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Mayan burial mask
est. $140,000-$180,000
at Christie's Paris
June 15, 2002



Liberian mask
est. $110,000-$140,000



Gabon mask
est. $135,000-$150,000



Gabon ancestral figure
est. $280,000-$320,000



Maori pendant Hei Tiki
est. $41,000-$59,000
Art from the East
by Fred Stern


On Saturday, June 15, Christie's Paris showroom on fashionable Rue Matignon will feature an important tribal sale that will encompass offerings from Oceana, the Americas and Africa. Heavy emphasis will be on tribal treasures from Africa. This will be the first sale by the new Tribal Arts department in Paris headed by Alain de Monbrison and Pierre Amrouche.

The auction offers 313 lots, many with impressive provenances, including masks, furnishings, sculpture and ceremonial furniture. A large number of the proffered collections were started in the 1920s and most have not been seen on the market in recent years.

A Mayan burial mask, of a priest or nobleman with strong Olmec traces, thought to date back to the seventh or eighth century in origin is one of the impressive offerings. The massive green polished stone mask shows three cinnabar markings on the forehead. The mask combines classical Mayan style with pre-classical construction, making it unique among Mayan artifacts. The substantial strength of the face indicates the model's powerful position. The 8 ¼ in. mask is expected to fetch between $140,000-$180,000.

An Ivory Coast treasure, a Deble sculpture in wood of a primordial ancestral couple has an interesting past. It was given to the colony's administrator Ambassador Gilbert Bochet by a tribal chief. The 40 in. high wooden figure was used by the Senufo tribe to pound the earth to keep away evil spirits. An exceedingly rare piece, it is estimated to bring between $140,000-$270,000.

A Liberian Grebo mask, strongly reminiscent of a mask in the possession of Claude Picasso and used by Pablo Picasso in fashioning his first cubist sculpture, combines wood, leather, vegetable fibers, black paint and kaoline white. Grebo masks are difficult to find. This one is estimated to sell at $110,000-$140,000.

Another mask, this time from late 19th or early 20th-century Gabon is particularly interesting. The 11 ¾ in. head of a woman with high coiffure has a strongly stylized face with forehead markings that symbolize reincarnation. It is thought to have been used in tribal ceremonies and features white kaolin accents. Estimates run as high as $135,000-$150,000.

Among other sale highlights is an ancestor figure, also from Gabon, that has been the subject of numerous studies, most notably in Louis Perrois' "The Arts of Gabon." It is from the famed collection of Joseph Mueller, who acquired the significant sculpture in 1939. It was constructed in the Fang tradition of wood and copper and has probably been worshipped for generations, which may account for its heavy palm oil patination. It is 16 ½ in. tall and expected to bring between $280,000-$320,000.

There are relatively few textile offerings. Among them is a 26-inch fragment of a funerary cape dating back to 1200-1400 A.D., from the Chimu culture of Northern Peru. The beige cotton piece is decorated with stripes of yellow, red and blue feathers and is estimated at $2,800-$4,100.

At the New York viewing, a hardstone (nephrite) and mother of pearl pendant from New Zealand, a Maori Hei Tiki drew enthusiastic comments form the crowd. It comes from the reputable collection of the Bottets, who acquired it in 1956. The grimacing figure, broad faced, tongue sticking out, with extended arms and large, round eyes is an unusually large size, 6 ¾ in., and slated to bring $41,000-$59,000.


FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.