Lot 100
  • 100

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

300,000 - 500,000 USD
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  • wood and metal
  • Height: 43 1/2 in (110.5 cm)


Reportedly collected and brought to Europe in 1906 by Baron Thiebault
By descent from the above
Ben Heller, New York, acquired from the above in the 1970s
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired from the above on May 9, 1984


Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, extended loan, March 1, 1984 - November, 2005
Hamline University Art Galleries, Saint Paul, Icons of Perfection: Figurative Sculpture from Africa, December 2, 2005 – February 11, 2006
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, extended loan, March 3, 2006 - March 11, 2013


Raoul Lehuard, Fétiches à clous du Bas-Zaïre, Arnouville, 1980, p. 64, no. 28, illustrated on front and back covers
Sotheby's, New York, The Ben Heller Collection, December 1, 1983, lot 35, and cover (unsold)
Raoul Lehuard, Art Bakongo: les centres du style, Vol. II, Arnouville, 1989, p. 442, fig. 1-1-2
Frank Herreman, Icons of Perfection: Figurative Sculpture from Africa, Saint Paul, 2006, pp. 34-35, cat. 18
Frank Herreman, "Icons of Perfection: Some Thoughts on the Relationship between Aesthetics and Function in African Sculpture", Tribal Art, Vol. X, No. 3, Spring 2006, p. 95, fig. 9


Very good condition for an object of this type and age. Open age crack between buttocks on reverse (stable). Numerous holes and cracks throughout from the ritual insertion of metal, and age cracks throughout, especially emanating from points at which metal is or was inserted. Small losses to element on top of the head. Remains of charge material on the center of the abdomen. Proper left heel with a glued crack. Bottoms of feet eroded. Proper right foot with a plate underneath for stability. Fine aged dark brown patina with encrustation including remains of ritually-applied materials.
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 Kunin Kongo nail power figure, previously in the collection of Ben Heller, is an icon of African Art which was immortalized when Raoul Lehuard selected it to illustrate the front and back covers of his definitive study of Congolese nail power statuary, Fétiches à clous du Bas-Zaïre, published in 1980, which remains the most comprehensive monograph on the subject.  Of bold design and immense scale, it bristles with a diverse assortment of nails and other metal inserts, the remnants of many years of ritual use.

The Kongo people are perhaps most famous for their creation of sacred sculptures, today referred to as power figures, or minkisi (sing. nkisi), in which various pieces of metal are inserted. 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, as in the present example. 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.