Preview of the Christie’s Paris 2017 Spring Auction: Part I

African Art from Various Owners

March 24, 2017 By: Aurore Krier-Mariani

The opening of the fourth edition of Paris Tribal, and the ‘Picasso Primitif’ exhibition organised by Yves Le Fur at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, coincide with the recently shifted spring African and Oceanic art auction at Christie’s. Bruno Claessens, the European director of the African and Oceanic art Department, explained that this change allows Christie’s to harmoniously align “with the rhythm of the market, just a few weeks after TEFAF, where the presence of African art was never as big“.

The Christie’s ‘Collection Laprugne et à divers amateurs: Arts d’Afrique, d’Océanie et d’Amérique du Nord‘ sale will take place on April 4th and will be held in two parts. The first one will be dedicated to the Laprugne collection, which will feature 78 works, and the second will include 41 lots from various collectors.

This second auction part brings together two major themes dear to Bruno Claessens, masks and miniatures. Among the masks, one of stands out for its stylistic uniqueness, its impressive iconography, and its superb history. This is the Dogon masterpiece, which belonged to René Rasmussen. After years of patience, Gaston de Havenon was able to acquire it and kept it in his collection throughout his life, later entering an American private collection.

Finally this work is back on the market and this sale will be a key moment in the history of the art market. For Susan Kloman, Christie’s International Director of African and Oceanian Art, “it’s an incredibly exciting time for the art market and Paris to witness the return of this iconic masterpiece. It is an indelible work that appears in all the great references of African art. It is only the second time in a century that the work is available for auction.

Below we review some works from the second part of the April sale that will no doubt be successes.

Lot 82: Dogon Mask

The Rasmussen-Havenon masterpiece: ode to Dogon art virtuosity

Dogon Satimbe Mask
Private Collection

Country: Mali
Ethnic Group: Dogon
Object: Satimbe (Mask)
Materials: Wood
Dimensions: Height = 22.5 inches
Provenance: Mamadou Sylla, Bamako || René Rasmussen, Paris, acquired from the latter, in the 1950’s || Gaston de Havenon, New York, circa 1960 De Quay-Lombrail, Paris, Havenon Collection, 30 June 1994, Lot 9 || Private collection
Estimate: $2,700,000 – $3,700,000

For the mask, particularly in its unreal and animal aspects, is the divine face, and more especially the face of the sun, which is traversed by the radiance of spiritual light.”2

A divine face of the sun for the Dogon people, this sublime facial mask lit up the spiritual light on the Bandiagara cliff during the Dama ceremony. The Dama ceremony, held every 10 – 15 years during a good harvest, takes place over three days, as a means to guide the deceased’s spiritual energy out of the village and into the realm of ancestors. On the first day, called the warassegourou, the meeting between the masks and the ancestors is organised through parades. On the second day, the gonou-dinrou, the masks traditionally used by members of the Awa society, dance. And on the third day, the guime-boro-boro ceremony is reserved for young initiates.

This sumptuous and masterful work, which once belonged to René Rasmussen and Gaston de Havenon, is unique. It has an eloquent stylistic virtuosity. The mask has the peculiarity of possessing at its top a female statuette, which is a representation of Yasignè. A satimbe mask honours the first woman, the mother of the human generation, the first dignitary of the Sigi ceremony.

Generously curved lines of Yasignè are enhanced by the figure’s long neck, its chin up, and its eyes fixed on the horizon. Its mouth closed, it listens to the sounds of the world. Its prominent breasts, connected to set back shoulders, highlighted by its plunging bust, accentuate the Yasignè’s role as the first mother, symbolising a rich fecundity. The figure is artistically remarkable and subtly inventive, thanks to the sculptor’s brilliant play between realism and abstraction.

Proudly kneeling, her hands with elongated fingers placed on her thighs, accentuate the figure’s posture of deference, respect and humility. Ethnographic and photographic evidence, reported by Marcel Griaule, show that the women, sisters or widows, kneel before the house of the deceased at the funeral ceremony. Therefore, we can understand the veneration which Yasignè imposed at the ritual time.

The Yasignè figure comfortably straddles the masculine face of the mask. The striking force of its features are highlighted in work by high and medium relief carving. Its widely incised protruding eyes are marked and underlined by a protruding oval eyebrow arch and a curved eyelid in opposition to the strict and long edge of its triangular nose. This contrast between the convex forms and the vertical stiffness, infuses a fascinating power and give a sense of its extraordinary wisdom. This duality of the man’s spirit overlapped by the incarnation of the first mother, the male/female duality, represents the primordial couple, central to Dogon cosmogony.

This spectacular masterpiece of incomparable technical prowess, unrivalled in any other work, is unique in the world. It is “the last object to witness a type of mask for which today no other illustration survives.”4. Admirably fascinating, it carries through its features, the ultimate memory of the myth.

