PARIS – On a rather grey Monday morning recently I made my way to a staff meeting expecting more administration than excitement, but was suddenly presented with a moment that crystallized for me why we at Sotheby’s engage with our work with such passion.
We were fortunate enough to have Paul Lewis, one of our experts on African and Oceanic art, appear in the room brandishing what seemed at first glance to be some kind of weapon. As he held it up, he told us the story of a random communication that had prompted him to board a train straight to Brighton, where it quickly became apparent that the wooden paddle in his hands was in fact an exquisite treasure that provides an unrivalled glimpse into the remote world of Easter Island.
It was a rapa – essentially a finely carved artefact dating from the 1860s with no known equivalent elsewhere and used in war dances performed by military leaders before the king. Not much longer than about 80 cm., these light-weight objects were handled with great velocity in ceremonial and ritual dances to ward off evil spirits. I was left speechless by the elegance and precision of the carving; the exceptional skill in stamping a piece of wood with the classic, recognisable iconography that conjures the lines of a Modigliani or even Picasso's use of African masks.
As the rapa was handed around the meeting room, we were lost for a moment in the thought of the men and women who had held it before us. What stories it could tell of lives so different from ours that we may as well be from different species. Believed to have travelled to England aboard the British Royal Navy ship HMS Topaze, this rapa is one of two extraordinarily rare items – the other is a pectoral reimiro – that will be offered at auction in our Paris sale on 10 December.
Having handled an object in such a private way – an object that may well disappear into a private collection or a closely-guarded museum display case, I remembered the many other occasions when I have paused from my daily bustle to spend a moment with a rare Van Gogh or to try on jewellery from the collection of the Duchess of Windsor.
How special it is to walk into your workplace and have the privilege of experiencing what the director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor has aptly called 'the history of the world through 1000 objects.' Sotheby’s is a living, breathing, shifting museum that offers up both the sublime and the ordinary, but never for a moment does it fail to prompt our questioning, inquisitive gaze, and train our eyes to sift one from the other.