Highlights from Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

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Launch Slideshow

Sotheby’s will hold its annual various-owners auction of Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas in New York on 15 May, 2017, timed to coincide with our exhibitions of Modern and Contemporary Art, in a celebration of the historical connections and affinities these art forms share. The sale will be led by the “Chokwe Princess,” a masterpiece of exquisite quality from present-day Angola. Also on offer will be Mesoamerican Masters: Pre-Columbian Art from a European Private Collection; Property from the Estate of Elaine Lustig Cohen; and Property from the Estate of Lynda Cunningham. Click ahead to see a preview of highlights.

Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
15 May | New York

Highlights from Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

  • Chokwe Female Statue, Angola. Estimate $1,500,000–2,500,000.
    Among the most celebrated icons of African art are the magnificent figure sculptures of the Chokwe people of pre-colonial Angola. This exquisite figure is one of only a handful of examples depicting a female subject, probably the mythical princess Lweji. It exemplifies the Chokwe concept of utotombo, a passion for beauty and perfection equated with virtue, as well as the importance of female power to the matrilineal Chokwe with its depiction of a youthful, fertile woman.

  • Female Statue, Lake Sentani, Papua, Indonesia. Estimate $1,000,000–1,500,000.
    The remarkable sculptural style from the Lake Sentani region in the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea expresses a joyous simplicity, and captures the humanity of its subject in a universally appealing formal language. The aesthetic qualities of Sentani artists' distinctive abstraction of the human form captured the attention of the European avant-garde in the early 20th century, and examples from this very small corpus entered some of the most influential collections of the era.

  • Mask, Bungain, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea. Estimate $150,000–250,000.
    This mask, with its long pointed nose, represents an important male mythical being known as barak or parak, who played a role in ceremonies such as male initiation. The present mask is first recorded in 1929 in the collection of the Czech writer Joe Hloucha, whose interest in Oceanic art was perhaps inspired by his uncle’s early travels in the Pacific.

  • Tsimshian Grease Bowl, Northwest Coast, British Columbia. Estimate $150,000–250,000.
    Northwest Coast clan leaders commissioned functional artworks from skilled artists to glorify the symbols of clan history and mythology by means of objects used in ceremonial events. One such type of objects are known as grease bowls, for the eulachon fish oil and seal oil that are served in them as an accompaniment to dried fish or roots. This extraordinarily dynamic example shows a dramatically upswept head and tail of the seal.

  • Aztec Stone Figure of the Goddess Chicomecoatl, Circa 1300-1521 AD. Estimate $150,000–200,000.
    Maize was the most important food to the Aztecs, and as such was personified in several deities. The goddess Chicomecoatl represented here, who was the goddess of ripe maize, was venerated at harvest time. The Goddess is both constrained by the headdress representing the demands of house and harvest, but also honoured by the majesty of the architectural adornment.

  • Maya Polychrome Ritual Container of a Diving God, Mayapan, Late Postclassic, Circa 1200-1500 AD. Estimate $150,000–200,000.
    The finely modelled inverted figure known as the diving god, honours the essential substances of life-giving maize and cacao, the sacred chocolate drink of the Maya elite and royalty. This rare and delicate vessel is part of set, and one of only two left in private hands.

  • Kwakwaka’wakw Raven Mask, British Columbia, Canada. Estimate $120,000–180,000.
    This sculpturally dynamic raven mask was used in dance ceremonies of the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia, and belonged to the influential artist and designer Elaine Lustig Cohen, who installed it prominently in her Upper East Side townhouse for over half a century. The mask has been attributed to famed sculptor Willie Seaweed, who helped to keep the artistic traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw alive during his bold and prolific career in the first half of the 20th century.

  • Teotihuacan Stone Mask, Classic, Circa 450-650 AD. Estimate $75,000–125,000.
    The idealized and refined masks of Teotihuacan are one of the defining artistic expressions of the ancient city within the largest urban area of ancient Mexico. The hard stone faces immortalized the features of the larger effigies made of perishable materials, which were carried during ceremonial occasions. The masks were a consistent "palette" of serene and idealized beauty in contrast to the surrounding elaborate and colourful adornments.

