Louis Pierre Ledoux’s Collection of Sepik River Artifacts Comes to Auction

Liz Catalano
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This November, Willow Auction House will offer over 250 items from the anthropological explorations of Louis Pierre Ledoux. The young scholar set off for Papua New Guinea after graduating from Harvard University in the mid-1930s. Ledoux interacted with the Murik people of the eastern Sepik River region. He eventually gathered hundreds of artifacts from the Murik culture, as well as photographs and written observations. Ledoux never published the results of his expedition. Now, his extensive collection of artifacts and writings will come to auction for the first time in 85 years.

Front and back of Lower Sepik River figure, male kandimbong figures. Image from Willow Auction House.
Front and back of Lower Sepik River figure, male kandimbong figures. Image from Willow Auction House.

Kandimbong Figures

Willow Auction House notes that kandimbong figures hold a deeply spiritual role in Lower Sepik River cultures. Carved of wood and decorated with pieces of cloth, these figures typically represent ancestor spirits, mythical heroes, or important community leaders. Traditionally, Murik groups consult kandimbong figures for aid and knowledge. They frequently appear in ceremonial contexts or to guide dangerous endeavors.

This auction includes 15 kandimbong figures. One male ancestral kandimbong with a headdress and loincloth is notable (estimate: USD 20,000 – $30,000). The kandimbong has a pointed chin, markings around his neck, and fingers carved in relief. Other available figures have extremely long noses, spirals on their shoulder blades, or mask-like faces.

Lower Sepik River mask. Image from Willow Auction House.
Lower Sepik River mask. Image from Willow Auction House.

Carved Wooden Masks

In the villages and settlements surrounding the Lower Sepik River, carved masks can communicate stories and distinct ethnic identities. Many of these masks have exaggerated noses to signify masculinity. Other masks represent spirits of the land. The Murik people of the Lower Sepik region use these masks in religious ceremonies and place them around the home. The wearer can either place the mask directly on their face or attach it to a large basketry headdress. 

A selection of Sepik River masks from Louis Pierre Ledoux’s collection will be available in this auction. Among them is a painted wooden mask with a large nose, slanted eyes, and rattan decorations (estimate: $7,000 – $10,000).

Louis Pierre Ledoux’s manuscript, field diary, and notes. Image from Willow Auction House.
Louis Pierre Ledoux’s manuscript, field diary, and notes. Image from Willow Auction House.

Ledoux Manuscript and Notes

Before setting out for Papua New Guinea, Louis Pierre Ledoux consulted with other cultural anthropologists of the 1930s. Margaret Mead encouraged Ledoux to pursue fieldwork in New Guinea, sharing tips and information based on her own time studying the Sepik basin region. Ledoux also wrote to anthropologists E.W. Chinnery, Caroline Tennant Kelly, Bernard Mishkin, and Douglas L. Oliver. The upcoming auction includes much of this correspondence sent before and during Ledoux’s expedition. 

Ledoux’s unpublished manuscript is also on offer (estimate: $3,000 – $4,000). The extensive collection includes the anthropologist’s field notes, diary entries, and logs of items collected. Several pages bear penciled edits and annotations. Despite the extensive time and work that Ledoux invested in his study of the Murik people, the manuscript never saw publication. Ledoux instead joined his family’s metallurgy company, wrapped his massive collection and writings in newspaper, and stored the project for the rest of his life.

Louis Pierre Ledoux’s TNG-21 photos, enlargements, and film roll. Image from Willow Auction House.
Louis Pierre Ledoux’s TNG-21 photos, enlargements, and film roll. Image from Willow Auction House.

Photos and Enlargements

Beyond his field notes, Louis Pierre Ledoux meticulously documented his experiences in Papua New Guinea with his camera. He photographed local people, homes, tools, and nature views. The Murik people possibly established contact with foreigners as early as the 1600s. Though many Murik villages are geographically difficult to access, locals often interact with missionaries, foreigners, and curious anthropologists. Ledoux’s photographs add to the data collected by previous German and Dutch expeditions. The photos show the Murik people engaging in everyday chores, gathering for ceremonies, and standing for portraits. Bidders can consider several lots of photos taken by Ledoux, enlargements, and film rolls. Estimates for these photograph collections range from $500 to $1,000.

Murik basket bag with double handles. Image from Willow Auction House.
Murik basket bag with double handles. Image from Willow Auction House.

Basketry, Woven Items, and Crafts

Basketry and woven items play an important role in traditional Sepik River cultures. Men wear elaborate basketry masks, woven ritual headpieces, and other small items during initiations and ceremonies. Tight geometric patterns are particularly common. Women in Murik communities continue to weave detailed baskets and bags for trade, storage, gifts, and everyday use. The upcoming auction features a variety of woven items from the Murik culture. These detailed items bear triangular designs made from shades of brown and cream. One notable basket bag with double handles has a presale estimate of $200 to $400.

Louis Pierre Ledoux’s collection of Papua New Guinea artifacts and writings will come to the market with Willow Auction House on November 16th, 2021. Bidding starts at 12:00 PM EST. Interested collectors may participate online via LiveAuctioneers, Invaluable, Bidsquare, or the Willow Auction House website. Read Auction Daily’s preview of the sale for additional information.

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Liz Catalano
Liz Catalano
Senior Writer and Editor

Liz Catalano is a writer and editor for Auction Daily. She covers fine art sales, market analysis, and social issues within the auction industry. She regularly collaborates with auction houses and other clients. A Chicago native, she holds a BSW degree and is based in Pennsylvania.

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