Lot 62
  • 62

Luluwa Helmet Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo

1,500,000 - 2,500,000 USD
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  • wood
  • Height: 13 3/4 in (34.9 cm)


Merton D. Simpson, New York
Werner Muensterberger, New York, acquired from the above in June/July 1959


Warren M. Robbins and Nancy I. Nooter, African Art in American Collections. Survey 1989, Washington/London, 1989, p. 437, fig. 1130
Constantine Petridis, Context en Morfologie van de Plastische Kunst bij de Luluwa (Zuid-Centraal Zaïre) [Context and Morphology of Luluwa Sculpture (South-Central Zaire)], unpublished dissertation Ghent University, 1997, cat. 301
Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, The Tribal Arts of Africa, London, 1998, p. 183, fig. C
George Nelson Preston, African Art Masterpieces, New York, 1991, p. 97, pl. 39
George Nelson Preston, "Dr. Werner Muensterberger", Tribal Arts Magazine, No. 39, Autumn/Winter 2005, p. 119, fig. 8
Lisa Zeitz, "Eine Sammlung ist nie eine glueckliche Liebe: Das bewegte Leben des Werner Muensterberger", Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 12, 2006
Constantine Petridis, Luluwa, Mercatorfonds: Brussels, 2013 (forthcoming)


Very good condition for an object of this rare type and great age. Vertical crack through proper left side behind ear, with fiber bindings (native repair). Three vertical age cracks (the first through the proper left side of the face, running through the outside edge of the eye and between third and fourth pierced hole underneath the eye; the second through reverse of head; the third through proper right side of face, touching the outside corner of the eyebrow), stabilized with adhesive and filled. The two braids on top of the head are eroded as seen in photographs. Radial age cracks with losses at the top of the head. Hole at proper right repaired with a section of sheet metal attached with metal tacks and fiber bindings. Numerous small wooden pegs inserted in the coiffure in and around the two braids. Some chips and abrasions, including a chip to the diagonal "=" shaped scarification mark on the proper left cheek. Small cracks and losses to holes for attachment around bottom rim. Exceptionally fine deeply layered dark brown crusty patina with traces of camwood powder and clay.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note


The Muensterberger Luluwa Mask is one of the great masterpieces of Congolese sculpture. In its sculptural perfection and iconographic rarity, it can only be compared to the famous Luba helmet mask with curved horns in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, acquired in 1896 by Commandant Michaux in the town of Lu(u)lu Tabora (inv. no. "EO 0.0.23470") and most recently published by Polly and Al Roberts on the cover of their monograph Luba (Roberts and Roberts 2007: pl. 20). Merging stylistic influences from various neighboring peoples, it is a keystone for the understanding of Central African culture.

Cultural Origin

The Luluwa people live in south-central Democratic Republic of the Congo, along both shores of the Luluwa river in the north and the Kasai river in the west. Situated between the empires of the Luba (East), Chokwe (South), and Kuba/Kete (North), the Luluwa received significant cultural impulses from their neighbors which they converted into a highly sophisticated culture of their own. The name Luluwa covers a number of subgroups whose languages are variants of Chiluba, the language spoken by the Luba people. According to Petridis (2009: 119-122), the Luluwa "are said to have had their origin in Katanga Province in southeastern Congo, emigrating in successive waves between the 17th and 18th centuries."

Over-lifesize helmet masks with human features were part of several central African artistic traditions, including those of several immediate neighbors of the Luluwa such as the Luba, Kuba and Luntu peoples. Cf. the famous Luba mask with horns in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, acquired by Commandant Michaux in 1896 in the town of Lu(u)lu (inv. no. "EO 0.0.23470", collecting information provided by Constantine Petridis, personal communication; published, amongst others, in Roberts and Roberts 2007: cover and pl. 20; MRAC 1995: 190-191, cat. 157); another Luba mask in the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, acquired in 1890 by Emin Pasha and Franz Stuhlmann, in the city of Tabora (inv. no. "III E 2453", published in Roberts and Roberts 2007: pl. 18); a mask in the British Museum, London, collected by Emil Torday in Banagasu in 1909, which has been variously attributed to the Luba and Luntu (Roberts and Roberts 1996: 242, endnote 6; Petridis 2005: 58); a Kuba mask in the Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich, acquired by Han Coray before 1928 (published in Binkley and Darish 2009: pl. 14); a Kete or Southern Bushoong mask in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (inv. no. "RG 51.31.95", published in MRAC 1995: 161, cat. 128); a Luntu mask in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (inv. no. "65-8-50/10713"); several other Luntu masks in institutional and private collections, which were all published by Petridis (2005: 50-58); as well as a helmet "mask" in hypertrophic style in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (MRAC 1995: 142, cat. 107) which has been variously attributed to the Luntu and Luluwa (Felix 1987: 93, fig. 2; Petridis in MRAC 1995: 330, text to cat. 107).