  • Senufo Bird Figure, Côte d’Ivoire. Estimate $70,000–100,000.
    Worn on top of the head, this impressive bird figure played an important role in the initiation of young Senufo men. The morphology of these rare statues references both male and female characteristics, with the swollen, pregnant belly, and the elongated phallic beak. They served as symbols of authority for clan elders and were kept in the sacred forest where initiation ceremonies took place.

  • Ekoi/Ejagham Janiform Headcrest, Nigeria. Estimate $50,000–70,000.
    Naturalistic in form and deeply symbolic, these headdresses were just one part of a full-body costume that dancers in the Cross River region of south-eastern Nigeria and western Cameroon wore during important ceremonies such as funerals and initiations. The figures were carved out of a single piece of wood, then wrapped and painted in antelope hide. An almost identical example, probably carved by the same hand, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  • Figure for Malagan, New Ireland. Estimate $40,000–60,000.
    Among the most intricately carved sculptures in Oceania, malagan figures act as intermediaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. These sculptures, colourful and rich in anthropomorphic imagery, were integral to the successful realization of highly elaborate ceremonies that were held to commemorate one or more deceased members of a community. Like the Kwakwaka’wakw raven mask, this malagan figure found a home in the eclectic collection of Elaine Lustig Cohen.

  • Pair of Bamana Headcrests, Mali. Estimate $30,000–50,000.
    Elegant in form, these ci wara headdresses are emblematic of antelopes: the male figure’s tall, elegant horns suggest the potent energy and endurance that drove farmers as they worked in the fields, and the female figure appears with her baby on her back, alluding to the fertility both of those who thrived off the land and also of the land itself.


  • Slit Gong, Probably Small Nambas, Malakula, Vanuatu. Estimate $20,000–30,000.
    Distinctive for their minimalist aesthetic and tonal versatility, slit gongs were symbols of status in Vanuatu society and are prominently featured in social and religious ceremonies, often in ensemble with other gongs of different sizes. Carved in the stylized likeness of an ancestor, they were perceived as portraits as much as instruments. This particular gong comes from the estate of Lynda Cunningham, a promoter of Oceanic art based in New York who assembled a wide-ranging private collection of objects from many Pacific cultures.

  • Hopi Kachina Figure, Arizona, United States of America. Estimate $5,000–7,000.
    Carved out of dried cottonwood roots by initiated Hopi men, kachina figures represent different spirits that act as intermediaries between the supernatural and material worlds, which the Hopi believed to possess the power to bring rain to the parched desert landscape and to protect the overall well-being of Hopi villages. While this particular figure belonged to the distinguished collection of Elaine Lustig Cohen, others have found their way to the collections of surrealist artists like André Breton and Max Ernst.

  • Maori Treasure Box, New Zealand. Estimate $10,000–15,000.
    While Maori used treasure boxes, also called waka huia, to store important contents, the boxes themselves also endure as exquisite works of craftsmanship and as personal objects that were highly valued in their own right. Treasure boxes were most notably used to store items considered to be tapa, or sacred.

  • Club, Tonga. Estimate $4,000–6,000.
    This club is of the apa'apai type, perhaps the most refined of all Tongan club forms. The worn surface of the club is a clear reminder that these beautiful objects were once used in warfare. This club once belonged to James Hooper, the legendary British collector whose collection was auctioned off in a series of landmark sales in the 1970s.

  • Maya Figure of a Lord, Jaina, Late Classic, Circa 550-950 AD. Estimate $125,000–175,000.
    Maya ceramic figures are some of the most intimate and compelling portraits of ancient Maya elite men and women. This robust and regal lord or priest ranks within the small corpus of extremely tall ceramic figures. This particular figure was once in the Chicago collection of D. Daniel Michel, who was one of the early and influential collectors of Pre-Columbian art in the 1960s.

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