Lot 24
  • 24

Kota-Ndassa Reliquary Figure, Republic of the Congo

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood, brass, cowrie shell
  • Height: 27 1/8 in (69 cm)


René Rasmussen, Paris
Henri Kamer, Paris and New York, acquired from the above in 1974
Lance and Roberta Entwistle, London, presumably acquired from the above
Edwin and Cherie Silver, Los Angeles, acquired from the above on January 18, 1978


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Eternal Ancestors: the Art of the Central African Reliquary, October 2, 2007 - March 2, 2008


Elliot Picket, 'L'art africain conglomere', Arts d'Afrique Noire, no. 10, Summer 1974, p. 29, no. 10
Henri Kamer, advertisement, Arts d'Afrique Noire, no. 23, Autumn 1977, pp. 36-37
Alain Chaffin and Françoise Chaffin, L'art Kota. Les figures de reliquaire, Meudon, 1979, p. 201 and p. 331, cat. no. 102
Louis Perrois, Arts du Gabon. Les arts plastiques du bassin de l'Ogooué, Arnouville, 1979, fig. 194
Warren M. Robbins and Nancy Ingram Nooter, African Art in American Collections, Survey 1989, Washington, D.C., 1989, p. 339, no. 882
'Through African Eyes', The New York Times, Friday, October 5, 2007, p. A1
Alisa LaGamma, Eternal Ancestors: the Art of the Central African Reliquary, New York, 2007, p. 261, cat. no. 83

Catalogue Note

Of the great variety of styles observed in the corpus of Kota reliquary sculpture, the grandest and most ambitious examples belong to a group which is today attributed to the people known as the Ndassa Kota of eastern Gabon and northwestern Republic of the Congo. Distinguished first and foremost by their especially large scale and ornate richness of decoration, these Ndassa figures also share what Louis Perrois has described as “a certain graphic naturalism, contrasting with the stylizing impulse of most other Kota variants.”1 Discussing the Ndassa group, which they classified as Group 16 in their landmark publication L’Art Kota, Alain and Françoise Chaffin observed: “These pieces are among the most sought after by lovers of Kota art. […] One finds sculptures from the Rassmussen, Ratton, Chadourne and Girardin collections that are known the world over.”2 Previously in the collection of René Rassmussen, the Silver Kota Ndassa Figure is unquestionably this masterpiece of the Ndassa style and among the most magnificent artworks in the entire Kota corpus.

The hallmark of the Ndassa style is a generally oval face of relatively naturalistic proportions. As compared with most other Kota styles, the volume of the central element representing the face is of particularly generous convex volume. The face is surmounted by a broad crescent and flanked by ample side-coiffures, terminating in duck tails or pendant cylinders representing braids, all atop a cylindrical neck and well-proportioned diamond-shaped lozenge. Ndassa sculptor-blacksmiths mastered the use of multi-colored metals to create dazzling visual contrasts, employing reddish copper, yellow brass, and grey-black iron. The eyes, in brass, are centered vertically on the face, and depicted in perfectly horizontal lidded coffee-bean shape, often with iron pins that read as pupils. Arching double brows in copper and iron dramatically rise above the eyes and give the visage an expression of noble alertness.  Most strikingly the faces feature up to three diagonal bands of iron from eye to jaw, traversing fleshy red copper cheeks. These have been described as “tears” as they seem to cascade down from the eyes, and can be read as if the subject is weeping.

Within the overall Ndassa “weeping” style are several janiform examples, which feature faces of the above-referenced convex style on one side, and a classic but very differently-conceived convex Ndassa face on the reverse, similar to that seen on the Kota-Ndassa figure from the Silver collection previously in the collections of Frank Crowninshield and Russell Aitken (lot 23 of the present catalogue). 