The Concept of Beauty in Luluwa Art

With its highly refined naturalism, its harmonious proportions, and its symmetrical scarification patterns, the Muensterberger Mask is the quintessential embodiment of the Luluwa concept of beauty. Writing on figure sculpture, Petridis (2009: 127-128) explains: "The special attention devoted to physical beauty [...] was captured by the Chiluba term bwimpe. [... which] denotes physical perfection as a sign of moral integrity, thus combining the Western notions of beauty and goodness. The emphasis was placed on cultural or 'human' beauty, that is, beauty created by human beings; scarification was one of the supreme expressions of this ideal. [...] the notion of beauty and goodness was expressed through anatomy as well as scarification and other forms of skin beautification. Thus [...] large heads, and high foreheads were considered signs of beauty. [...] Finally, much like the Luba-Katanga [...], the idealized beauty [...] was also meant as an invitation to the ancestral spirits to inhabit the sculptures and use them as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural worlds." For the equivalent belief in the Luba tradition cf. Roberts and Roberts (1996: 84, text to cat. 31).

The scarification patterns on the Muensterberger Mask correspond to the patterns seen on many Luluwa figures, particularly those with early collecting history. For the scarification on the forehead cf. the famous figure of a Leopard Chief in the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz (inv. no. "III C 3246", published in LaGamma 2011: 213, fig. 191) as well as a figure from the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (inv. no. "EO.0.0.43854", published in LaGamma 2011: 209, fig. 187). For the feature of two triangles on the chin cf. a female figure in the Indiana University Art Museum, Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, which was collected in situ between 1884-86 (Petridis 2009: 129, cat. 95). The diamond-shaped scarification marks orientated horizontally on the cheeks of the Muensterberger Mask are comparable to those marking a figure in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, which was collected by Dr. Jules-Auguste Fourche between 1933-36 (Petridis 2009: 135, cat. 99).

Luluwa Sculpture and Power Objects

Another characteristic of Luluwa statuary is the hairstyle of two or more curved braids pointing upwards, usually one protruding just above the forehead and another from the crown of the cranium. The hairstyle of the Muensterberger mask displays two braids, the first just above the center forehead, the second on the crown with the hair shaven around in a tonsure. Both braids are heavily eroded, not broken off but with a rounded surface as if they were smoothed down, and only the roots of the braids remain.

Petridis (2009: 128) elucidates the meaning of the coiffures: "In the Luluwa context the fontanels (soft spots of the cranium of an infant) signified double sight – that is clairvoyance and the ability to discern the invisible in the visible and the past and future in the present. For these reasons a sculpture's fontanels were usually marked by a pointed hairstyle and harbored one or more cavities for inclusion of bishimba." For further references for the inclusion of bishimba in the heads of figure sculpture cf. LaGamma (2011: 280, note 73).

The insertion of magic substances, bishimba, into sculpture is known from several Luluwa figures with early collecting history, such as the famous mother-and-child half-figure in the Brooklyn Museum (inv. no. "50.124", collected in situ by Ferdinand Harroy in 1894, Petridis 2009: 118, cat. 81) which bears a conical copper nail on the forehead; the male figure from the Ross Collection (previously in the collection of Guillaume de Hondt, before 1937, Petridis 2009: 136, cat. 100) which has a cavity in the back of the top braid, a small fiber charge in front of the braid, and a small hole on the forehead; and the aforementioned male figure in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (collected by Dr. Jules-Auguste Fourche between 1933-36, Petridis 2009: 135, cat. 99) which displays cowry shells inserted for the eyes. Remnants of palmoil in the eye area of this figure further attest to the fact that Luluwa objects were at times recipients of libations and other sacrifices.

