Lot 12
  • 12

Olmec Mask Fragment

200,000 - 300,000 USD
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  • Jade
  • Height: 5 in (12.7 cm)


Edward H. Merrin Gallery, New York
Howard and Saretta Barnet, New York, acquired from the above on October 22, 1976


Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership, December 16, 1995 - February 25, 1996, and travelling: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, April 14 - June 9, 1996
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, long term loan, September, 2005 - February, 2007, and in 2017


Gerald Berjonneau, Emile Deletaille, and Jean-Louis Sonnery, eds., Rediscovered Masterpieces of Mesoamerica, Boulogne, 1985, p. 42, pl. 20
Michael D. Coe, ed., The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership, Princeton, 1995, p. 255, cat. no. 159


Overall the object as currently formed is in excellent condition, with the exception of one very clean break and repair at the top of the nose just below the forehead as visible by a fine thin diagonal line. The natural veining and colouring of the jade is apparent at the tip of the nose. The ancient polish is excellent with expected variation in surface sheen and polish visible on front and back.
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

Olmec masks are among the finest expressions of Pre-Columbian art. The Barnet mask fragment’s striking highlights – the graduated color and translucency from blue to deep mossy-green jade, and its lustrous ancient polish – speak to its great aesthetic and refined form. While it now appears in a nearly surrealist form, it was an heirloom modified in ancient times, cherished as a pendant for its essence of an idealized portrait mask. Masks in Olmec times were chiefly regalia. Those carved with perforations in the eyes and nose could have been worn in ceremonies, while solid forms adorned headdresses, belts or centerpieces of necklaces and pectorals. They may have been placed on sacred bundles or figures, the peripheral perforations enabling their attachment or suspension. The masking tradition, wearing a constructed identity, was an ancient and important concept. Pasztory notes that the mask form was a powerful icon among the Olmec used in symbolic designs on celts and figures.1 The mask form evolved into an elite template to portray realistic human images and supernatural deities, both supreme icons of the Olmec artistic canon.

The mouth of the Barnet mask is composed in classic Olmec style; the sensuous parted lips are of a trapezoidal form with an arched, well defined upper lip, a softly rounded lower lip, and the inner gum revealed. There are remnant drill holes in each corner. The well-proportioned aquiline nose has drilled nostrils joined by a minute inner perforation, and the recessed corners of the eyes slope onto the narrow nose bridge and rise into the forehead, which was pierced for suspension. The artist designed the features to follow the color transitions and opaque and translucent qualities of the stone. The slender section at the brow reveals a brilliant translucent green against the light, with deep green along the bridge of the nose moving towards the blue sea-green opaque tone of the lips and chin.

The elegant profile, style and size of the Barnet mask fragment closely resemble one of the most sublime jade masks known: the white jade incised mask, once in the collection of Jay C. Leff, which has been described as conveying "experience, self-confidence, and power".2 The Leff mask has been considered a portrait of the Lord of the Double Scroll, given the distinctive incised double-scroll emblems on the cheeks. The Leff and Barnet masks are of the smaller than life-size type, but in correct proportion to a face.3

Jade was valued as the supreme emblem of fertility, regeneration and life-giving maize and water throughout ancient America. The Barnet mask fragment was reportedly found in Costa Rica, a region known to exalt the celt form in jade. A jade celt was used in ceremonial exchange, a form of symbolic currency that was the emblem of maize.4

Jade was chalchihuitl, the Nahuatl term known since the sixteenth century Spanish chroniclers. Jade comes from the Spanish piedra de ijada (loin stone), which referred to the indigenous belief that jade had medicinal properties. In early seventeenth century Europe it was believed that jade would cure kidney ailments and sciatica.5 The impressive range and tonalities of color – from blue-green to brilliant apple-green – and the different levels of translucency – from sheer luminosity to opaque – captivated ancient artisans. In the Florentine codex, jade is ranked and differentiated by color, luster, translucency and uniformity, as well as its supposed magical and medicinal properties.6 The value and importance of jade was still paramount at the time of the Spanish conquest; Moctezuma reportedly told Cortés that a fine piece of jade was worth two loads of gold.7

Jade, more correctly referred to as jadeite or jadeitite, is a sodium aluminum silicate of extremely dense crystalline texture. The one known source of Mesoamerican jade is far from the Olmec heartland of the Gulf Coast region, in the Motagua river valley in Guatemala, a region geologically suited to the conditions need for the formation of jadeite.8 Neutron activation analysis and chemical studies have suggested alternate sources but none have been found.

Heirloom objects – the revered sculptures found in significantly later periods, far from their area of manufacture – were an important feature of ancient Mesoamerican tradition. Heirlooms may have been reworked or modified by the subsequent culture but had to retain an element of their original significance or life history. Access and ownership to objects made in highly precious material, carved with symbols of prestige and reflecting an elite lineage, legitimized and empowered any subsequent owner.

The Dumbarton Oaks winged pendant,9 carved with the important Olmec were-jaguar deity face, was incised on the reverse in the early Maya era (circa AD 100) with a seated ruler in an accession ceremony, and was found in the Yucatán. One of the finest small blue jade heirloom ornaments is a face pendant carved and incised with masks of various Olmec anthropomorphs, surrounded by cave and maize symbols – reinforcing the mask as an iconic object itself. This highly charged jewel-like ornament was also found on the Yucatán coast, within an important burial dating to AD 800, far in space and time from its likely origin in the Olmec heartland.10 The important 1978 discovery at the heart of the sacred Aztec precinct of Templo Mayor was a cache deposit that included a fine Olmec mask,11 along with important shell and stone objects from other earlier eras. Each of these heirlooms served to dedicate, validate, and connect to the ancient powers from physically distant areas, and to help create a new context of significance in a later era.

Portable heirloom objects are part of the luxury arts category which Joanne Pillsbury has dynamically explored in her exhibition Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas. She notes that "small symbolically charged luxury arts were perhaps the most important means by which ideas moved between communities."12 The Barnet mask fragment embodies the quality of luxury art in its portability, sensuous form and luminous tonality, uniting materiality and ancestral myths in an evocative and surrealist form.

1 Pasztory in Clark and Pye, eds., Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 270
2 Joralemon in Benson and de la Fuente, eds., Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico, Washington, D.C., 1996, p. 250
3 Other small jade faces of similar style include a complete green jade mask in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (inv. no. 1992.134.2), and a fine pale blue jade portrait head fragment in the Cleveland Museum of Art (inv. no. 1961.31), both illustrated in Berrin and Fields, eds., Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico, San Francisco and Los Angeles, 2010, pp. 186-187, pls. 94 and 95
4 For an Olmec jade mask fragment of similar celt-like form, found in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, see Ferrero, Costa Rica Precolombina: Arqueología, Etnología, Tecnología, Arte, San José, 1975, col. pl. II
5 Lothrop, Ancient American Gold and Jade, Cincinnati, 1950, p. 6
6 Filloy Nadal in Pillsbury, ed. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, Los Angeles, 2017, p. 67
7 Lothrop, ibid.
8 Taube, Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks(Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks), Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., 2004, p. 20
9 Benson and de la Fuente, eds., ibid., p. 254, cat. no. 97
10 Berrin and Fields, eds., ibid., p. 238, pl. 142
11 Ibid., p. 236, pl. 140
12 Pillsbury, ed., ibid., p. 9