  • 1Dogon Masks, Institute of Ethnology, 1938: Marcel Griaule
  • 2Myths, Dreams, Customs, Symbols, p.710, 1969: J.Chevalier, A. Gheerbrandt
  • 3Les Cérémonies Soixantenaire chez les Dogon, Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. XLI, 1971: Germaine Dieterlen
  • 4African Arts, Vol. 21, 1988: Bernard de Grunne
  • 5Mythologies, History and Masks, Newspaper of the Africanists Company, Vol. 59, 1989: Germaine Dieterlen
  • 6Dogon Masks, Learned Ethnology and Autochthonous Ethnology, Ed. Karthala, 1999: Anne Doquet

Lot 93: Kongo Crucifix

Sacred work with diversified uses and faces

Kongo Nkangi Kiditu Crucifix
Private Collection

Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Ethnic Group: Kongo
Object: Nkangi Kiditu (Crucifix)
Materials: Copper Alloy
Dimensions: Height = 22.75 inches
Provenance: Private collection
Estimate: $28,000 – $38,000

The art of confluence and of influences—the religious beauty crossed in this incarnate work. Through this nkangi kiditu (meaning ‘Christ the protector’) crucifix shines the complexity of history allied to the journey of belief. Christian iconography meets Kongo artistic creation, to offer us a work with its own singular plasticity—both fascinating and moving, captivating and overwhelming.

Chief Makosso-Tati with his nkangi kiditu, Kongo (Solongo)
Photograph taken in Yenga, Angola, 1940-1950 by J. Vissers
Archives of the Royal museum of the central Africa, EP.0.0.13505

The first sculptures inspired by Christianity were found near the Kwango River and on the left bank of Inkisi—especially within the Kongo groups Ndibu, Mboma, Essi Kongo and Solongo. As highlighted by anthropologist Luc de Heusch, the liturgical object was primarily an object of power. In 1491, King João I of Kongo (also known as Nzinga a Nkuwu and Nkuwu Nzinga), converted to Christianity. Within this dualistic monarchy, magico-religious power was solely held by the Mami Vunda, the high priestess of the earth, the fertility and fecundity guarantor. As for the Kongo King, he only assumed the negative pole of royalty. In order to confer a sacrality which he lacked on his sovereignty, he took advantage of "the Europeans irruption, the incarnations of aquatic spirits, in order to acquire a sacredness which, to tell the truth, he did not possess."4. His successor, Afonso I "gathered all the people, and instead of idols, he distributed crosses and saints images brought by the Portuguese."1. Thus established, the iconoclastic policy contributed to the dissemination of liturgical objects within the Kongo kingdom.

During the second Christianization organised by the missions, and under the impulse of Pie XI, who believed that iconography could contribute to the development of Christendom, local art workshops specialised in the creation of religious artifacts. This was surely in order to convert the sovereigns of the coastal states still hostile to the Christianization of their kingdoms. The crucifix symbols of power, developed with the quality and the expressive plasticity of Kongo expertise, imported religion and merged it with local art. A stylistic inventiveness and usual reinvention was born.

Kongo nkangi kiditu crucifixes were used for the chief’s ceremonial transfer of power. During this ritual, called the mabondo ya nkangi, "the future leader settled on leopard skins and received from the hands of ntu a nyali, the notable of the investiture, a nkangi kiditu."5 The crucifix was then the true power insignia, part of the royal regalia, which affirmed the sacred authority, justice and dignity of the mfumu.

The role of the Kongo crucifixes also had therapeutic virtues. According to Wannyn, nkangi kiditu protected against witchcraft and black magic. Georges Balandier asserts that they could be affixed onto the bellies of pregnant women in order to grant them a benevolence and a successful birth.3 All these practices attest to the transformation of Catholic practices into a religious, social and cultural syncretism. A reinterpreted object symbol of emancipation.

This surprising work, a Christ figure with African features, incarnates through its beauty more than crucifixion, more than affliction. It is an art object that tells us the complex history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its intertwined influences. Similar nkangi kiditu crucifixes are exhibited at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac show, “From the Jordan to the Congo, Art and Christianity in Central Africa“. Additional nkangi Kiditu of the same style can be seen at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren.


  • 1The Congo Kingdom and the Neighboring Countries, UNESCO, 1591: Filipo Pigafetta Duarte Lopes
  • 2The Old Crucifixes of Bas-Congo, General Review of African Missions, No. 8, 1948: Eudore de Donder
  • 3Daily Life in the Kongo Kingdom from XVI to XVIII, 1965: Georges Balandier
  • 4Kongo King and the Sacred Monsters, Myths and Bantu rites III, Archives of the Social Sciences of Religions, 2000:Luc de Heusch
  • 5Ora Pro Nobis: Study on Bakongo Crucifix, 2011: Julien Volper

Lots 108 & 109: Guro Pulleys

The Guro genius: cubism’s avant-gardists

Guro Kono Pulley
Private Collection
Guro Weaver, Ivory Coast

Country: Ivory Coast
Ethnic Group: Guro
Object: Kono (Heddle Pulleys)
Materials: Wood
Dimensions: Height: Lot 108 = 6.75 inches || Height: Lot 109 = 6.25 inches
Provenance: Lot 108: Marceau Rivière, Paris, in 1988 || Lot 109: Loudmer, Paris, 6 December 1986, Lot 38
Estimate: Lot 108: $2,200 – $3,300 || Lot 109: $2,200 – $3,300

As stated by Hans Himmelheber, Guro people had sculptural traditions and weaving techniques that were quite original. The kono pulley was part of the device used for this masterly activity. Developed pulleys attracted the attention of passers-by, on the weaving activity—an activity which formed the basis of the Guro commercial economy.

