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

The Laprugne Collection

March 30, 2017 By: Aurore Krier-Mariani
Angela and Jean-Pierre Laprugne, in their Parisian apartment in 2017

"We look at an object and, little by little, it seduces you, disturbs you, invades you like a woman's face, its charm enters you, strange charm ... and we already love it, we desire it. A want of possession gains you, gentle at first, shy, but grows, becomes violent, irresistible (...) Oh! I pity those who don't know this honeymoon of the collector with the trinket he has just bought."

—Guy de Maupassant

Jean-Pierre Laprugne lived in a perpetual honeymoon with his objects. His love story began with antiquing—from the Saint-Ouen antiques market, to Hotel Drouot, then to the four corners of Europe—he was always in search of beauty, in search of chance encounters with masterpieces. So magnetised was he by his encounters with tribal art, Laprugne abandoned his profession as a teacher, to focus fully on his love of tribal art, which ultimately became his profession. Pierre Amrouche, International Consultant of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s described the traits and the history of the Jean-Pierre Laprugne collection well; “the Laprugne collection is a life of passion and patience”.

Laprugne shared of his passion through his generosity, his humour, and his easy contact (as demonstrated by this 2003 interview he did with Patrice-Flora Praxo). However his personal collection remained his preserve, his treasures preciously conserved and discreetly protected. While he did sell and exchange a large number of works, he kept those which were dearest to him in a kind of private sanctuary where the enchantment of the objects shone. He never detached himself from his most prized objects. He preserved a strong intimacy with them, a sense of spiritual union that connected him to his objects—a connection any true collector feels and experiences in the presence of the work.

"The souls created to admire great works have the sublime faculty of true lovers. They enjoy as much pleasure today as they did yesterday, they never get tired, and the masterpieces are fortunately still young."

—Honore de Balzac

He created ‘Galerie Mazarine 52’ to reveal the technicality, splendour, and stories of tribal art. His passion was contagious, he inspired a whole generation of collectors and art dealers, transmitting to them the revelatory emotion that the object gives rise to. His gallery became the inescapable place where the aficionados of tribal art met.

Barbara Drouot once said that “things have their secrets, things have their legend, but things speak to us if we know how to listen”. Jean-Pierre Laprugne knew how to listen, he knew how to understand the legend of his objects.

An exceptional collection of treasures that has been immaculately preserved, and out reach of the market for many years is now on offer for the next generation of passionate collectors to care for at Christie’s ‘Collection Laprugne et à divers amateurs: Arts d’Afrique, d’Océanie et d’Amérique du Nord‘ sale on April 4th.

Lot 47: Yoruba Figure

Mami Wata—mother goddess of the oceans and rivers

Yoruba Mami Wata Figure
Laprugne Collection

Country: Nigeria
Ethnic Group: Yoruba
Object: Mami Wata (Figure)
Materials: Wood
Dimensions: Height = 18 inches
Provenance: Acquired from Alain Lecomte, Paris || Laprugne Collection, Paris
Estimate: $8,700 – $13,000

Iya ni wura, Baba ni dingi“—The mother is a jewel, the father is the mirror. This traditional Yoruba saying celebrates the fundamental importance of women, placed at the heart of the Nigerian, Ivorian and Beninese culture. Within these societies, women are nourishing, they are the continual source of life, the perpetual propagation. They are also the source of inspiration for a profusion of delicate, remarkable and subjugating artistic creations, such as this beautiful figure of Mami Wata.

At the same time, mother and goddess—referring to the Yoruba mythology of Yemoja, divinity of the Ogun River and daughter of Olokun—this figure symbolises the gushing life and movement of continual rebirth. The myth tells us that the first time Yemoja walked on earth, springs became rivers, a precious source of life in the midst of land and deserts.

The name Yemoja is a contraction of the Yoruba terms ‘Yeye Omo Eja‘, meaning the mother of the ocean’s children, protector of women, patron saint of sailors and fishermen. Her voluminous breasts, in prominent cones forms, are the markers of her fecundity, of a fortunate and perennial maternity, she is believed to have given birth to the other Yoruba gods called Orishas.

The fluidity of the undulation of its sinuous counter-curves, responding to the oval of its faces, marks the strength of the figure’s harmonious softness. A powerful maternal sweetness animates the figure. Eyes closed, the Mami Wata figure feels and senses before it sees, conferring its profound solemnity. The figure is entwined by snakes whose tortuous curves clothe her body like ornaments—they are her jewellery, necklace, and crown.

These symbolic adornments tell us that the deity is indeed a reinterpretation of Mami Wata, for according to Mason, “the snake charmers were reproduced in Mami Wata‘s chromolithographs.” In their restricted and traditional corpus the divine siren bore “on its head the container full of ritual water.” (Mason, 1996: 69).

Mami Wata, circa 1987
Zoumana Sane, Senegal
Herbert M. and Shelley Cole Collection
Photograph by Don Cole

The sculptor’s originality and inventiveness are audacious. The figure no longer carries a container but is crowned with a serpent. It is a hierophany of its sacred nature, it flashes like lightning to spit life or bite to cause death before returning to the invisible deep layers of the earth, waters and rivers, to the deep layers of consciousness. At once female and male, twin and double, it is the metaphor of the aquatic power of Mami Wata, both protective and destructive. According to the testimony of Bozman reported by Frazer, the Yoruba "invoke the snake in times of drought or excessive rain."

