Lot 97
  • 97

Kota-Obamba Reliquary Figure (mbulu ngulu), Gabon

100,000 - 150,000 USD
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  • metal, wood
  • Height: 27 3/8 inches (69.5 cm)


Stanley Burnet and Helen Lansdowne Resor, Greenwich, Connecticut, acquired in New York City in 1928
Stanley Rogers Resor, Greenwich, Connecticut, by descent from the above


Good condition for an object of this type and age. Minor marks, nicks, scratches, abrasions, and small chips consistent with age. Metal is tarnished with some areas of corrosion. Dents, folds, and small tears to the metal. Metal sleeve embedded underneath for attachment to base. Fine aged surface to the wood.
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

This impressive Kota figure is distinguished as much by its monumental size and superb sculptural quality as by its fascinating history of ownership.  It was acquired at an antiquarian shop on Madison Avenue in New York City by Mr. and Mrs. Stanley B. Resor in 1928, a remarkably early date for such a piece to have found its way to the American market.  The Resors were the husband and wife team that transformed the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson into a dominant leader in the field.  Mrs. Resor was an early trustee and key supporter of the Museum of Modern Art and developed a close friendship with Alfred H. Barr, its first director.  Among her greatest contributions to the museum was her anonymous donation of Salvador Dalí's The Persistence of Memory.  Barr was not only a promoter of Modern art but was also a passionate admirer of African sculpture and its influence on and affinities with modernism, and contributed to the landmark exhibition African Negro Art, held at the MoMA in 1935.  It is therefore quite plausible to imagine that Barr played a role in the Resors' acquisition of this fine Kota figure. The works from the collection of  Mr. and Mrs. Resor passed to the personal collection of their son, Stanley R. Resor (1917-2012), a prominent American lawyer, military officer and government official.

The Resor Kota-Obamba Reliquary Figure in 'front bombé' style

By Louis Perrois

According to the Canadian expert Jacques Germain and his 2001 study of the corpus of this particular variant of Kota reliquary sculpture (Germain 2001), an estimated fifty examples of  mbulu-ngulu with a concave-convex face, referred to as “bombé forehead” (à front bombé) are known in European and American collections. This number is remarkably small, considering the greater corpus of the famous reliquary figures made by various Kota groups, which number in the hundreds.

The defining set of attributes shared by examples of this type include: the specific morphology of the face, featuring a tight cluster of finely-demarcated features projecting in high relief; the presence of decorative motifs engraved on copper repoussé plates (including the transverse crescent headdress and flanking "wings"); the absence of any metallic decoration on the reverse, which is usually marked with an elongated diamond pattern which is engraved or in low relief; and finally the particular shape of the diamond-lozenge at the foot, which is often of a pinched diamond design.  Most of these figures are large in scale, and a few Janus examples are known.

Germain remarks quite rightly that the morphology of the face with overhanging brow observed by Brazza and his companions in 1880 in the area of Obamba and Ndumu Masuku, Franceville was already by the end of the 19th century a stylistic form at its height, well before the first contact with Europeans.  This suggests that this expressive form, with its dramatic styling and cubistic interpretation of the human face, had already undergone a long history of artistic development and exploration in terms of aesthetic creativity and technical mastery, despite the continuous migratory movements of the Kota (see Perrois 2012: 27).  According to some informants, the bombé-forehead reliquary figures are symbolic images of the male, while the other concave oval face type are female.

The Resor Kota Reliquary Figure is characteristic of the Kota-Obamba style, which emanated from the heart of the Kota region and more specifically the southern Kota (Haut-Ogooué, Gabon). It is a sculpture of impressive volume, and a remarkably clean design of pure, uncluttered lines. The deliberate, powerful oval form of the face of the ancestor, which is quite wide, strengthens the commanding effect of the stern horizontal brow under the overhang of the forehead and the alert, projecting eyes, on either side of a sharp tetrahedral blade-like nose.

The lateral “wings” of the coiffure are bisected horizontally with an engraved triangular motif.  On the broad, crescent-shaped crest is another design in the same style, which is probably an emblem of clan identification. On the back, which is devoid of metal plating, an elongated lozenge shape is defined in low-relief, evoking perhaps the appearance of a canoe, and may symbolize various mythical episodes related to birth (recalling the female sex) and death (in the passage to the spirit world).  Beneath the massive head and cylindrical neck, the support is in the form of an open diamond constructed of four equal sides, the top part of which is covered in thick metal plates and represents the "shoulders" of the stylized subject, according to Kota informants.

The quality and stylistic relevance of the Resor Kota Reliquary Figure, a classic representative of the Obamba type, can be understood by comparison with other published examples (see Perrois 2012: pls. 26, 27-28, 29).  Other closely-related works in this corpus share the bold characteristic design featuring a projecting quarter-sphere forehead, under which are projecting eyes and a minimally-designed support. These include a mbulu ngulu  previously in the collection of the painter André Lhote, acquired by 1920 and exhibited at the Galerie Pigalle, Paris in 1930 (cat. no. 190, see Perrois 2011: no. 18).

The Resor Kota Reliquary Figure, of majestic size and significant antiquity, is a masterfully-wrought example of Gabonese artistry, and an honored memorial to Kota sculptors, blacksmiths and grand ancestral initiates.