitutaki, le même mois que la sculpture de Williams.

Ernest Ohly hérita en 1955 de la Berkeley Gallery, rue Davies à Londres, à la mort de son père, William. Né en 1920 à Francfort, il étudia en Suisse et rejoignit son père à Londres après la Guerre, travaillant à la galerie et vivant à Barnet parmi les artistes que son père avait rassemblé autour de lui, avec parmi eux beaucoup d’Australiens. Fondé par William en 1941, la galerie proposait des antiquités d’Extrême-Orient, des peintures, des sculptures mais aussi de l’art tribal et des céramiques modernes. Ceci est décrit dans Provenance Twelve Dealers and Collectors in England 1760-1990 (Waterfield et King, 2006 réédition 2010). Ernest dirigea la galerie jusqu’en 1977 et son intérêt pour l’art d’Extrême-Orient, l’art tribal et la céramique continua jusqu’à sa mort soudaine le 8 avril 2008. Il était un homme discret avec “un bon oeil”, qui visitait les expositions des salles des ventes avec le sculpteur Gunther Bloch.

Sa famille possède l’inventaire fait par Ernest dans les années 1970, des choses rapportées à Blackheath. On y trouve le “No.33A Une statue Tahitienne sur pied, achetée à Hutchings, hauteur 21 in., avril 1958, 35 livres”. Elle avait aussi un numéro de la galerie B445. Il n’y a pas de traces d’un missionnaire appelé Hutchings, mais il existe un Sidney Hutchins et un John J. K. Hutchin, ayant tous deux travaillé pour le L.M.S. à Rarotonga, aux îles Cook. Les archives du L.M.S conservent quelques rapports et lettres de Sidney Hutchins qui servi dans les annes 1920 et beaucoup de rapports et lettres de John J.K. Hutchin, qui servi pendant presque trois décennies à partir de 1882, parlait le Rarotonga couramment et ont traduit des textes. Lui et sa femme appréciaient la vie locale et entretenaient des relations amicales avec les habitants des Iles Cook.
Cependant le progrès n’était jamais direct. Hutchin écrit dans un rapport daté du 8 janvier 1904 : “Il y a toujours beaucoup de superstition et d’ignorance parmi eux… De même que les rayons du soleil lutte pour atteindre la terre, à travers l’épais buisson, la superstition, l’ignorance et la sensualité gênent l’accession à la vie spirituelle”. L’alcool était terriblement néfaste pour les habitants, particulièrement au nord des Iles Cook. Le bateau de la Mission, le John Williams, visitait les Iles de la Société, les Iles Cook et Samoa régulièrement, mais aussi les Iles Australes, la Nouvelle-Zélande et la Nouvelle Guinée où il y avait des représentations de la mission.

La plupart des pasteurs étaient natifs de leur île ou d’une île adjacente, mais le lien entre tous les membres de la Mission était très fort. En 1916, un rapport anonyme des îles Cook au siège social LMS Londres annonça la mort d’un pasteur indigène, Obeda, à l’âge de 95 ans, le décrivant comme “le dernier survivant des îles du Sud des jours païens. Il est né l’année suivant l’introduction de l’évangile à Aitutaki et avant que John Williams ne découvre Rarotonga”.

Comment Hutchin ou Hutchins ont acquis la figure est un mystère.
Ernest Ohly ne douta jamais de l’origine donnée à sa statue et nous regrettons seulement de ne pas en avoir plus discuté avec lui, au lieu de seulement l’admirer.
Au demeurant ses origines exactes restent une énigme.