Top 10 Oceanic and African Art Auction Results from the Past Decade

Often side-lined in favor of the west’s Old Masters and Modern Art, Oceanic and African art offer a whole new world of creativity. Here are their most expensive auction results.

Nov 15, 2019By Jacqueline Martinez
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A Fang Mask, Gabon; Hawaiian Figure, Kona style, Representing The God Of War, Ku Ka ’Ili Moku, Circa 1780-1820; Fang Mabea Statue, Early 19th Century

 

In the 1960s, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s opened up new departments specializing in art from the previously overlooked continents of Africa and Oceania. Pieces of art from across Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and Indonesia became more accessible than ever to collectors, many of whom proved willing to part with incredible sums of money in exchange for a tribal sculpture, ritual mask or ancestral figure. Some of the most exceptional purchases of Oceanic and African art have been in the past decade, with seven-figure auction results (and even one eight-figure!) appearing regularly.

Read on to discover the ten most expensive auction results in African and Oceanic art from the last ten years.

Auction Results: Oceanic And African Art

The art made by the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands and Australia differs greatly from western art. While the artists of Europe were busy with oil paints, watercolors and etchings, the craftsmen of the southern hemisphere were far more concerned with decorative and ceremonial objects, such as masks, figures and abstract sculptures. These were often made from precious materials, including gold, and were laden with symbolism. Not only do they hold aesthetic value in and of themselves, but they also provide important insight into the beliefs, lifestyles and techniques of the indigenous peoples who made them. The following ten pieces of art embody the variety of styles, methods and designs that originated across Africa and Oceania during the previous centuries. They also yielded the highest auction results.

10. Biwat Male Ancestor Spirit Figure From A Sacred Flute, Wusear, Papua New Guinea

 

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This haunting mask represents the masculine spirit and was made from real human remains!

Realized Price: USD 2,098,000

Estimate:        USD 1,000,000-1,500,000

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 14 May 2010, Lot 89

Known Seller: New York art collectors, John and Marcia Friede

About The Artwork

Inhabiting the shores of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, the Biwat people believed in a powerful crocodile spirit, known as asin. They created striking effigies of these spirits called wusears, which were placed on the end of long bamboo flutes and were thought to contain the spiritual auras of the asin. When the flutes were blown, the mystical sound that emanated from the wusear was considered the voice of the spirit. These wusear were considered so valuable in the Biwat community that a man was justified in kidnapping a woman to be his bride, so long as he offered her family one of the sacred flutes.

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This mask, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2010 for just over $2m, was discovered by a German expedition in 1886, and then passed through the hands of numerous European and American collectors. Alongside the wood, shell, pearl oysters and cassowary feathers that make up the terrifying outline of the spirit’s face, it is adorned with real human hair and teeth!

9. Lega Four-Headed Figure, Sakimatwematwe, Democratic Republic Of The Congo

 

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This striking four-headed figure embodies the art of the Lega people of Congo

Realized Price: USD 2,210,500

Estimate:        USD 30,000-50,000

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 14 May 2010, Lot 137

Known Seller: Anonymous American collector

About The Artwork

Like the wusear of the Biwat peoples of Papua New Guinea, the sakimatwematwe made by the Congolese Lega tribe played an important role in initiation ceremonies. In particular, it was used to initiate men into the Bwami society, which dictated their conduct and taught life-lessons through aphorisms. These aphorisms were represented by the sakimatwematwe.

The present example, for instance, shows four heads, distinct from one another and yet inseparable joined by the elephant leg on which they all stand. It was known by the catchy title of “Mr. Many-Heads who has seen an elephant on the other side of the large river”. It is thought to represent how a single hunter cannot kill an elephant alone but arrives on other members of his tribe. This striking wooden statue with its four elongated faces is therefore an item of significant spiritual importance, matched only by its material value after it was sold at Sotheby’s in 2010 for $2.2m.

8. A Fang Mask, Gabon

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This tall mask was designed to deter would-be wrongdoers from committing crimes

Realized Price: EUR 2,407,5000

Venue & Date: Christie’s, Paris, 30 October 2018, Lot 98

Known Seller: Collectors of African art, Jacques and Denise Schwob

About The Artwork

Like the Bwami society of the Lega peoples, the Fang tribes of Gabon, Cameroon and Guinea had their own sects, sub-groups and brotherhoods. Among these was the Ngil, a community of men who took it upon themselves to enact acts of justice under the cover of both night and masks. Masks played a key role in Fang society: the more elaborate the mask, the greater one’s status and rank in the social hierarchy. In keeping with their retributive mission, the Ngil wore some of the most intimidating masks of all.

