Christie’s Will Auction Pierre Matisse’s Teotihuacán Stone Mask and Other Pre-Columbian Artifacts in Upcoming Sale

Nazia Safi
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Pre-Columbian art includes tools, artifacts, and objects of the Caribbean and North, Central, and South America. The pre-Columbian era spans from around 3000 B.C.E. to the arrival of the Europeans in the early 16th century C.E. Pre-Columbian artifacts were created by the Aztecs, Maya, Inca, and other ethnic groups of Native North Americans. This February, Christie’s will present pre-Columbian artifacts in the Quetzalcoatl: Serpent À Plumes sale in Paris. Live bidding for this event will begin on February 9th, 2021.

Pierre Matisse, the youngest son of French painter Henri Matisse, began his career in Paris in 1923 as an art dealer. The following year, he moved to New York and later opened his own establishment. Along with Western art, his gallery showed non-European art forms such as pre-Columbian art, Islamic textiles, and Chinese calligraphy. Among the many pre-Columbian pieces was a Teotihuacán serpentine greenstone mask that Matisse purchased in 1938. It remained with him until his death.

Teotihuacán Serpentine Mask, circa 450-650 C.E. Image from Christie’s.
Teotihuacán Serpentine Mask, circa 450-650 C.E. Image from Christie’s.

Masks and face panels from the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán often portrayed idealized human faces. Traditionally, the Aztecs attached these masks to mummy bundles or perishable effigies. The upcoming Christie’s auction of pre-Columbian artifacts features a Teotihuacán serpentine mask (estimate: USD 424,890 – $667,684). Made between 450 and 650 C.E., it shows a mature face with sculpted cheeks, parted lips, large oval eyes, and decoratively-carved ears pierced for ornaments. The sides of the head and center of the forehead bear suspension holes. According to Christie’s, “Of those that have come to market, the Pierre Matisse mask is considered one of the finest, distinguished by its rich green colour, mottled patterning and boldly carved features.”

Another Aztec artifact offered in this event is a Veracruz sculpture of Cihuateotl from El Zapotal, made between 600 and 1000 C.E. (estimate: $728,382 – $1,092,573). In Aztec mythology, the Cihuateteotl or “Divine Woman” is the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth. Her soul then transformed into a terrifying demon. In Aztec culture, this process mirrored death in battle.

Veracruz sculpture of Cihuateotl, circa 600-1000 C.E. Image from Christie’s.
Veracruz sculpture of Cihuateotl, circa 600-1000 C.E. Image from Christie’s.

Cihuateteo figures made in the El Zapotal style, such as the available lot, were primarily associated with childbirth, fertility, and midwifery. Coming from the Walter Van DenAvenne Collection, this Goddess of Fertility rests in a seated posture. Her hands cover her knees. She wears a double-headed serpent belt around her waist, a necklace, and earrings.

Mayan Tripod Vessel, circa 250-450 C.E. Image from Christie’s.
Mayan Tripod Vessel, circa 250-450 C.E. Image from Christie’s.

Beyond Aztecs, this sale features pre-Columbian artifacts from several other Native North American groups, including the Mayans. Based in Mexico and Central America, the Maya civilization developed before 2000 B.C.E. The Maya excelled at pottery, agriculture, hieroglyph writing, mathematics, and calendar-making. Christie’s upcoming sale of pre-Columbian artifacts will feature several Mayan examples. Among them is a lidded tripod vessel from circa 250 to 450 C.E. (estimate: $72,383 – $109,257).

The Mayans made vessels to honor and commemorate living rulers and to worship their gods and ancestors. People often buried these vessels in tombs alongside their royal or noble owners to accompany the soul on its journey through the underworld. The stuccoed body of the available vessel is delicately painted with images. A small sculpted head, capped with a feathered headdress, decorates the cover. According to the lot essay, the head bears a resemblance to a portrait of the Mayan ruler Sihyah Chan K’awiil.

Other highlights from Christie’s pre-Columbian artifacts sale include an abstract group of six Valdivia stone steles from the collection of the late Gerard Geiger of Lausanne and several Mezcala artifacts. Live bidding for this event will start at 10:00 AM EST on February 9th, 2021. Visit Christie’s for more information or to place a bid.

Interested in more unusual items hitting the auction block? Auction Daily recently covered Sotheby’s upcoming sale of Pierre Le-Tan’s private collection. 

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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