Bruno Claessens, Head of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s, with a mask from the Republic of Benin once owned by a French Cubist, shown at the first MoMA exhibition of African art in 1935, and now being offered at auction in Paris on 10 April
Many Christie’s specialists who work with paintings routinely look at the back of frames for labels that can provide clues to provenance or exhibition history. ‘That reflex is much less common for an African art expert,’ explains Bruno Claessens, Christie’s European Head of African and Oceanic Art.
‘When I was appraising a private collection in Paris last month, in a beautiful apartment filled with art, this piece — a vibrant polychrome mask from the Republic of Benin — immediately caught my eye,’ Claessens says. ‘I lifted it from its base to feel the weight of the wood and to check for signs that it had previously been worn. Intuitively I also examined the inside of the mask, and to my amazement I discovered several old paper labels stuck to the wood.’
The original Poittier shipping label from the mid-1930s, found on the inside of the Yoruba mask
One of these, an old French customs stamp, was proof that the mask had at one point left the country for an exhibition. Finding that stamp was a real ‘eureka moment’, Claessens says, ‘because it was proof that the mask had not always been in France, and had had a long life before it arrived in this collection in Paris.’
The label of the shipping company that transported it (Poittier, from St. Ouen) was even more telling. Although the label was partly damaged, Claessens was able to decipher on it the words ‘A. Lhote – Exp. Art Négre – New York.’ This was a significant discovery, for it revealed that at the time of its shipment to New York, the mask was owned by French Cubist painter André Lhote (1885-1962), who had begun acquiring African masks in 1906.
What’s more, Claessens knew that in the first decades of the 20th century, only a few African art exhibitions had been organised in New York. The ‘Exp. Art Négre’ reference thus quickly brought to mind the Museum of Modern Art’s much acclaimed 1935 exhibition African Negro Art. Checking the exhibition’s extremely rare, un-illustrated catalogue, which listed all 500 works in the show, Claessens discovered this mask, listed as lot #242: the ‘Polychrome mask – Dahomey – Coll. André Lhote, Paris.’ (Dahomey being the kingdom that existed in present-day Benin from around 1600-1900.)
‘It had a long life in Africa, impressed crowds at the first major exhibition of African art in New York, and was immortalised by one of America’s most important photographers’
‘The 1935 exhibition was key because, rather than presenting these works in an ethnographic museum, as was the usual practice at the time, here we had masks and other pieces exhibited in an art museum. And not just any art museum, but the Museum of Modern Art,’ the specialist explains. ‘It was a real game changer, because from that moment on people started looking at these works as art and started to appreciate their sculptural qualities.’
What’s more, most of the objects exhibited in the African Negro Art exhibition — including this mask — were photographed by Walker Evans, the pioneering American photographer who not long afterwards would travel throughout the country documenting the effects of the Great Depression. ‘Evans’ photos from this exhibition are very well-known, and are already valuable and well-collected,’ explains Claessens.
Bruno Claessens, Head of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s, with Yoruba mask, Republic of Benin. Height: 28 cm (11 in). Estimate: €6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Arts d’Afrique, d’Océanie et d’Amérique on 10 April 2018 at Christie’s in Paris
This mask therefore represents an extremely exciting rediscovery: ‘Not only did it have a long life in Africa, but once it left the continent it continued to impress crowds at the first major exhibition of African art in New York, and was immortalised by one of America’s most important photographers.’
Further sleuthing would reveal that it was sold at auction in Paris in 1943, and acquired by well-known French publisher Jean Aubier. From Aubier it passed to Pierre Vérité (whose collection was offered in November 2017 at Christie’s in Paris), and finally from the Vérité family to its current owner, who was unaware of its earlier provenance. Indeed, it was after the Vérité sale that the current owner approached Claessens to tell him that she had another piece, which once belonged to the Vérité family, and that he might like to see……………