The serpent coils, embraces, hugs, and stifles. "It is an ancient God, a first God at the beginning of all the cosmogenesis before the spirit religions dethroned him."1 It wraps itself gracefully on the figure, crowning the effigy with an elegant harmony, but its open mouth remains menacing. A captivating contrast, symbolising the desire to balance the natural forces and the two fundamental forces of being.

This effigy is exceptional both for the richness of its symbolism and for the incarnation of several myths it represents. Having crossed the seas, from the coastal region of West Africa to Latin America and India, beliefs have intermingled to create this sculpture. Its morphology tells its story across many seas and many peoples. Its primary origin being Yoruba, the figure depicts Yemoja. It is also Mami Wata, the guarantor of prosperity, wealth, and fertility—worshipped in Brazil and Latin America, where it was introduced during the slave trade. And it is also depicts the Hindu divinity Dattatreya (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), because Indian traders were fascinated by African prints.

This magnificent sculpture carries through the swinging and cadence of its curves, the ebb and flow of African history. From the sublime history, the journey of the myths and the enriching mixture of beliefs, it connects continents across many seas.

  • 1Symbols, Myths, Dreams, and Customs, 1969: Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrandt
  • 2Maternal Goddess in Yoruba: a New Aesthetic Acclamation of Yemoja, Oshun and Iya-Mapo: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University, No. 6, 1993: Agbo Folarin
  • 3Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas, 2008, Vol. 41, No. 42: Henry J. Drewal
  • 4The Yoruba of the New World. Religion, Ethnicity and Black Nationalism in the United States, 2006: Stefania Capone
  • 5Yemoja: Gender, Sexuality and Creativity in the Latino and Afro-Atlantic Diasporas, 2013: Solimar Otero, Toyin Falola

Lot 48: Fang Sword

Sword of warrior and hunters or delicate art of meticulous carved motifs

Fang Ntsakh Sword
Laprugne Collection
Fang Ntsakh Sword
Laprugne Collection

Country: The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Ethnic Group: Fang
Object: Ntsath (Sword)
Materials: Wood, iron, brass, fibres
Dimensions: Height = 19.75 inches
Provenance: Laprugne Collection, Paris
Estimate: $8,700 – $11,000

"And the marvelous sickle springs from the sheath."

—Okoumba Nkoghe

A true work of art, swords forged and worked with a conscientious technicality to dazzle with brilliance and impress the adversary.

Ancient ntsakh or fa Fang swords often have a double-edged blade, in two tapered points framing the guard. If Jean-Pierre Laprugne has sold many weapons, he always stored in his personal collection this iron-bladed weapon with incised motifs. The guard is wound with brass wire under which a decoration, a seal appears—a circle into which two knives crossed clash. Signs according to which this weapon belonged certainly to a warrior.

If the scabbard is often dressed in wood and covered with lizard skin and decorated with studded motifs, this weapon is indisputably distinct from the traditional corpus. Exceptional and elegant, its scabbard is made of veneered wood with iron and brass. Presenting a work of superb sharpness and admirable technicality. The case is decorated with a rich decoration. In its upper part a lizard or crocodile is depicted, referring to a hunting charm. On the lower register a subtle geometric engraving reproduces both a face and the pattern of the sword. This double representation symbolises the double utility of the knife, a weapon of war and hunting, while at the same time a symbol of power. Powerful and nourishing, this weapon formidably distinguished.

See Dapper (2006: 150) and Elsen (2004: 90) for two comparable swords.

Lots 64, 65, 66 & 67: Kota Reliquary Figures

Kota reliquary figures—gold of the sacred world

Lot 64: Ondumbo / Sango Kota Reliquary Figure
Laprugne Collection
Lot 64: Ondumbo / Sango Kota Reliquary Figure
Laprugne Collection

A sublime representation of the ancestor, the effigy from a dreamlike imagination protected the deceased. The Kota reliquary guardian attracts attention and desire. It subjugates and amazes the spectator. It fascinates, captivates, and shines with beauty, thwarting the spectator of the sacred ancestor relics. The figure represents the mystical beauty of the protected relics. Decorated with Gabonese gold, it is easy to understand why their beauty amazed Jean-Pierre Laprugne, who in his collection possessed seven figures of enchanting splendour.

Dressed in metal and decorated with copper and brass, the ancestral effigies of Gabon are equally illustrious as classics responding to a stylistic archetype. The subtlety of the variants of styles of these guardians is unparalleled. No one figure resembles another, even if they may belong to groups of pre-determined styles. Each is unique in its expression, by the techniques of brass application and metal cutting employed.

The metal of European origin, due to its origin and its high cost, should enjoy a certain prestige“, writes Frédéric Cloth5. Brass dishes were introduced by Europeans into Shamaye territory as a means to trade. Often referred to the ‘gold of the world’, the metal crossed into far-off regions of Gabon, to reach the hands that would shape them with talent and ingenuity.