Considering both the Janus and the single-face examples, the variations within this overall group are wide enough to conclude that they represent an overall style region, or type, but not simply one atelier, or even one generation. However, within this classification, there are a small number of works which are so similar in their overall conception as well as in very specific details that they must emanate from the same atelier if not the same individual artist. The Silver Kota Ndassa is one of four works which Perrois considers to be made by the same atelier.3 Most useful for comparison to the Silver figure are two of these examples: the first “of truly superb quality and great age.”4 formerly in the collections of Morris J. Pinto, New York, and the artist Arman (sold Sotheby’s New York, May 11, 2012, lot 131, see fig. 1); and the second previously in the collection of Jay C. Leff, Uniontown, Pennsylvania (see fig. 2). The similarities of these three works are seen not only in their nearly identical shape and proportions, but extend also to the specific motifs in the design and handling of the repoussé. Each bears a border at the top of the crescent inscribed with a pattern of vertical and diagonal lines, with fields of both copper and brass, with a wider band allowing two rows of triangles in the Silver figure.  Each has a band of copper bounded by rows of dots across the forehead; with the Leff figure repeating the design seen in the border of the top crescent, while in the Pinto/Arman figure and the Silver figure the band is undecorated; only the Silver figure bears a cowrie shell inlaid at the center, probably a mark of wealth and status. The design of the ducktail-shaped side coiffure is the same in all three figures, except that the Silver and Leff figures feature a field of tightly spaced horizontal lines emanating from just beside the face, producing an impressive radiating effect (and a chance affinity with an Egyptian Pharaonic “nemes” headdress). Proportions of the brows, nose, eyes, cheeks, “tears” and small round mouth are nearly identical; as are the pattern of crosshatching repousse on the upper part of the lozenges, and that of the cylindrical neck of the Silver and Pinto/Arman figures.

The differences between these three figures are fewer than their similarities; while the Pinto/Arman and the Silver figure have iron pins which read very successfully as pupils and give the sculpture a present, living expression, the Leff figure is without pointed pupils and therefore projects a more distant or blind gaze.  The Pinto/Arman figure bears a slightly thinner, leaner face with brows lower down on the forehead; and the Leff figure features a pattern of cross-hatched lines on the cheeks between the bands of “tears”, seen in neither other figure.

Regarding the geographic origin of the Pinto/Arman Figure, and by extension the Leff figure and the present figure from the Silver collection, Perrois notes:

“In his monumental 1953 work Contribution à l'ethnographie des Kuta I, pastor-ethnographer Efraim Andersson, the great expert on the ‘Kuta’, or ‘Kota’ peoples of equatorial Africa, illustrated a closely reliquary figure with a convex face, a broad transverse headcrest, and side-coiffures terminating in volutes [Andersson, Contribution à l'ethnographie des Kuta I, 1953, p. 341, fig. 37], closely related to the present majestic figure, formerly in the collections of Morris J. Pinto and the artist Armand Arman. He noted that this important mbuli-viti had been collected in situ in the 1920s by the pastor Karl Laman for the Svenska Missionförbundets Museum in Stockholm. The same object, with its convex face, is also seen in a photograph taken by The Reverend Jacobsonn before 1912, showing young Kota men wearing bark cloth aprons, carrying traditional weapons, and displaying reliquary figures (see p. 45). […]  Particularly significant to our study is Andersson's indication that the related work comes from the Mossendjo region of the former French Congo (southwest of present-day Congo-Brazzaville), the epicenter of the missionary activities of Swedish evangelists before the Second World War. It was also in the southern part of the Kota region that The Reverend Efraim Andersson conducted the bulk of his ethnographic surveys from 1935 until the 1950s, amongst the Wumbu, the Ndassa, and the Obamba [see Andersson, Contribution à l'ethnographie des Kuta I, 1953 and Andersson, Contribution à l'ethnographie des Kuta II, 1974]. The area within the triangle formed by the towns of Mossendjo, Sibiti, and Zanaga (all in present-day Republic of Congo) was among others populated by Kota groups, namely the Wumbu and the Ndassa. In this context it is worth remembering that the designation ‘Kota’ is only a collective name of convenience, as each cultural group of equatorial Africa referred to by the name ‘Kota’ also bears a more specific name. The Ndasa are culturally and linguistically distant cousins of the Northern Kota, the Mahongwe, the Shamaye, and the Shaké of the Ivindo basin. Already centuries ago, their migratory movement had already brought them from Southern Cameroon to present-day Congo, traversing the whole of eastern Gabon from North to South. Some Ndasa communities, with small populations, remained behind in the region of the Upper Ogooué River in Gabon.”5

The large size, richness of materials, refined design, and elaborate decoration of the Silver Kota Ndassa Reliquary Figure suggest it was associated with an individual or clan of particularly great power and wealth. The Ndassa “weeping” group, as the most highly refined of Kota reliquary styles, is a testament to the great sophistication of Kota artistry. The Silver figure is the apex of this group and among the most impressive representatives of the pre-colonial art of central Africa.

1. Perrois, in Sotheby’s, ed., African, Oceanic & Pre-Columbian Art, May 2012, lot 131, p. 116
2. Chaffin and Chaffin, L’Art Kota, 1980, p. 199
3. See Perrois, ibid., pp. 116-118
4. Perrois, Kota, 2012, p. 151
5. Perrois, in Sotheby’s, ed., African, Oceanic & Pre-Columbian Art, lot 131, p. 116