Lot 100
  • 100

Kongo-Yombe Nail Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo

400,000 - 600,000 USD
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  • Height: 28 in (66 cm), including base
on a base by the Japanese wood artist KichizĂ´ Inagaki (1876-1951), Paris.


Josef Müller (1887-1977), Solothurn, acquired before 1939
By descent from the above through the Barbier-Müller family
Christie's London, June 13, 1978, lot 156 (color plate)
Henri Kamer, Paris
Merton D. Simpson, New York (inv. no. "4147"), acquired from the above in December 1983
Allan Stone, New York, acquired from the above on December 14, 1983


The Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut, Power Incarnate: Allan Stone's Collection of Sculpture from the Congo, May 14 - September 4, 2011
S2 Gallery, New York, Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage, November 18 - December 16, 2011


Raoul Lehuard, Fétiches à clous du Bas-Zaïre, Arnouville, 1980, p. 252, no. 139
Kevin D. Dumouchelle, Power Incarnate: Allan Stone's Collection of Sculpture from the Congo, Greenwich, Connecticut, 2011, p. 28, cat. 4
Lisa Dennison and Adam Gopnick (eds.), Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage, New York, 2011, pp. 3, 90-91 and 96-97
No author, "Art in Motion", Tribal Arts Magazine, No. 69, Autumn 2013, p. 28
Ellen Gamerman, “An Eccentric’s African Trove”, The Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2013, p. C14
Olga Grimm-Weissert, "Hauptstadt der Stammeskunst", Die Zeit, No. 35, August 22, 2013, p. 46


Good condition for an object of this type and age. Fronts of feet and integrally-carved plinth missing and remodeled in plaster painted dark brown to match, in the fashion that was common in European artists' circles in the early 20th century; the custom Inagaki base accommodates the outline of the completed integral plinth and therefore post-dates the plaster plinth. Age cracks throughout, especially emanating from points where metal insertions split the wood. Fiber attachment around waist is dry and fragile, with some cracked elements. A loose piece of pierced clay, presumably a form of bishimba (magical charge), is loosely trapped behind the proper right hand among the metal spikes. Shallow surface abrasion underneath proper right arm. A few empty holes in wood indicating missing metal elements. Chipping to vegetal adhesive around the eyes. Marks, nicks, scratches, abrasions, and small chips consistent with age and a long period of use in situ. Cracks to sides of charge box on abdomen and a crack to lower left corner of mirror plate covering charge box. Very fine aged blackened surface with remains of red and white pigment on face and residue throughout. Metal elements aged and oxidized. Inagaki base with a split behind the proper left foot and a plastic label inscribed 'C276' on the reverse.
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 Kongo people occupied a vast territory in west central Africa, north and south of the mouth of the Congo River in today’s Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cabinda and Angola. Kongo subgroups, including the Yombe, Vili, Bembe, Sundi, and others, shared a common culture, social organization and language, Kikongo. Southern groups were subject to the larger Kingdom of Kongo, whereas the northern Kongo, on the Loango coast, were organized in the smaller Kingdom of Loango. Both empires were highly developed states established well before the arrival of Portuguese navigators in 1483. At the center of wide spanning trading networks, they existed until the 19thcentury.

Today the Kongo are most famous for their creation of religious sculptures called power figures, or minkisi (sing. nkisi). The guiding idea behind the creation of minkisi was that powerful malevolent or benevolent forces could be manipulated into aiding humans with the solution of problems ranging from ill health, infertility, and other physical issues to misfortune and danger as well as more abstract difficulties such as asocial behavior, legal dispute and crime.

The procedure for composing a nkisi could be very complex and extend over days or weeks. A diviner (the nganga) and the other participants had to obey to a prescribed set of rules which could include dietary restrictions, the performance of chants and rhythms, as well as prayers during the creation period. The nkisi was intended as a container for specific supernatural powers and had to be inviting both on an aesthetic and mystical level. Figurative sculptures were created by professional carvers, some of whom were well known for the quality of their work. The nganga gave iconographic instructions and, upon completion, activated the nkisi through the insertion of animal, vegetable and mineral materials known as “medicines” (milongo or bilongo) that invoked through their substances, names, forms or provenance the powers the nkisi was intended to control.

The necessary animating ingredients were inserted into cavities inside the figures, often behind the eyes, inside the head or abdomen, or they were attached or suspended in pouches, neckbands, belts etc. Abdominal resin or mud packages were often “sealed” with mirror-glass imported from Europe. Once animated, the nkisi was an “alive” powerful being, analogous to a human. Each nkisi had a name and its own personality.

The most violent minkisi were called minkondi (sing. nkondi). They usually show an aggressive pose, either with one arm upraised, holding a spear, or with arms akimbo. Nails, knife blades and other pieces of iron were inserted into the sculpture in order to “arouse” the nkisi to perform the work it was intended to, but they could also represented the physical pain that the target, a human disobeying the social rule enforced by the nkisi, would experience. The more efficient the nkisi was in the solution of problems, the more often it was frequented, resulting over time in an abundance of metal pieces inserted in their body.

Power figures (nkisi) of monumental scale such as the offered lot served larger communities of one or more villages. The iconography is highly unusual: the standing figure, whose gender is not indicated, reaches with its left hand to its throat in an effort to choke itself. The strangling grip is so firm that the tongue is pushed outside of the mouth. At the same time, the figure's right hand grasps firmly around the left wrist, apparently trying to pull it away from the throat. The schizophrenic character of the scene is further developed by the seemingly emotionless facial expression, as if detached from the actions of its left and right hand.

The subject represented here seems to be a schizophrenic spirit, not dissimilar to the literary concept of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one side evil and dangerous, the other side good and protective. The difference between the figure's two sides is also emphasized by the nature of metal pieces inserted into the left and right arms, with a concentration of bent knife blades on the left and nails on the right. With an extraordinary quantity of nails and metal implements, attesting to a long period of repeated ritual use, the spirit represented by the Allan Stone nkisi must have been particularly efficacious.

Published in the landmark 1980 monograph Fétiches à clous du Bas-Zaïre, this figure was acquired by Josef Müller before 1939, and was last on the public market in 1978.  A major collector of Modern art and particularly Picasso, Müller started collecting African art in the 1920s. Today his collection forms the core of the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva. Also notable is the figure's base by the Japanese wood artist Kichizô Inagaki (1876-1951), Paris.