Lot 16
  • 16

Fang-Mvaï Ancestor Statue by the Master of Ntem

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 USD
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  • Wood, ritual patina
  • Height: 18 1/8 in (46 cm)


Spanish Private Collection
Sotheby's, London, December 5, 1972, lot 189, consigned by the above
Patricia Withofs, London, acquired at the above auction
Jacques Kerchache, Paris, acquired from the above
Armando Scamperle, Rome, acquired from the above
Pace Primitive and Ancient Art, New York, acquired from the above
Armand Arman, New York and Vence, acquired from the above
Lance and Roberta Entwistle, London, acquired from the above
Howard and Saretta Barnet, New York, acquired from the above on December 13, 1986


The Museum of Modern Art, New York, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, September 27, 1984 - January 15, 1985
Espace Culturel BBL, Brussels, Mains des Maître. À la découverte des sculptures d'Afrique/Masterhands: Afrikaanse beeldhouwers in de kijker, March 22 – June 24, 2001
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Eternal Ancestors: the Art of the Central African Reliquary, October 2, 2007 - March 2, 2008
Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris, Les forêts natales. Arts d'Afrique équatoriale atlantique, October 3, 2017 - January 21, 2018


Pace Primitive and Ancient Art, advertisement, Arts d'Afrique Noire, No. 32, Winter 1979, p. 26
William Rubin, ed., "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, New York, 1984, vol. 1, p. 151
William Rubin and Ezio Bassani, eds., Primitivismo nell'arte del XX secolo: affinità fra il tribale e il moderno, Milan, 1985, vol. 1, p. 151
William Rubin and Jean-Louis Paudrat, eds., Le primitivisme dans l'art du 20e siècle. Les artistes modernes devant l'art tribal, Paris, 1987, vol. 1, p. 151
Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat, and Lucien Stéphan, L'art africain, Paris, 1988, p. 253, fig. 159
Warren Robbins and Nancy Nooter, African Art in American Collections, Washington, D.C., 1989, p. 332, fig. 858
Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat, and Lucien Stéphan, Art of Africa, New York, 1993, p. 253, fig. 159
William Rubin, ed., Nijisseiki bijutsu ni okeru purimitivizumu : buzokuteki naru mono to modan naru mono to no shin'ensei, Kyoto, 1995, vol. 1, p. 151
Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat, and Lucien Stéphan, Arte africano, Madrid, 1998, p. 253, fig. 159
Bernard de Grunne, ed., Mains des Maître. À la découverte des sculptures d'Afrique/Masterhands: Afrikaanse beeldhouwers in de kijker, Brussels, 2001, p. 119, p. 138, cat. no. 35 
Bernard de Grunne, "Master Hands: Post Scriptum", Tribal Art Magazine, no. 31, Summer 2003, pp. 88-89, nos. 1-2
Alisa LaGamma, Eternal Ancestors: the Art of the Central African Reliquary, New York, 2007, pp. 164-165, cat. no. 164
Yves le Fur, ed., Les forêts natales. Arts d'Afrique équatoriale atlantique, Paris, 2017, pp. 56, 210-211, cat. no. 51

Catalogue Note

Central African reliquary sculpture, which Alisa LaGamma has called “the very summit of African creativity”1, has been one of the most admired and sought-after genres of African art since the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was first “discovered” by European artists in the avant-garde circle of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque. The reliquary sculpture of the Fang peoples (historically called “Pangwe” in early German sources, and “Pahouin” by the French), in the present-day regions of northern Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and southern Cameroon, has historically had a particularly powerful resonance with Western viewers. Indeed, such figures as “The Great Byeri”, a Fang Reliquary Head today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. no. 1979.206.229) and "The Black Venus", a Fang Reliquary Figure from the collection of the musée Dapper, Paris (inv. no. 2891), both formerly in the collection of British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, are among the most famous and admired works of all African art. The Barnet Fang statue is just such an icon. Created by the Fang-Mvaï people, the majestic statue was the work of a master carver in an atelier or stylistic group referred to as the "Masters of Ntem". Merging attributes of the northern and southern Fang, the sculptures of this style are distinguished by their orderly geometry, introspective intensity, and high degree of sculptural refinement.

In 2001, under the direction of Dr Bernard de Grunne, the groundbreaking exhibition and publication Masterhands examined the concept of identifiable master artists in classical African art using techniques of object-based connoisseurship, a type of study which had first been applied to African art history by the Belgian art historian Frans Olbrechts. Included in this project was a study of a celebrated corpus of Fang sculptures by the preeminent scholar of Gabonese art Dr Louis Perrois. De Grunne and Perrois brought together a group of works which, by virtue of their formal similarity, must have originated from the same region, and are possibly the work of one or more individual masters working in a sculptural atelier, which can be traced to the Ntem Valley of Gabon. Works in this corpus include a figure in the Dallas Museum of Art, formerly in the collection of Marc and Denyse Ginzberg, height: 54 cm, see fig. 1); a figure very close to the Dallas example formerly in the collection of Léonce and Pierre Guerre, Marseille (Sold at Sotheby's, Paris, June 15, 2011, lot 7, height: 53 cm, see fig. 2); another in the Seattle Art Museum, formerly in the Katherine White Collection, height: 51 cm, see fig. 3), a somewhat larger figure in lighter wood in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, height: 58 cm, see fig. 4); another in a private American collection, and the Barnet Fang.

