Pacific Art from the Collection of Harry A. Franklin

Pacific Art from the Collection of Harry A. Franklin

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 33. MASK (TSUBWAN).


Auction Closed

May 13, 03:32 PM GMT


250,000 - 350,000 USD

Lot Details



Pentecost Island, Vanuatu

Wood, pigments, encrusted patina

Height: 15 in (38.1 cm)

Helena Rubinstein, Paris and New York

Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, The Helena Rubinstein Collection: African and Oceanic Art, Parts One and Two, April 21 and 29, 1966, lot 258

Harry A. Franklin, Beverly Hills, acquired at the above auction


Museum of Cultural History, ed., Image and Identity: The Role of the Mask in Various Cultures, Los Angeles, 1972, p. 8, cat. no. 25

George R. Ellis, Oceanic Art: A Celebration of Form, San Diego, 2009, rear cover and p. 65, cat. no. 41

Mason Klein, Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power, New York, 2014, p. 34

Museum of Cultural History Galleries, University of California, Los Angeles, Image and Identity: The Role of the Mask in Various Cultures, April 11 - June 3, 1972

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Portraits of Helena Rubinstein, May 18 - June 20, 1976

San Diego Museum of Art, Oceanic Art: A Celebration of Form, January 31, 2009 - January 3, 2010

The Jewish Museum, New York, Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power, October 31, 2014 – March 22, 2015


By Philippe Peltier

The wood masks of Vanuatu come from the north of the archipelago, more precisely from the north of the island of Ambrym, the south of Pentecost island and, in certain very rare cases, the east coast of Malakula.

While some masks are covered with a thick, cracked patina, others, such as the present mask, have a smooth and shiny black patina, covered in a light layer of encrustation. The masks were kept in the men’s house to preserve them from insect damage. A few days before the ceremonies took place, the initiates would take the masks to the forest where, in a clearing, far from sight, they would clean the soot of the men’s house from the masks and repaint them.

On the day of the ceremony, four of these masks, accompanied by two conical masks, would emerge from the forest. The masks were danced in the village square, scaring the boys and women. The dance, which took place in April, celebrated the beginning of the yam harvest, the tubers which were then maturing in the gardens. The ceremony was one of the most important aspects of village life, beginning a period of abundance and exchange.

Dances related to the harvesting of yams were abandoned from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century as a consequence of the people’s conversion to Christianity. Devoid of the purpose for which they were made, the masks were sold to European settlers and travelers. The rapidity which with the traditional were abandoned en masse means that the small number of known masks are unquestionably old.

Under the high and smooth brow of this mask, the face is formed of a complex play of lines and curves. The straight nose has a large pierced septum. This framed by two small tear shaped reliefs. The eyes are extended by a line which emphasizes the outline of the face in an elegant curve. The mouth sketches a shy smile. The lower part of the face has a curious protuberance which forms a sort of goatee beard at the base of the chin. Beneath this appears a tenon which the dancer would use to hold the mask in front of his face. Traces of red ocher and blue pigment remain visible under the eyes and above the mouth.

The style of this mask is characteristic of those made in south Pentecost island, and this example is one of a small group which are characterized by their masterly sculptural quality. The intelligence with which the features are arranged confers upon the mask a power which is both eerie and disquieting, quite in accordance with the mask’s function and its power to materialize the presence of the ancestors.

For a regional classification of these masks see Kirk Huffman's article "Masques, coiffures et chapeaux rituels du nord du Vanuatu" in Bonnemaison ed., Vanuatu, Océanie. Arts des îles de cendre et de corail, Paris, 1996, pp. 24-25.