A new hoard of tribal art

Statue of the Hawaiian war god Ku-ka’ili-moku © Christie's
A Hawaiian god of war: yours for €2m

The Vérité family hoard had already attained near-mythic status for collectors of African and Oceanic art, says Harriet Fitch Little in the Financial Times. French art dealer Pierre Vérité started collecting in the 1920s after becoming inspired to learn more about the tribal art he saw on postcards sent by his brother-in-law from French Sudan. His son, Claude, sold what was believed to be the entire collection of 500 items in 2006, raising €44m.

But the secretive Vérité family has always abided by the Malian proverb, “The snake who would live old lives hidden”, says Fitch Little, and 11 years later, Claude, who is now approaching 90, revealed a further stash of 198 objects. These “last pearls”, as Christie’s calls them, will go under the hammer on 21 November at the auctioneer’s offices in Paris.

Pride of place among the lots goes to a statue of the Hawaiian war god Ku-ka’ili-moku. It was carved in wood between 1780 and 1820, and it is expected to fetch around €2m. A strikingly similar statue resides in the British Museum. The sale also features a dozen reliquary sculptures with estimates of between €10,000 and €300,000. “These extraordinary sculptures once rose above the sacred ancestral reliquaries of the peoples generally referred to today as the Kota, in the regions straddling the borders of modern-day eastern Gabon and the western Republic of the Congo,” says Sotheby’s magazine. They have become “icons of world art”.

No two wooden figures are ever identical, but the tradition does conform to certain “basic canons, which in the minds and hands of Kota artists, were subject to an astonishing diversity of formal improvisation, reduction, embellishment and invention”. These sculptures were among the first sub-Saharan artworks to be displayed in the West.

If they appear abstract to modern eyes, that may be because Kota art heavily influenced the abstract-art movement of the early 20th century. Pablo Picasso was apparently moved to paint the ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 after seeing Kota art displayed at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris.

One of the most revered if not the most prolific of Kota artists was known as the Sébé River Master of the Skull Head. He worked in modern southeast Gabon, probably between 1750 and 1800, and is considered a “master of convexity in a sculptural universe in which concavity and two-dimensional or bas-relief qualities
were more the norm”, says Sotheby’s.

One such example by the artist is up for auction on Monday in New York as part of the auctioneer’s sale of the Edwin and Cherie Silver collection. A further Sotheby’s sale of African and Oceanic art will be held on 12 December in Paris.

Two money makers driving African art

While the global art world has been wrestling with just how disruptive art fairs have become to their traditional business model, whereby galleries marketed art and artists, in Africa the art fairs are opening up a new market, says Lynsey Chutel on Quartz. Art X Lagos, a fair held last weekend in the Nigerian city, follows a similar format to other international art fairs around the world, but aims to shine a light on a largely neglected region.

Tokini Peterside, the 32-year-old graduate of the London School of Economics behind Art X Lagos, turned down a job at a law firm to return to her native Lagos to grow the “local collector base”. She didn’t want the fair to be stuffy, she tells Lucy Bannerman in The Times: “I wanted thousands of Lagosians to feel as if, though they might not be collecting right now, they will do in the future.” That’s looking ever more likely thanks to economic booms in Nigeria and South Africa, notes Bannerman.

Jochen Zeitz, a German entrepreneur, is hoping to open up African contemporary art in the latter. Together with South African Mark Coetzee, Zeitz recently opened the monumental Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) in Cape Town, designed by Thomas Heatherwick – the British architect behind London’s failed Garden Bridge. Zeitz started collecting art in the 1990s, but the museum encompasses far more than his own personal collection. “We bought at scale, ”he tells Caroline Roux in The Telegraph Luxury magazine. “I want it to create a dialogue.”

Auctions

Going…

Photo of British Antarctic expedition, 1912 © Sotheby's

A photograph (pictured above) of Captain Robert Scott’s crestfallen team – taken using an automatic camera in January 1912 moments after they had discovered Roald Amundsen’s note telling them they had been beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegians –  is expected to fetch £1,200 at Sotheby’s in London on 14 November. All five Antarctic explorers perished on the return journey.

Gone…

One of the last known letters written aboard the Titanic on 13 April 1912 – the day before the ship hit an iceberg – sold for a record £126,000 at auction last month. The water-stained letter on headed paper marvelled at the size of the boat, which was “fitted up like a palatial hotel”, and at fellow passenger, American billionaire John Jacob Astor IV: “He looks like any other human being even tho he has millions of money.” The letter was found in the pocket of its author, Oskar Holverson, who died in the disaster, and was addressed to his mother.