Murray Frum’s eye immediately perceived the quality and importance of an object. In his quest for remarkable works of art he often encountered the “eye” of other collectors as provenances in his important, ever growing collection - missionaries, adventurers, scholars, merchants, artists and aesthetes - who, from the eighteenth century onwards, have played a part in the discovery and recognition of Oceanic art. This story is told through the treasures of the Frum Collection.
The first half of the 20th century was a ‘golden age’ for British collectors of Oceanic art, with an abundance of objects collected during the 18th and 19th century by missionaries, travellers, and colonial officials available to those with the prescience to appreciate their importance. Amongst the rarest objects to come to the market in this period were those which were spared from destruction in the 1830s by missionaries, including those from the London Missionary Society, such as the superb staff god from the Cook Islands (lot 38). The names of the most celebrated of these collectors feature prominently in the Frum Collection, with no fewer than six pieces from the collection of James Hooper (1897-1971), which was sold at auction in London in 1979 and 1980. The Frum Collection also includes an exceptionally rare bird perch, pae manu or pae koko (lot 16), from the collection of the British collector- dealer, Harry Beasley (1881-1939), whilst the names of the collector Kenneth Webster (1906-1969) and the great artist-collector Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) also appear.
At the turn of the twentieth century, German and central European ethnographic museums competed to enrich their collections, dispatching researchers in both scientific and naval expeditions to the Pacific, encouraging donations with the promise of honours and medals. The acquisitive zeal of these museums is evident in the important Melanesian works in the Frum Collection which were once in the collections of the Linden Museum, Stuttgart, the Museum für Vڑlkerkunde, Vienna, and the Néprajzi Museum, Budapest. Later, as the interest grew for works of art from the Pacific, many institutions de- accessioned duplicate objects.
New Ireland, a German colony in the late 19th and early 20th century, was one of the most coveted sources of objects. The spectacular uli from the Frum Collection (lot 32), was collected by the colonial official Wilhelm Wostrack in 1908. It soon entered the collections of the Linden Museum, and was documented in 1909 by the German Naval officer and scholar Augustin Krämer.
The art of Papua New Guinea was discovered over hundreds of years as expeditions slowly made their way to the heart of the great island. In 1930, Paul Wirz, the Swiss anthropologist, collected the first two known imunu ‘dancing figures’ in the Gulf of Papua, including the masterpiece of this corpus. At the same time, in Paris, Surrealists artists embraced the art of New Guinea as inspiration. Important collections such as those of the modern art dealer Georges F. Keller, and the artist Serge Brignoni joined Melanesian and Surrealist art.
To the names of the great collectors discussed here – all of whom have played an important role in the discovery and recognition of Oceanic art – we must now add that of Murray Frum, as his collection takes its rightful place as an iconic provenance.