This rare example of a Ngil-style mask stands at 60cm, the elongated face designed to frighten people who might be harboring evil intentions. Such masks are incredibly rare, with roughly 12 known examples left. It is, therefore, no wonder that they have historically had huge auction results, with the present example selling at Christie’s in 2018 for €2.4m.

7. Muminia Mask, Lega, Democratic Republic Of The Congo

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This mask was made shortly before the colonial authorities made it illegal for the Bwami society to produce such creations

Realized Price: EUR 3,569,500

Estimate:        EUR 200,000-300,000

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, Paris, 10 December 2014, Lot 7

Known Seller: Belgian collector of Congolese art, Alexis Bonew

About The Artwork

The Bwami society, who were responsible for the entrancing four-headed sakimatwematwe, also had masks (muminia) as part of their ritual ceremonies and group activities. Interestingly, these tall wooden effigies were rarely worn on the body: although sometimes worn atop the head, they were more often affixed to the wall or fence of a temple or shrine. They were made not to disguise the wearer, but to impress the other initiates in the society with the size, scale or design of his muminia. The mask maketh the man.

In 1933, however, the Europeans who then ruled Congo made the Bwami society illegal, and the production of such objects seems to have died out. Consequently, the present example is one of just three traditional Bwami masks known to exist today. As well as signifying some of the unintended consequences of colonization, this also adds to its material value, as shown when it was sold at Sotheby’s in 2014 for over €3.5m – ten times its estimated auction result!

6. Fang Reliquary Figure, Gabon

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With their unfamiliar, almost threatening, appearance, such figures intrigued European collectors throughout the twentieth century.

Realized Price: EUR 3,793,500

Estimate:        EUR 2,000,000 – 3,000,000

Venue & Date: Christie’s, Paris, 03 December 2015, Lot 76

About The Artwork

This Gabonese figure was originally owned by Paul Guillaume, a Parisian art dealer who was responsible for popularizing tribal with some of the first African art exhibitions in the city. By introducing this new world of art to the French capital, Guillaume indirectly influenced some of the important avant-garde artists of the twentieth century, such as Picasso. European artists and intellectuals were particularly fascinated with the art of the Fang peoples of Equatorial Africa.

Among the numerous genres of Fang art were byeri, or ancestor sculptures, made in the image of one’s ancestors and used to call upon their spirit in times of need. It is thought that these statues may even have been attached to the boxes holding the remains of the very ancestor depicted! The present example has the remarkable addition of bronze rings to represent the pupils, as well as a hole on the crown of the head to allow for the insertion of feathers. It certainly caught the eye of collectors when it appeared at Christie’s in 2015, with the auction result reaching almost €3.8m.

5. Ngbaka Statue Of The Mythical Ancestor Seto, Democratic Republic Of Congo

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This small statuette represents Seto, the mythical ancestor of the Ngbaka people

Realized Price: USD 4,085,000

Estimate:        USD 1,200,000 – 1,800,000

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 11 November 2014, Lot 119

Known Seller: American collector of African art, Myron Kunin

About The Artwork

With an impressive provenance including eminent African art collectors, Georges de Miré, Charles Ratton, Chaim Gross and Myron Kunin, this statue is widely considered one of the finest masterpieces of Ubangi art. The Ubangi region spans modern-day Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, incorporating a collection of societies with strong cultural ties.

Two of the bulwarks of this culture were belief in spirits and the importance of sculpture. Together these went hand-in-hand to produce some incredible pieces of art, such as this figure of Seto. Seto was believed to be one of the earliest mythical ancestors, among those who created the universe, and he played an important role in fables as a trickster. He would have had his own shrine in Ubangi villages, where statues and figures of him would have been used in worship rites and ceremonies. With its cultural history and pedigree provenance, it is no wonder that the statue realized a massive price at in 2014, yielding an auction result over twice its estimate at $4m.

4. The Walschot-Schoffel Kifwebe Mask

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Considered one of the most beautiful ritual masks known to collectors, this piece symbolizes fertility and wisdom

Realized Price: USD 4,215,000

Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 14 May 2019, Lot 8

Known Seller: Collector of African art, Alain Schoffel

About The Artwork

Estimated to have been made in the nineteenth century, the Walschot-Schoffel Kifwebe mask became a part of a major European collection in a matter of decades following its manufacture. Jeanne Walschot, a champion of African art, displayed it at the Cercle Artistique et Litteraire in Brussels in 1933, where it attracted the attention of some of the most important French intellects of the day.