Country: Gabon
Ethnic Group: Kota
Object: Boho na Bwete (Reliquary Figure)
Materials: Wood, copper, brass
Provenance: Laprugne Collection, Paris

Lot 64 Dimensions: Height = 14 inches
Lot 64 Estimate: $433,000 – $649,000

Both realistic and abstract, the figures of reliquaries sum up in their immutable gravity, the fascinating and disturbing mystery of the ambiguous relationship between death and life, that is to say, the essential metaphysical preoccupations of the Kota.”
Louis Perrois, Mains of Masters, Brussels 2001

Seizing and surprising, astonishing in expression, prodigious quality and subtle rhythmic proportions—this reliquary, apart from belonging to the oldest style, has an exceptional abstraction. A stunning masterpiece of the past, and an incredible avant-garde masterpiece, this Kota is among a corpus that has inspired the greatest modernist of our time, Picasso. In this work lies the magic timelessness of artistic beauty that goes through the centuries. Even more, this Kota effigy carries with it the history of the Obamba past, its socio-cultural, religious values and a breathtaking ingenuity and originality.

Remarkable expressiveness, captivating power, suppleness, and vital dynamism breathed into the figure by the relaxed lines of the diamond body, by the play between the mass of its full and empty shapes, creating a remarkable tension between the geometric volumes. Topped with a long neck where brass and wood are interwoven. The oval face, elongated and accentuated by a heart shaped demarcation, and its mouth open in surprise, highlight the force of the effigy’s astonished look.

Lot 65: Obamba Kota Reliquary Figure
Laprugne Collection

Country: Gabon
Ethnic Group: Kota
Object: Boho na Bwete (Reliquary Figure)
Materials: Wood, copper, brass
Provenance: Laprugne Collection, Paris

Lot 65 Dimensions: Height = 16.5 inches
Lot 65 Estimate: $44,000 – $65,000

One of the first Kota Obamba figures published in 1918 in the “Arts in Paris” magazine, belonged to Paul Guillaume. In all likelihood, and according to Frédéric Cloth, the characteristics of this work are similar to those of the Sebe Master. A very rare style, this work, which is stylistically unusual, comes from an extremely limited corpus. According to the archives of Guy van Rijn at the University of Yale, 2,080 Kota sculptures have been recorded, over half of which were created between 1930-1940. Bernard de Grunne asserts that “there are less than ten figures of the Sebe Master“. Carbon 14 dating research shows that their creation dates back to the 17th-19th centuries. A certain kinship with the works of the Sebe Master is evidenced with the Laprugne Kota, thus demonstrating its antiquity.

Lot 66: Obamba Kota Reliquary Figure
Otala / Okondja, Gabon
Laprugne Collection
Lot 67: Mboy Obamba, Kota Reliquary Figure
Otala Mboy, Gabon
Laprugne Collection

Country: Gabon
Ethnic Group: Kota
Object: Boho na Bwete (Reliquary Figure)
Materials: Wood, copper, brass
Provenance: Laprugne Collection, Paris

Lot 66 || 67 Dimensions: Height  = 13 inches || 16.5 inches
Lot 66 || 67 Estimate: $33,000 – $50,000 || $17,000 – $27,000

The Obamba style, of which these two reliquaries of the Laprugne collection are, is particularly distinguished from the archetypal corpus, for the technicality of metalworking, the refinement of their precision, and for the bold innovation of forms—”a remarkably innovative aesthetic5. As early as the 19th century, sculptors from the north of the Obamba country, around Otala and Okondja, called masters of the ‘school of innovation’, reinvented classical stylistic canons. A remarkable prowess in the application of the metal, revealed by the meticulous work of the decoration with geometric shapes incised and worked in relief, result in a fascinating asymmetrical rendering.

The oval face of the Mboy Obamba sculpture, is of a purified but equally expressive form. Its finely engraved eyes are elegantly underlined by eyebrows, in medium relief, which connect to the nose in a delicate harmony of features. The face of an elegant fineness and a beautiful sobriety, gives a soft and tender expression. The figure speaks to a contrast of volumes, by its ample cap with two lateral shells decorated with refined geometric engravings, ending in volutes.

  • 1Kota Art, Arts of Black Africa, 1973: Chaffin
  • 2African Art in American Collections, 1989: Robbins & Nooter
  • 3Hotz’s Collection, April 2011: Cloth
  • 4Kota, 2012: Perrois
  • 5New Light on the Kota, Tribal Art Magazine, 2015: Cloth
  • 6Chronicle of the Country Kota (Gabon), O.R.S.T.O.M, No. 2, 1970: Louis Perrois
  • 7The Kota Art, A and F. Chaffin Ed., Meudon, 1979: Alain and Françoise Chaffin
  • 8Arts of Gabon, Editions Arts of Black Africa, Arnouville, 1979: Louis Perrois
  • 9Mains of Masters, 2001: Bernard De Grunne

To see these masterpieces of African art and more, Christie’s is holding viewing days of the sale from Wednesday 29 March to Tuesday 4 April. The sale will take place on Tuesday 4 April at 4PM CEST.

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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