Petridis (2009: 117) notes that on figures "the coiffure, and the body as a whole, was smeared with a mixture of palmoil, red camwood powder, and clay." The surface of the Muensterberger Mask, heavily encrusted and with traces of camwood powder, corresponds exactly to this kind of manipulation in a ritual context.

A closer look at the Muensterberger Mask reveals that multiple little wooden pegs, inserted in and around the worn-down second braid on center top of the cranium, can be identified as traces of bishimba. The Muensterberger Mask shows strong erosion on top of the head, just around the second braid in which all the bishimba were inserted, and interestingly this erosion seems to have progressed from the outside to the inside of the mask. This condition indicates the application of palm oil and/or other nutritious liquids which, consumed by insects, resulted over time in the faster erosion of the wood in this area. Such evidence reminds us that the Muensterberger Mask was not only a dance mask but also a sacred object and work of devotion, which was ritually manipulated outside of the context of mask performance. The state of erosion and large number of bishimba further suggest that this ritual practice occurred over a long period of time.

Artistic Placement of the Muensterberger Mask

Its deep wood patina, heavily encrusted surface and multiple generations of native repair executed in fibers and metal combined with its early collecting history convey the Muensterberger Mask's great age. While the scarification and hairstyle attest to its Luluwa origin, the naturalistic style and facial expression with downcast eyes place the mask in close stylistic proximity to classic Luba sculptures of the first half of the 19th century.

The serene, seemingly introverted facial expression with downcast eyes can be found across a wide variety of Luba sculptures. Cf. a standing female figure in the British Museum, London (inv. no. "1910-441", acquired in 1910, Roberts and Roberts 1996: 84, cat. 31); a second standing female figure in a private collection (Neyt 1993: 140-141); a third standing female figure in the Detroit Institute of Arts (collected in situ by Leo Frobenius in 1905, Petridis 2009: 132, cat. 97); a kneeling female figure in a private collection, previously in the collection of Allan Mann (Neyt 1993: 142); a bow rest with female figure in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna (inv. no. "56626", Neyt 1993: 60); another bow rest with female figure in the Ethnografisch Museum, Antwerp (inv. no. "A.E.722", Neyt 1993: 65); a female caryatid stool in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (inv. no. "17194"); a bowl with two female figures in a private collection (Roberts and Roberts 1996: 44, cat. 11, collected by Van den Boogaerde between 1916-18); a royal scepter with female figure in The University of Iowa Museum of Art (The Stanley Collection, inv. no. "CMS 546"); a royal spear with female figure in The Field Museum, Chicago (inv. no. "210462", Neg. no. "A109443c"); and a staff of office with female figure in the Ethnografisch Museum, Antwerp (inv. no. "AE.61.62.2").

All aforementioned Luba sculptures represent female figures, and no male figure is known to display downcast eyes. According to Roberts (in Mack 2000: 130), downcast eyes symbolize "the inward side of Luba feminine power. Downcast eyes are a reference to insight, as well as to the humility that a person must exercise before the bavidye spirits [...]." Neyt (1993: 138-151) refers to numerous female figures with downcast eyes in the context of his discussion of royal Luba funerary rituals without reaching a conclusive interpretation of their iconography.

In Luluwa figure sculpture, downcast eyes are significantly rarer than in Luba art. However, the few examples displaying this iconography are female figures, too (cf. The Detroit Institute of Arts, inv. no. "1982.49", collected in situ by Leo Frobenius in 1905, Petridis 2009: 132, cat. 97; Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, inv. no. "III C 3621", Koloss 1999: 224, cat. 148; private collection, on permanent loan to the Catholic University of Leuven, collected in situ by Karel Timmermans in 1964, Petridis 2009: 133, cat. 98). These figures hold a staff in the proper right hand and a cup in the proper left. Traces of chalk inside the cups suggest that they were used as receptacles for sacrificial substances.

While the precise symbolism of the Muensterberger Luluwa Mask is not yet known, we can reasonably conclude from the above that it represents a female. The noble proportions of her face, her symmetrical features and the sophisticated scarification marks correspond to the Luluwa ideal of absolute beauty and make her the perfect vessel for ancestral spirits who would inhabit the mask during performance and other ritual occasions. The Muensterberger Mask, together with as well as distinct from its performer, was thus a consummate intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds.