Published: December 9, 2008
On November 14 at Sotheby’s, a packed salesroom witnessed spirited bidding from clients both in the room and participating over the phone at the auction of African and Oceanic art from the collection of Frieda and Milton Rosenthal. The sale surpassed presale estimates, bringing $10,859,944. This offering represents the most important collection of African and Oceanic art to be offered in 40 years in New York and is the highest total for a single-owner sale of African and Oceanic art in New York.
The centerpiece of the auction was a Senufo pair of male and female ancestor figures from the Ivory Coast, also known as the “Rosenthal Primordial Couple.” The male and female ancestor figures were sought after by at least three bidders, two of which were in the room, before selling for $4,002,500 to a client on the room. This price is a record for a Senufo sculpture at auction and within its $3/5 million estimate, the highest estimate ever placed on a work of African art at auction.
Also among the three works that sold for more than $1 million were an East Sepik River, Sawos, ancestral Malu board, which achieved $1,314,500, and a Kota reliquary guardian figure, which realized $1,058,500. The sale was 86.7 percent sold by lot, with 70 percent of the sold lots achieving hammer prices at or above their estimates.
The Senufo sculptures are unique to African history because they have survived intact as an original pair commissioned to celebrate the founding ancestors of a Senufo community. These iconic works were formerly in the collection of vice president Nelson A. Rockefeller, a powerful promoter of African art in the United States and have been exhibited and published extensively over the past 45 years. Rockefeller had purchased the Primordial Couple at the Klejman Gallery in 1961, and the Rosenthals acquired them at Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet in May 1967 at an auction to raise money for the Museum of Primitive Art, a private initiative of Nelson Rockefeller, which was subsequently transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it forms the core of the department for the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
There was enthusiastic bidding for the rare East Sepik River Sawos ancestral Malu board from New Guinea. Carved with stone or shell tools in the pre-contact period, the abstract board is overlaid with layers of red ochre, black and white pigment. This openwork form panel has an anthropomorphic face at top, the body diffusing into leaf shapes that evoke faces of multiple ancestors. Another highlight of the sale, the Kota reliquary guardian figure, comes from the Sebé River region and belongs to a group of four figures that are believed to represent the archetypal quintessence of Kota statuary.
An Easter Island male figure, Moai kavakava, carved of wood with eyes inset with obsidian and bone brought $614,500, a record for an Easter Island sculpture at auction. This work depicts a figure standing on bent legs arched forward, with a large head pitched forward with an expressionistic face and inset eyes. A rare Austral Islands stool, carved with stone and shell tools from one piece of wood in the pre-contact period, fetched $386,500, a record for an Austral Islands sculpture at auction. This elegant abstract carving, one of the best examples of its type, was sold at a record price at Sotheby’s London in the sale of the George Ortiz collection, the world renowned collector of ancient and tribal arts, in June 1978.
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium. For information, 212-606-7000 or www.sothebys.com .
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