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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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“Throughout his life he kept saying, ‘I never had a mother’,” writes Werner Muensterberger (1913-2011) about Honore Balzac, the celebrated French novelist, playwright and seducer of older women. The anecdote summarizes the central thesis of Muensterberger’s 1994 book on collecting, titled Collecting: An Unruly Passion. In it he argues that the accumulation and pursuit of art objects is essentially a way to ease the anxiety of separation from one’s mother. The more acute the anxiety, the more feverish the collecting, as in the case of Balzac, who apparently had a mother that didn’t much care for him, resulting in a man who collected not only women but also “decorative objects and bric-a-brac.”

Muensterberger, who died in March of last year, held doctorates in medicine, anthropology and art history, and was a collector himself, most notably African art. “Objects in the collector’s experience, real or imagined,” he states, “allow for a magical escape into a remote and private world.” And so New Yorkers could catch a glimpse of Muensterberger’s personal oasis when a small selection from his collection went under the hammer at Sotheby’s on Friday, May 11, 2012.

The auction of eight lots owned by Muensterberger immediately preceded the firm’s regular auction of African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art, and was kicked off by a wonderfully serene mask from the Luluwa tribe of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dating from the first half of the 19th century, the mask would have been inhabited by ancestral spirits during ritual performances and is heavily eroded on the top of the head from use. This probably made the carving all the more precious to Muensterberger, who bought it for $12,000 in 1959. This time around the mask sold for its high estimate of $2.5 million and accounted for the majority of the sale’s $3.1 million total.

Muensterberger also collected contemporary art from Africa, and the sale included an untitled “anthropomorphic sculpture” from 1991 by the Kenyan artist Magdalene Odundo (b. 1950) that fetched $134,500 (est. $40,000-$60,000), an auction record for the artist. Muensterberger bought the work in 1991 from the Anthony Ralph Gallery in New York. The German art writer and editor Lisa Zeitz, who is working on a biography of Muensterberger, notes that at his death he was working on a psychoanalytic study of forgers, tentatively titled Forgers on the Couch.

Other Muensterberger lots included a stone head from a mysterious, vanished culture from pre-European Sierra Leone, ca. 1200-1400 ($242,500), acquired in 1973 from Merton D. Simpson in New York, and a dramatically weathered (missing its head, hands and feet), ca. 45-inch-tall Mbembe male torso, perhaps a male chief, from Nigeria ($170,500).

The overall total for the various owner sale was $17.7 million, well above the presale high total estimate of $14.8 million. The catalogue cover lot, a copper and brass Kota reliquary figure that was once in the collection of Arman (who had a large and well known African art collection), sold for $1.1 million (est. $1 million-$1.5 million).

The sale also contained three lots that had been owned by Henri Matisse. A Banama seated female figure in wood sold for $782,500, about three times the presale high estimate of $250,000. The figure is attributed to the “Master of the Raptor Profile” and can be seen in the background of Matisse’s 1917 painting Three Sisters with an African Sculpture, which is in the collection of the Barnes Foundation (and which should soon be on public view in Philadelphia).

A horned white mask from the Lega tribe that is catalogued as having possibly been altered by Matisse (though the speculated alterations are not specified) was perhaps boosted by that suggestion, as it sold for $362,500 after being estimated at only $7,000. The final Matisse lot was an ancestor figure from the Kanak tribe of New Caledonia (a French territory located off the coast of Australia) that fetched $48,857 (est. $20,000-$30,000).

Art-world provenance seemed to be a theme throughout the sale. The top lot was a Banama “zigzag” figure, which sold for $2.7 million, and which had formerly in the collection of longtime Museum of Modern Art curator William Rubin. It’s easy to imagine that the contemporary art scholar treasured this fetish as an echo of the esthetic of Constantin Brancusi.

A group of objects came from the vaults of Roberta and Martin Lerner, who was a curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The featured lot was a barely four-inch-tall Kongo-Vili hunting charm, which sold for $43,750. The top Lerner lot was a miniature sculpture made of elephant bone that fetched $512,500 (est. $40,000-$60,000).

Susan and Jerry Vogel -- another pair of curators, from the Met and the Museum of African Art, respectively -- sold a portion of their holdings, including a portrait mask from the Ivory Coast tribe of Baule. It was estimated to fetch up to $500,000, but was bought in.

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.