Originating in Congo, the mask is loaded with meaning. The white stripes may have been designed to symbolize purity, wisdom, beauty and goodness, but alternative theories suggest that they represent the zebra, which, despite not inhabiting the Songye territory, had gained mythical status through the tales exchanged between tribes. The design is at once simple and yet slightly hypnotic, its beauty making it one of the most valuable pieces of African art sold in the last decade, having been won at Christie’s in 2019 for over $4.2m.

3. Fang Mabea Statue, Early 19th Century, Cameroon

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The smooth carving and precise details of this statue makes it a masterpiece of African art

Realized Price: EUR 4,353,000

Estimate:        EUR 2,500,000 – 3,500,000

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, Paris, 18 June 2014, Lot 36

Known Seller: The family of art collector Robert T. Wall

About The Artwork

Previously owned by Felix Fénéon and Jacques Kerchache, two spearheads of the African art market, this statue is one of around a dozen figures left made by the Fang Mabea tribe of Cameroon. Over half a meter in height, it represents one of the ancestors worshipped and revered in their culture. With its crisp detail and smooth carving, the statue embodies some of the finest craftsmanship in African art, which is why one anonymous bidder was willing to part with the immense sum of €4.3m to add it to their collection when it appeared at Sotheby’s in 2014.

2. Hawaiian Figure, Kona style, Representing The God Of War, Ku Ka ’Ili Moku, Circa 1780-1820

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This carving shows the Hawaiian God of War, Ku Ka ‘ili Moku, associated with King Kamehameha I

Realized Price: EUR 6,345,000

Venue & Date: Christie’s, Paris, 21 November 2018, Lot 153

Known Seller: Native art collectors, Claude and Jeanine Vérité

Known Buyer: Tech developer and businessman, Marc Benioff

About The Artwork

This intimidating statue was made when King Kamehameha I was uniting the Hawaiian Islands in the early twentieth century. Like countless rulers throughout history, Kamehameha sought to legitimate and strengthen his rule by associating himself with a deity, in this case, the Hawaiian god of war, Ku Ka ’ili Moku. Therefore, either on his orders or to win his favor, priests across the islands began to create figures of Ku Ka ‘ii Moku bearing the likeness of the king.

When it appeared in Europe in the 1940s, the statue was immediately snapped up by renowned art dealer Pierre Vérité, who kept it as one of his most prized possessions until his death, when it passed on to his son Claude. In 2018, when it was bought at Christie’s for over €6.3m by tech billionaire Marc Benioff. Benioff made headlines by donating the figure to a museum in Honolulu, feeling that it belonged in its native land.

 

1. Senufo Female Statue, Deble, Ivory Coast Or Burkina Faso

 

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The strikingly elongated statue of an unknown woman set a record for the most expensive auction result for an African art piece.

Realized Price: USD 12,037,000

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 11 November 2014, Lot 48

Known Seller: American collector of African art, Myron Kunin

About The Artwork

One of only five known figures of its kind, this Senufo female statue is exceedingly rare. Its intriguing abstract design, which appears to defy gravity, the wave likes forms and protruding abdomen that symbolize pregnancy, and the ground-breaking use of open space all contribute to this figure’s status as one of the finest pieces of African art ever produced. One of the most remarkable things about it is that its creator can be identified: the Master of Sikasso was an anonymous artist active in Burkina Faso from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.

The statue also has an impressive provenance, having passed through the hands of influential African art collectors such as William Rubin, Armand Arman and Myron Kunin, as part of whose estate it appeared at Sotheby’s in 2014. There, it was sold at the incredible price of $12m, breaking all auction results records for an African statue, and demonstrating that native art has become a major player on the world market.

More on Auction Results

These ten pieces of art represent some of the finest sculptures, masks and figures to appear in the African and Oceanic art departments of the major auction houses. Over the past decade, new scholarship and research into native art and culture has brought with it a new appreciation for the genre. As a result, millions of dollars have been spent by art dealers, enthusiasts and institutions, all eager to add such a masterpiece to their collection. Click here for more impressive auction results from the last five years in Modern Art, Old Master Paintings and Fine Art Photography.



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By Jacqueline MartinezJacqueline Martinez graduated with her BA in English (Writing & Rhetoric, to be fancy) in 2019. During her time in college, she worked in a Miami-based art gallery. She has attended major art fairs like Art Basel and Art Miami, recording new exhibitions and art trends in her articles. In 2018, she studied abroad in France, where she learned about art history in some of the world’s major museums. Since graduating, she has aimed to keep learning while passing on her experiences to those who are novices like she once was.