Lot 103
  • 103

A Solomon Islands Canoe Prow Ornament, Solomon Islands

125,000 - 175,000 USD
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the anthropomorphic torso with exaggerated head and bent arms holding a triangular object in front of the chest, the head with protruding chin, the oval mouth open showing teeth, beneath a pug nose with pierced septum framed by inlaid black lip oyster shell eyes (pinctada margaritifera) beneath a massive domed crown, elaborate raised markings on the face inlaid with sections of shell; '1871' (Hoffmeister Collection accession number) and 'Solomo[n ...] No 872' in white pigment on reverse of head, old label (illegible) on reverse of the triangular object; on 'Inagaki' base; fine encrusted blackened patina with residue.


Charles Ratton, Paris
Adolf Hoffmeister, Prague, acquired from the above in 1938 (Hoffmeister accession no. '1871')
Sotheby's New York, November 19, 1999, lot 189


Werner Forman and Bedrich Forman, Exotic Art, London, 1956, p. 237

Catalogue Note

This exceptional carving once ornamented the prow of a canoe. Canoes from all parts of the Solomon Islands were decorated with intricate patterns of shell inlay and attached wooden carvings. Elaborate decoration was reserved for large canoes used in important public functions such as headhunting in the Western District, and ritual fishing expeditions in the Eastern District. The impressive size and great age of this prow ornament attest to the importance of this ritual object.

Most carved wood figureheads such as the offered lot were carved in the northwestern Solomons. Their existence is documented as early as the middle of the eighteenth century in the journal of the French soldier, navigator and explorer, Louis de Bougainville, who gave his name to the northernmost island. Most figureheads depict the head and arms of an anthropomorphic being, decorated with nautilus shell inset in patterns which replicate those found on the faces of warriors. Early accounts by explorers in the region suggest the figureheads depicted or embodied spirits empowered to ward off those spirits which might cause dangerous storms and heavy seas during expeditions (British Museum Yearbook 1979: 205-209).

Like many artists of his day, Adolf Hoffmeister, a surrealist, was inspired by the complex and spiritual forms of Oceanic art and Northwest Coast art. By 1938, when he acquired this canoe prow and a number of other important Northwest Coast masks from the famous French dealer, Charles Ratton, he was very involved in the surrealist movement. As early as 1932 he curated an exhibition in Prague contrasting French and Czech Surrealists. In 1938 the Maison de la Culture in Paris opened a one-man show of his work entitled, ‘58 Desins d’Adolf Hoffmeister’.

The Oceanic collection of Hoffmeister was well known in Prague. Forman and Forman’s landmark book, Exotic Art, was published in 1956 and included many full page photographs by the famous Czech photographer, Jindrich Marco, of Oceanic works from the Hoffmeister collection. Hoffmeister donated Oceanic works to the Naprsték Museum in Prague, which, along with another group donated by his friend, the writer Joe Hloucha, form the basis of the museum's collection.