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ANTIQUES; For Sale: African Art, In Abundance

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): June 22, 2001, Friday    
ANTIQUES; For Sale: African Art, In Abundance     By Wendy Moonan    .

June 22, 2001, Friday

ANTIQUES; For Sale: African Art, In Abundance

By Wendy Moonan

''You have to know how to get rid of ideas that turn out to be wrong,'' said Hubert Goldet (1945-2000), a Parisian who collected contemporary paintings as a young man, then switched to African tribal art for the rest of his life.

A dedicated aesthete, he was 26 when he bought his first piece of African sculpture. By the time he died he had accumulated 640 African objects -- masks, jewelry, reliquaries, statues, beadwork and textiles -- in his Paris apartment. In 1979 he told a reporter at Arts d'Afrique Noire, ''Today, if I were to no longer collect tribal art, I think that I would not collect anything.''

Mr. Goldet's collection of African tribal art, considered one of the most important in the world, will be auctioned on June 30 and July 1 in Paris. Because it is too large to be displayed properly in the salesrooms of Drouot, the auctioneer Fran‚ois de Ricql²s has organized the sale at the Maison de la Chimie, 28 Rue St. Dominique, in the seventh arrondisement near Les Invalides. The viewing is on Thursday and next Friday. The 400-page catalog, in French and English, costs about $60. It can be viewed at (information: 011 331 4874 3893).

''He bought things up until three months before he died,'' said Alain de Monbrison, a Parisian friend and the owner of Galerie Alain de Monbrison. ''He sold fewer than 10 objects over the 30 years he collected.'' In 1999 he donated three pieces to the Louvre.

Mr. de Ricql²s expects the auction to total at least $5.3 million, and the figure could go higher. Many of Mr. Goldet's works came from well-known early French and Swiss collectors, including Maurice Nicaud, Henri Kamer, Charles Ratton, Robert Duperrier and Pierre V´rit´. Several of the pieces have been exhibited in museums. ''This is the most important public sale of African art since the New York auction of the Helena Rubinstein collection in 1966,'' Mr. de Ricql²s said.

Mr. de Monbrison, who served as an expert for the Goldet sale, said, ''It is a unique collection in terms of its quality, quantity and diversity.''

It was perhaps inevitable that Hubert Goldet would collect something. He came from a family whose fortune was made in banking and oil, and he grew up with Impressionist paintings. He wanted to be involved in the art world from an early age. After spending time in the sales department of one of his family's businesses, he quit to study at the Ācole du Louvre. In 1968 he joined Sotheby's in London, writing catalogs in the Impressionist and Modern Art department.

In 1971 he returned to Paris to become the founding editor of Art Press, a contemporary art monthly. He accumulated paintings by Dubuffet, Tapi²s, Alexander Calder and contemporary American artists.

He left the magazine in 1974 to devote himself fully to African art. He took his new passion very seriously, spending hours at the Mus´e de l'Homme, studying books, visiting primitive art galleries and attending auctions. He amassed an important library on African art, which he later donated to the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, scheduled to open in 2004.

''He was fascinated by this 'total art' that conferred enormous beauty on ordinary household utensils and ritual and religious articles,'' Mr. de Monbrison said. He bought very rare Dogon, Punu, Kota, Fang and Baule sculptures as well as everyday objects like arm and ankle bracelets, stools and headrests.

In the 1970's African art was a stepchild in the art world. There was a prejudice against it because it is not made as art and it is rarely signed or dated. ''The notion of authenticity, when it concerns Western painting and works of art, is based on a knowledge of the identity of the artist and that the piece in question was executed during a certain given period,'' wrote Lynne Thornton in an article about the Goldet collection in the February 1981 Connoisseur Magazine. ''Here, the sculpture is not only anonymous but its age is generally of little importance.''

For Ms. Thornton, authenticity in black African sculpture means that the object was made with a ritualistic significance (not for tourists) and shows signs of wear. The masks and figures that Mr. Goldet bought all have patina. They were used in daily rituals, festivities, funerals and fertility rites.

African sculpture is made by animists who confer a soul on inanimate objects, even tools and spoons. The materials employed include terra cotta, stone, iron, wood, bronze, gold and ivory. In his 1968 book ''African Art,'' Pierre Meauz´, curator of the Museum of African and Oceanic Art in Paris, wrote about how Africans view raw materials: ''Since wood is a living material, it is felt that the masks and statuettes derive their magical power from the branch or trunk of a tree whose roots drew nourishment from the earth. Such a process is not so much sculpture as the transmutation of power through the modification of form.''

Lot 205 in the sale, a female Baule Kpan mask from Ivory Coast, is a good example of how objects can be imbued with magic. Totally arresting, the 18-inch-tall carved wood mask has closed eyes, a long, sharp nose and a small oval mouth with teeth showing. Its high headdress is a mix of carved braids and chignons. The cheeks and forehead are scarified with beadlike decoration. Though slightly cracked, in its simplicity it is riveting.

The catalog reports that such masks are used as part of a masquerage, a daylong performance in which an entire village marks the death of a notable or an important celebration. The piece is considered very rare, and the estimate is $200,000 to $266,666.

African art was not particularly popular in the 1970's, so Mr. Goldet initially did not find it difficult to purchase pieces from galleries and other collectors. He was also lucky to be able to buy newly imported sculptures. In the 1970's, African art was coming into Europe with immigrants from the African colonies as they achieved nationhood. There were few rules on exporting African art.

''In most of the former French colonies, you now need a permit to export art,'' Mr. de Monbrison said. ''But it's really too late. Most of the important objects left Africa long ago. In the countries where Islam has been embraced, the destruction has been huge.''

Mr. Goldet shared his collection with few people. Photographs of his apartment show shuttered windows and an assortment of good 18th-century French antiques covered with statues, sculptures and objects. What could not be placed on furniture ended up on the floor.

Those in Paris for the Goldet sale can also see Dogon masks at Galerie Jean-Jacques Dutko, in a show celebrating the publication of ''Masques du Pays Dogon,'' published by Adam Biro. Sotheby's May 19 sale of African and Oceanic works in New York totaled $6.8 million. (Christie's did not have an African art sale this spring.) And the Brooklyn Museum of Art has reinstalled 250 works from its substantial African holdings, making it much easier to study the art. Mr. Goldet was, predictably, ahead of his time.

Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:
Art; Auctions

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Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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