The pulley’s iconography is rich and varied—thin noses, varied hairstyles, bulging foreheads and elongated faces—all odes to the beauty of female faces, to the animal world, and to the protective spirits contained in masks. Greatness, virginity of the sleek features, expressive power of sublimated lines. The simplicity of a harmonious geometry is often the most advanced expression of elegance, a sumptuous elegance.

Félix Fénéon was keen on Guro pulleys; he mentioned them in the 1920 artists bulletin “Survey on the distant arts: will they be admitted to the Louvre?” The thorough and meticulous craftsmanship, and the worked drawings of the features in kono pulleys, inspired the greatest Modernists, Surrealists, and avant-garde artists. Vlaminck described it so well—it is an “art still pretty Virgin to create admiration.”

Guro Kono Pulley
Private Collection
Woman's Head
Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, Livorno 1884–1920 Paris)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The bulging round forehead and the levelled triangular nose stress the depiction of the pulley’s emaciated face. Its lengthened prominent jaw, and its advanced open mouth (enhanced with red), are thus highlighted. According to the ethnologist Geneviève Calame-Griaule, the loom is a metaphor of the primordial world, “the worlds themselves are the thread that the weaver transforms into fabric.” Situated in front of the weaver, these pulleys maintain a dialogue between the weaver and the strengths of ‘the beyond’.

Lot 118: Sakalava Couple Figure

Erotic funerary Sakalava art: The strength of life

Sakalava Aloalo Figure
Private Collection

Country: Madagascar
Ethnic Group: Sakalava
Object: Aloalo (Funerary Pole Sculpture)
Materials: Wood
Dimensions: Height = 28.5 inches
Provenance: Pierre Langlois || Private collection, acquired in July 1972
Estimate: $17,000 – $22,000

The strength of this sculpture is measured in the organic, oneiric, passional energy of two fusional beings, sculptured in the same block. The sculpture is also symbolic—a quiet, lyrical and poetic force emanates from the two figures in symbiosis. Faces contact delicately, wide open eyes in fine observe. Erotic sculptural symphony hymn in lives deposited in tombs.

Funerary art is the most emblematic expression of Malagasy civilization. The sculptor by his creative gesture, mediates the sacred. Since community life was intimately connected with deceased ancestors, the funeral enclosure was worthy of special attention, it was the key point of confluence between the physical world and the spiritual world. The place of myth embodied.

Sihanaka cemeteries are the oldest testimonies, located near the Aloatra Lake, dating back to before 1800. Between Tulear and Ampanihy, the Mahalafy tombs are large stone buildings, built to the height of man. Aloalo, such as this carved totem, were placed on the edge of the tomb—they decorated mainly the princely tombs, places of rituals in memory of the life of the deceased.

The emergence myth gave birth to the two great Sakalava dynasties—the Maroserana and the Zafimbolamena3, the founding and fundamental couple. They are rarely depicted as intertwined. “The series of couples is a historical series, whereas the series of oppositions is a dialectical series. It is the history of the world that opposes the history of its transformation by God.”3.

The sensual and carnal union of the aloalo couple, contributed to the rebirth of the deceased in the world of the ancestors of the afterlife, embodying the “process of life to death, where the deceased reincarnates into an ancestor“.

Of them all, this sculpture is unique. The grey and iodized patina of wood is the result of a limited corpus. Stirring for the subtlety of these two facets, doubly double, on its back, an infinite and delicate tenderness emerges from it in the gesture of the woman’s hand caressing and cherishing the man’s hair. The heads are joined together, as though the spirits were united in an intense and reserved sweetness. From the front, sexuality—raw, daring, and revealed. The strong act of marriage springs forth, flows, astonishes. This is how the Malagasy pay sublime homage to the cycle of life.

For a similar Sakalava couple, suggested eroticism from the collection of Robert Rubin, sold at Sotheby’s in May 2011.


  • 1Die Kunst des Schwarzen Afrika: Kerchache, Paudrat, Stephan
  • 2Encyclopedia of African Art and Culture: K. F. Schädler
  • 3Le Royaume Sakavala du Menabe, XVII-XVIII: Analysis of a Political System, 1988: Jacques Lombard

Aurore Krier-Mariani

ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA contributor Aurore Krier-Mariani is an art advisor at AK.A Consulting with a focus on tribal art objects. Her passion for classic African art was born when as a little girl of only seven she saw her first Punu mask and immediately felt its magnetic power. Aurore has been covering the African art industry for over five years including her studies for her Masters of Archeology and Art History, her time at Christie’s African & Oceanic Art department and now as an independent consultant for African art collectors.

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