First let’s go back, way back. Back to the 1960s. Back to the decade—the Swinging Sixties—that saw the fall of many social taboos, the emergence of new genres of music, and the decade in which man walked on the moon. Back to the 1960s when Dr Martin Luther King Jr. delivered “I Have a Dream” and 32 African countries gained independence from their colonisers.
In the 1960s, Sotheby’s held its pioneering sale of Helena Rubinstein’s collection in New York. The decade saw norms of all kinds broken down and it was in that context that eight European friends of Marie-Ange Saulnier Ciolkowska’s son sat down for dinner donning African masks.
But who was Marie-Ange (1898 – 1992) and how did she come to have so many African artworks in her collection? In the catalogue for the 2017 ‘POWERMASK – The Power of Masks’ exhibition held at the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam, Christine Valluet shared that “It was in the late 1920s that the journalist and art critic Henri Saulnier-Ciolkowski and his wife, Marie-Ange, settled at 26 rue Jacob, in a huge apartment with old-fashioned charm… Being widowed in 1933 and living alone with their young son Tony [Saulnier], Marie-Ange first worked in an antique shop, where she made friends with artists. During the war, while she was engaged in the Resistance, she decided to start dealing in primitive arts, which she had discovered with her husband [journalist and art critic Henri Saulnier-Ciolkowski whom she married in 1924]. The apartment filled up with objects from Africa and Oceania, and it was in this atmosphere that Tony grew up. This magical place (which I remember with certain emotion) became a place where intellectuals and artists gathered around Marie-Ange. Tony then lived with his wife and his son in a section of the apartment, while his mother conserved the use of the rear section giving onto the garden. In the late 1950s, Marie-Ange Ciolkowska set off on a series of collecting journeys to Dogon country, which she would visit regularly into advanced old age. She loved this country, where she would sleep under the stars.”
According to Hermione Waterfield, “[Henri Saulnier-Ciolkowski] was an enthusiastic browser of antique shops. By chance, he met a missionary and through them, [Marie-Ange and Henri] acquired objects from missions in Africa. Her friend and music hall artist, Suzy Solidor had opened a shop on the quai Voltaire a La Grande Mademoiselle in 1930, and when Henri died in 1933 she invited Marie-Ange to join her. This was a success and helped support her and her son Tony who was born in 1926, and who would later become a photographer for [the magazine] Paris Match. She met more artists and writers including Picasso. Over the years rue Jacob was a lively scene, often with dancing enjoyed by André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Madeleine Rousseau (with whom she worked closely), the Loebs, the Verités amongst others. She had good contacts in museums—for instance, she helped disperse the “duplicates” from the museum in Hamburg after it was bombed. She sent much across the Atlantic to J. J. Klejman.
“After Tony died in 1968 in an airline accident, Herbert Rieser, a photographer who became a dealer, would accompany her on those trips in Dogon country. They would set out from Paris in her deux chevaux crossing Spain to drive all the way to Mali. It was Herbert Rieser who took me to dine with her one evening in 1975. Her bed was in an alcove which was flanked by masks from Gabon, some of which are in the iconic photograph that Tony took, of eight people around a table each wearing a mask. It was reproduced in Paris Match in 1966.”
On 21 May 1966, the 893rd edition of Paris Match—the French weekly news magazine covering national and international news and lifestyle stories—released a special report covering the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, inaugurated by Senegalese president and poet Léopold Sédar Senghor. The articles were written by Michel Gall with accompanying photographs by Tony Saulnier, son of the collector Marie-Ange Saulnier Ciolkowska.
The edition featured the now-iconic photograph, ‘Le Dîner des Collectionneurs de Têtes’ (The Headhunters’ Dinner), taken by Tony in 1966. The image features eight elegantly dressed diners donning African masks, seated round a plate of caviar in the apartment Tony shared with his mother. The photograph was titled: ‘In Paris, on Rue Jacob, a dinner of head collectors,’ and captioned: ‘Hardly back from Dakar, Tony Saulnier, himself a passionate collector of Negro art, held a dinner of head collectors. In our photo, in front of a dish of caviar, the most beautiful masks in his collection. The person to the left of the young woman in white wears one of the rarest in the world. Three months ago, a museum paid eight million French francs for a similar mask. It comes from the Congo. The masks around the table, from l. to r.: Dan (black), Guro, Pongwe, Kono (elephant mask), Bambara, Dogon (monkey mask), Pongwe. On the wall, Dogons.’
