Benin mask expected to break auction record
The antiquity could fetch a record price for an African work of art when it is sold at Sotheby's in London on 17 February
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 22 December 2010
A Benin antiquity could fetch a record price for an African work of art, when an ivory mask is sold at Sotheby's in London on 17 February. The rediscovered 16th century masterpiece is estimated at £ 3.5m-4.5m. We predicted in September 2009 that it would come onto the market (The Art Newspaper, p49).
The ivory pendant mask depicts Idia, the Queen Mother of Oba Esigie (c.1504-50). It was acquired during the Punitive Expedition of 1897 by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Galway, and is being sold by his family. It has only been briefly exhibited twice, in 1947 and 1951. Only four similar masks are known, now in museums in London, New York, Seattle and Stuttgart. John Picton, an African art specialist, recently described the Galway example as having “almost mythical status, as the one not yet in captivity.”
The Sotheby's sale will also include five other Benin antiquities from the Galway descendants, including an important carved tusk, three ivory and bronze armlets and a rare tusk stand.
Controversy still surrounds the looting of artworks during the Punitive Expedition, in what is now Nigeria. The British Museum's example was subject to a claim in 1977, when it was used as the symbol of the Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Lagos. This was rejected by the museum and there would now be little legal basis for a claim on the Galway mask.
The record price for an African work of art is €5.9m for a Fang mask from Gabon, sold by Enchères Rive Gauches, Paris, on 17-18 June 2006 (at that time equivalent of £4.1m).
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