Sidney and Bernice Clyman were a lovely couple who lived in the same modest home in Scarsdale, New York, for over sixty years.
Sidney was a medical doctor, a dermatologist.
They were well-known to the art collecting community for their openness and generosity, frequently inviting fellow collectors and art-lovers to visit them at home, loaning works from their collection to exhibitions all over the world, and supporting institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
There is a magnificent Bamileke [lefem] figure from Cameroon today in The MET's collection which the Clymans gave in 2015.
Bernice Clyman passed away in 2018 and Sid passed away last year—at the age of 99!
This auction is special primarily for the superb quality of the artworks on offer, representing the great artists of classical Africa and also as a snapshot of the taste of American collectors in the 1970s and '80s, who paired African art with abstract 20th-century paintings in an exciting cross-cultural dialogue.
The Clymans were influenced by some of the great dealers of the day, especially Gaston de Havenon and Merton D. Simpson. They began their long collecting adventure as clients of De Havenon in the early 1970s when the market for collecting African Art emerged in America.
In over half a century of collecting, they assembled a small but superb group of masterpiece-calibre examples of the major sculptural styles of sub-Saharan Africa.
The Clymans were also collecting abstract 20th-century art, and got to know the paintings dealer Allan Stone, and his close friend the pioneering African-American dealer, Jazz musician and painter Merton D. Simpson.
Together with our colleagues in the Contemporary Art department we came up with the idea to present the star of the collection, the Clymans’ Ancestor Head by a Fang-Betsi artist, in the Contemporary Art evening auction together with the Clymans’ top paintings.
With this strategy, we aimed to capture the Clymans’ particular taste and style of collecting but also to elevate and celebrate this African masterpiece on the biggest stage in the art world and to be sure that it reached the eyes of today’s most powerful art collectors.
The family was especially excited about the idea of elevating African Art in this way.
The undisputed star is the Ancestor Head by a Fang-Betsi Artist.
The dedicated sale of the Clymans’ African art also features some stars of its own, including a huge and exquisite Mahongwe reliquary figure—which is on the cover of that catalogue—a work by the Kota artist known as the Sebe River Master of the Skull Head, and a magnificent Songye kifwebe mask.
The Clymans acquired this work in 1976 from Merton D. Simpson. It's one of the largest and finest in the corpus of Mahongwe figures which are admired for their incredibly novel abstraction of the human form.
We've sold two works by this artist in recent years, but this to me is the finest of his extant corpus—in great condition, a bright expression and features carved in bold, deep relief. This artist steps out of the usually two-dimensional, graphic design of Kota reliquary and sculpts a three-dimensional, projecting skull-like head in the centre.
The heart-shaped features and concave lower half of the face recall the faces seen in the iconic sculptures and masks by nearby Fang artists. The ornateness of the metal elements, which are multi-coloured and interlock and overlap in places, is very impressive.
This is a very fine and early example from this iconic corpus. Songye kifwebe masks were made well into the 20th-century, in increasing numbers as they get later, but this example shows the strength and quality of the older tradition. Masks of this calibre are rare.
Deep volume, thin walls, exquisitely carved striations and a well-worn patina. The artist that made this was an absolute master of both design and execution and the expression is not only fierce but also has the soulful quality of great artwork.
There are a number of works which are at very reasonable price points in the auction, any of which I would wholeheartedly recommend to a young collector. The Dan Mask (lot 4) is a beautifully carved example, quite old and well-published, and a bargain at $7,000-10,000.
Another inexpensive work which I love is their Mumuye Figure, which is difficult to photograph but really wonderful in person.
Of course, I’d have to say the Fang Head, but aside from that superstar, there are some works which I’ve really fallen in love with. If I could take one piece home it would be the incredible Bamana headdress (lot 3), which the Clymans bought from de Havenon in 1972.
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