Are the dinner guests honouring and celebrating the masks by associating them with luxury fashion and the joy of a dinner party or are they demeaning the cultures that created the masks? The language used—‘head collectors’, not ‘mask collectors’—and the juxtaposition of high western fashion and historical African masks can make for uncomfortable viewing. The image brings to mind the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ that were so oft used by collectors and galleries of that time. It conjures up visions of trophy hunting and of perceptions of the ‘Dark Continent’.
Commenting about the photograph on Instagram, art director and independent curator Susan Ansley Johnson shares that “This is a room full of ‘trophies’, on the walls, on the faces. A celebration of a collection. This was after all the 60s. Our perspectives change and we challenge what was, with the insights of our ever-changing global viewpoint.” We must remember that this picture was taken during a time of change, the Swinging Sixties. A time when African art was moving away from ‘ethnographic’ to ‘fine art’. In fact, the article that features the photograph was celebratory. The photograph’s caption mentioned the fact that a Yaure mask, similar to that in the photograph, was sold to a museum for eight million francs. The photograph was used to extoll the fine art virtues of African art—its diversity and its antiquity—by associating it with luxury. It also highlights how the mask changes the wearer whether in its original context or around a dinner table in Paris.
According to art historian Valentine Plisnier, “While the guests have been deliberately left anonymous in this reception’s photo caption, we know more about the objects photographed: they were part of the collection of Tony Saulnier’s mother. More precisely, from left to right, they are: a Dan mask (Côte d’Ivoire), then Baoulé [Yaure] (Côte d’Ivoire), Fang (Gabon), Pende (DRC), Kono (?) (Mali), Bambara (Mali), Dogon (Mali) and Punu (Gabon). On the fireplace are two ciwara crests (Mali) and, hanging from the woodwork, two Dogon masks… the fibre skirts originally worn by the masked dancers (and rarely brought back with the masks) have ironically been replaced by the pomp of the guests’ dresses and dinner jackets, the photographer playing on this contrast and its absurd character.”
Now let’s fast forward to March 2021, to the sale at Christie’s. Not the $69.3 million NFT sale (as an aside, did you notice artist Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple’s couch cushions in the live stream of his reaction to the auction? They look like Kuba textiles no?! African art is everywhere), but to the modestly titled ‘Living with African and Oceanic Arts’ auction that closed 11 March 2021.
Out of necessity due to COVID-19 restrictions, Christie’s held its first fully-online classic African art sale and the estimates were just as modest as the auction’s title. That said, many lots sold for well above their high estimates, much to the chagrin of collectors looking for bargains. According to Christie’s, 96% of the lots were sold for a total amount of €1,055,750 including buyer premiums. Only four lots did not sell of the 109 offered, showing either the attractive selection made by the department or the success ‘pricing low’ had on interest and activity. The online sale also attracted a new audience, 303 registered bidders were counted coming from 24 countries—77 of those were new to Christie’s.
"We are so pleased to have achieved such results for the first online only sale of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s. The strong results of this sale, which was carefully curated to offer a wide range of objects from multiple typologies with prices going from 375 to 175,000 euros, showed that there is an ongoing appetite for this category. The purpose of this sale was to give a large visibility to this category and attract new clients and this was greatly achieved as demonstrated by the high number of registered bidders and the 96% of lots sold in this sale. We were also delighted to have, once again, presented our lots alongside the Design and Contemporary works of art which show the constant connections between these categories.”—Rémy Magusteiro, head of sale, African, Oceanic and North American Art at Christie’s
The ‘Living with African and Oceanic Arts’ sale included eight lots of African artworks from the collection of the grandson of Marie-Ange Saulnier Ciolkowska, two of which were in ‘Le Dîner des Collectionneurs de Têtes.’
Lot 61, the Fang ngil (also called ngi or ngyi) mask from Gabon was acquired for €11,875 by a European client against an estimate of €3,000 – €5,000. Another ngil mask (lot 19) from the same collection, is believed to have been made by the same artist that created lot 61. Lot 19 also sold for €11,875 against an estimate of €3,000 – €5,000. According to Hermione Waterfield, Marie-Ange had both masks hung on either side of her bed, and they never moved from 26 rue Jacob.
Ngil masks typically range in height from between 40 to 50 cm (the Saulnier Ciokowska lot 61 is 45 cm), with imposing, rounded foreheads that often extend into helmets at the back of the mask to fit the dancer’s head. Similar examples to the Saulnier Ciokowska mask include a ngil mask collected by K. Ritter in 1914 in German South Kamerun, among the Bulu of Ebolowa, and kept at the M.f.V. of Munich (Staatlichen Museums für Völkerkunde; n.inv. I-67-1). In addition, the mask collected by F. Coppier in 1905 from the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève and the ngil in the Dapper Museum collection (inv. 2646) are within the same corpus. The Barbier-Mueller collection also holds a similar ngil mask, acquired by Josef Mueller around 1935 from Charles Vignier, Paris (inv. 1019-14).