Figures attributed to the "Masters of Ntem" are thought to date roughly to the first half of the nineteenth century, or could be as early as the late eighteenth century. Perrois notes: "The formal similarities are so clear, even in the details of the sculpting, that the analytical description of one applies perfectly to the other […] Note in particular the obvious similarity in the ridges of the headdress, but also in the eyes with glass beads for pupils [lost in the case of the Barnet figure], in the thick lipped mouth, the pointed teeth, and the rounded shoulders seeming to hang together as a whole by the equal volumes of the pectorals; the hands with stylized 'fan' fingers holding some sort of cylindrical cup (probably a receptacle for offerings, évegha), as well as the exceptional surface finish and the remarkably polished patina of a beautiful dark brown, in keeping with the Mvaï 'manner'."2 Of all Fang subgroups, which include the Ntumu, Betsi, Mekè, Nzaman, Mabea, Okak, and Mvaï, the Mvaï of the Ntem valley in northern Gabon are one of the smallest in number, probably numbering only about 5,000 individuals. The style of Mvaï Fang, which one can relate to the artistic corpus of the southern Fang (north Gabon), is one of the most refined and technically impressive. The “Masters of Ntem” are the highest expression of this style.

Discussing the iconography of this group, Perrois continues: "[...] according to certain critics (cf. Lucien Stéphan, 'Le païdomorphisme et les proportions différentielles', L'art africain, [Paris], 1988, p. 112), the ancestor was represented both as an accomplished man (fully sexualized, with strong hypertrophied muscles, and bearing the attributes of a noble adult, displayed particularly in the headdress) and retained the attributes of early childhood: the shortened proportions for the different elements of the body, the voluminous head and belly with the rounded navel. This statue of an ancestor displays, in a single complex 'image' (eyema), by means of a few details apparently shifted from visual reality (but highly charged with a defined meaning and consistent with the traditional beliefs of the group) the role that the deceased members of the family play in the continuation of the circle of life, from birth to death, and beyond it, in the perpetuation of the generations."3

In his discussion of the Ntem corpus for Masterhands, Perrois positions this group within the overall corpus of Fang art: "Among the number of works left to posterity by the Fang artists of equatorial Atlantic Africa, those that can be attributed to the Mvaï of the Ntem Valley are at once limited in number and exceptional in their sculptural quality. It seems that this sub-group crystallized in its sculptural creations the quintessence of the Fang style."4

Within this distinguished group, the Barnet Fang stands out for its superb sculptural qualities. Pectorals, shoulders, arms, and hands are defined in an orderly arrangement of masses.  The hands come together to grasp an offering cup, presented before the sternum, the top of which is hollowed in a spherical depression for the reception of ritualistic oil. The angular, symmetrical position of the robust arms and legs conveys quiet strength. Although carved from one piece of wood, the overall form is defined in segments: head, coiffure, trunk, and limbs seem to be conceived as separate interlocking shapes. From any angle the viewer feels the depth of its forms, weighted and counterweighted masses, and a balance of protrusion and void.  Rigorously organized volumes take shape beneath naturally flowing surfaces, giving life to a balanced, spacious overall design. The artist who shaped this form of a human predecessor has rendered wood into flesh, but with a conceptual order which gives physical shape to an abstract form born in the mind, a representation of a venerated ancestor who is powerful, controlled, and above all, beautiful.

After its discovery in a Spanish private collection in 1972, the Barnet Fang passed through the hands of several of the most important tastemakers and collectors of African Art, including Patricia Withofs, Jacques Kerchache, and the artist Arman. Howard and Saretta Barnet acquired it from Lance and Roberta Entwistle in 1986. The figure was selected by William Rubin for the groundbreaking exhibition "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, held at The Museum of Modern Art in 1984. The ambitious publication which accompanied the exhibition was the first comprehensive exploration of the influence of the primary arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas on early modernist European artists. Rubin’s study focused particularly on Pablo Picasso, whom he had known personally, discussing the African styles most visible in the earliest years of the twentieth century in ethnographic displays and private collections in Paris. Fang statuary is among the styles which were certainly present in Paris from an early date, and seen by Picasso before 1908. While the whereabouts of the Barnet Fang during those years is unknown, it is a quintessential representative of the style which was at the center of the Spanish painter’s discovery of African abstraction (see fig. 5).

The French impresario of non-western art Jacques Kerchache included the Barnet Fang in his canon-defining general text L'art africain, first published in 1988, as did the American scholars Warren Robbins and Nancy Nooter in their 1989 survey, African Art in American Collections. Following the aforementioned Masterhands project in 2001, the Barnet Fang was included in Alisa LaGamma’s definitive exhibition on central African reliquary sculpture Eternal Ancestors: the Art of the Central African Reliquary, held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007. Most recently the Barnet Fang was brought to Paris for Les forêts natales. Arts d'Afrique équatoriale atlantiquethe expansive and important exhibition held at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac, which closed in early 2018.

The Barnet Fang is a sculptural masterpiece, among the highest expressions of Fang sculptural canons. Through its extensive publication and exhibition history, which has included virtually all of the most important international exhibitions of the last 40 years, it has rightfully become one of the key works in our understanding of central African artistic genius, and an icon of African Art.

1 LaGamma, Eternal Ancestors: the Art of the Central African Reliquary, New York, 2007, p. 3
2 Perrois in Sotheby’s, ed., Pierre Guerre. Art d'Afrique, June 2011, lot 7, p. 33
3 Ibid.
4 De Grunne, ed., Mains des Maître. À la découverte des sculptures d'Afrique/Masterhands: Afrikaanse beeldhouwers in de kijker, Brussels, 2001, p. 121