Fang-Betsi Ancestor Head leads $16 million Clyman Collection of African and Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s in New York

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Fang-Betsi Artist, Head of an Ancestor. The first work of Classical African art to be presented in any Contemporary Art Evening Sale achieves $3.5 million. Courtesy Sotheby's.
Fang-Betsi Artist, Head of an Ancestor. The first work of Classical African art to be presented in any Contemporary Art Evening Sale achieves $3.5 million. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sales featuring property from the Collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman concluded Tuesday, achieving $16 million across four auctions held during Sotheby’s marquee auction week in New York.

Leading the collection was a Fang-Betsi Ancestor Head, which sold for $3.5 million (estimate $2.5/4 million) in the Contemporary Art Evening Auction on Monday night during Sotheby’s global livestreamed auction event. One of the most important works of African Art ever to appear at auction, the reliquary sculpture marked the first time a work of classical African Art was presented in any contemporary art evening sale.

The sale series finished on Tuesday with a dedicated auction of one of the finest groupings of African sculptures in the world, totaling $4.6 million and surpassing the high estimate by $1 million. A strong 97% of all lots sold with over 70% of sold lots making over their high estimates. In total, the full selection of African Art on offer from the Clyman Collection achieved $8.1 million.

Alexander Grogan, Vice President and Head of Sotheby’s African & Oceanic Art Department in New York commented: “The remarkable success of the Clyman Collection comes as no surprise—it has long been considered one of the premier collections of classical African Art with many museum-quality pieces that have been exhibited widely. Throughout Tuesday’s sale, we saw strong international bidding across the U.S., Europe, and Asia, with many new clients participating in one of our sales for the first time. And to showcase the centerpiece of the collection, the stunning Fang Head, in our marquee Contemporary Art Evening Auction—on the global stage of our innovative livestreamed auction event—is a testament to the sculpture’s aesthetic legacy in shaping the style of Western modernism, as well as the Clyman’s vision as collectors.”

Jean Fritts, Worldwide Chairman of African & Oceanic Art, said: “We are thrilled with the overall results from the Clyman Collection, which only further solidifies Sotheby’s strength in presenting art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas in New York. With the Clyman’s foresight of cross-category collecting as a guide, it is evident that collectors are increasingly blurring the lines of traditional categories, and we see great opportunities for growth in continuing to showcase classical African art, as well as art from Oceania and the Americas, alongside contemporary artwork.”

29 June

The stunningly elegant female head from a reliquary ensemble expresses the universal artistic ideas developed by pre-Colonial African artists, which were transmitted to modern Western masters in the early 20th century, including Constantin Brâncuși and Amadeo Modigliani. This artistic connection is particularly evident in Modigliani’s famed stone head sculptures. Fang art, from present-day Gabon, has been described as ‘the very summit of African creativity’ and is perennially the style of African art most coveted by collectors. The Fang-Betsi Ancestor Head is one of the finest exponents of this tradition with its exceptionally elegant geometric form and important history.

Throughout its lifetime, the Fang-Betsi Ancestor Head has frequently been in dialogue with and positioned alongside modern and contemporary art. The first known Western owner was Charles Ratton, the Parisian doyen of African art dealers and connoisseurs who handled many of the most revered masterpieces in the field. Ratton published the head in 1931 in Masques Africains, an important work in establishing the canon of great African art. In the 1930s, the head was acquired from Ratton by James Johnson Sweeney, the visionary American modern art curator and writer who, with the assistance of Ratton, organized the legendary 1935 exhibition African Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sweeney kept the head in his Mies van der Rohe designed New York apartment along with his small but exquisite collection of modern art, which included major works by Miró, Mondrian, and Calder. When Sweeney’s estate was sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 1986, the head was acquired by William McCarty-Cooper, who had inherited art historian and collector Douglas Cooper’s fabled collection of Picassos and other Cubist works. The sculpture last appeared on the market in 1992 when the Clymans acquired it at auction in New York.

The Contemporary Art Evening Auction also featured two other works from the Clyman Collection: Untitled (Virginia Landscape) by Arshile Gorky, which sold for $956,000 (estimate $600,000/1 million) and Willem de Kooning’s Seated Man (Clown), which achieved an above estimate price of $2.4 million (estimate $1/2 million).

30 June

One of the finest collections of Sub-Saharan African Art in the world and one of the last remaining collections from the golden age of African Art collecting in the US during the 1960s and 70s, African Art from the Collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman totaled $4.6 million surpassing its high estimate by $1 million. All but one of the 32 lots found buyers, accounting for a strong sell through rate of 97% with over 70% of all sold lots selling above estimate.
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Particularly strong in classic reliquary sculpture of Central Africa, the collection was led by a large and radically abstract Mahongwe Reliquary Figure (above, estimate $500/700,000) from Gabon, which after a bidding battle between three clients, doubled its high estimate to sell for $1.4 million. This price doubled the previous record, establishing a new world auction record for a Mahongwe sculpture. Other highlights included a masterpiece by the greatest of all Kota artists, a Reliquary Figure by the Sebe River Master of the Skull Head (estimate $500/700,000), which was previously in the legendary collections of Charles Ratton, Morris J. Pinto, and Murray Frum, and sold for $560,000. Complementing the Fang-Betsi Ancestor Head, a full-figured cubistic Fang Reliquary Statue (estimate $250/350,000), previously in the collection of Gaston de Havenon sold for $475,000.

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