According to Louis Perrois in the Autumn-Winter 2008 edition of Tribal Art Magazine, “The ngil was effectively an itinerant roving militia with supernatural and judicial powers of an inquisitional type, which, according to Henri Bot Ba Njock, acted as the ‘guarantor of social stability and security’ (Bot Ba Njock , 1960 :151–171). The ngil was particularly focused on finding malevolent sorcerers and neutralizing them… The ngil might be called into a village by someone with a complaint about his neighbours or relatives. The pretext might be a strange disease, a suspicious death, or a suspicion of sorcery, which could, of course, be motivated by less ‘spiritual’ concerns, such as rivalries, disputes, power struggles, and so forth. The ngil militia was led by a high-ranking initiate, a master magician and diviner called an ngengan, who would approach a village and, from a secret location, quickly identify one or more guilty parties.”
Ngil masks were worn by ngengan to instil fear. With the advent of Christianity, ngil was gradually banned by the colonial administration between 1910 and 1920, both in Gabon and Cameroon, which caused the gradual disappearance of its masks. Ngil masks and the societies that used them ceased being active as vigilantes around 1920 but the masks continued to be made for Western tourists and missionaries. Some artists are said to have also continued making replicas in memory of their traditions.
There is some debate as to the authenticity of the Saulnier Ciokowska masks. They are of a rare type and have not been faked—that is, made to deceive—quite as widely as the long, narrow ngil corpus. Sources share that the masks were potentially made in the 1920s or 30s. They were likely never worn by ngengan, as they have limited traces of use—the fronts and backs of the masks do not show expected patina—but are believed to have been genuinely carved by Fang artists.
"The back of the Fang mask is more interesting than the front. It’s a mask made for us but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want it. It was likely made in the 30s or 40s and the back proves it—the axe marks across the surface of the back demonstrates that it’s a later mask. Older, 19th century or early 20th century Fang masks are nicely finished on the back with no axe marks."—Christophe Rolley, collector and dealer
Lot 62, the Punu okuyi mask that also featured in the photograph and likely made by the same artist that carved lot 82, sold for €10,625. Lot 82 sold for €7,500. Both lots had estimates of €1,000 – €1,500. Honest and sweet, the masks did very well for their low estimates.
This bring us to the question of value. Is a classic African mask valuable because of its ethnographic value—that is was used within its cultural context—or is value placed on its artistic merit? Is the €11,875 price-tag of lot 61 merely because it featured in ‘Le Dîner des Collectionneurs de Têtes’, or did the purchaser buy it out of curiosity? If you’re the buyer, we’d love to know what your motivations for buying it were!
"It has to show its life!" — Christophe Rolley
While not from the Marie-Ange Saulnier Ciolkowska collection, a review of the Christie’s sale would not be complete without mention of the Dan wunkirmian feast spoon of the magalümia sub-type. Many were surprised by the huge result lot 79 attained. It was estimated low at €2,000– €3,000 and sold for a whopping €175,000.
Shown at the “Die Kunst der Dan” exhibition at the Museum Rietberg Zurich in November 1976 and published in Fischer and Himmelheber’s ‘The Arts of the Dan in West Africa’ and De Grunne’s ‘Dan, La Danse des Cuillères / Dancing with Spoons’ TEFAF 2019 exhibition catalogue, this spoon packs a provenance punch but does provenance from the 70s onwards justify a €175,000 price-tag?
Some say no, with concerns about the authenticity of the spoon.
Dealer, Didier Claes however believes that it does. He shares; “They are many fake Dan spoons on the market, so when there is one we know for sure is authentic, the price gets high. This model in particular is of great plastic simplicity, appropriate for its archaic design. In addition, the patina proves just how old it is and it has been published many times too. I think this piece is a TOP 10.”
And top ten, at least in price it is. According to the Artkhade database, this spoon is now the fourth most expensive magalümia spoon to sell at auction.
“We did not expect it to go this high but like always this is what makes the magic of auctions,” said Victor Teodorescu, Christie’s specialist, about the final price of the spoon.
Teodorescu added that “the work’s quality, the fact that it’s by an identifiable master-hand (as per Bernard de Grunne’s publication of the spoon), and the ever-increasing emphasis being put nowadays on artistic identities of classical African art might also have further contributed.” He revealed that “it took two passionate underbidders to skyrocket the end result.”
To the winning bidder, sounds like you bagged yourself something worthy of further investigation and academic study.