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Pre-Columbian Art


2 PM, November 20, 2000

Sale 7556

Jama Coaque figural double vessel

Lot 228, a Jama Coaque figural double vessel, circa 500 B.C.-A.D. 500, 18 inches high

By Carter B. Horsley

For many years, Pre-Columbian Art auctions at Sotheby’s have had their own separate catalogues, but this year they have been incorporated into the back of other catalogues and given the same "sale" number, which is a bit confusing. Last Spring, it was combined with the American Indian Art catalogue and this fall it has been combined with the African and Oceanic Art catalogue.

The Pre-Columbian section of this catalogue has its own "front page" in the middle of the catalogue, but that is not quite the same thing as having a real "front page." Given the fact that there were 225 lots in the Pre-Columbian section of the auction, it could have had its own catalogue, but perhaps the absence of any "blockbuster" works explains why Sotheby’s has combined the two normally separate departments into one catalogue.

This has been a strange fall auction season that has witnessed the continued setting of record prices for some individual works but a high "buy-in" rate at many of the sales. Each department is a little different, of course, because of the general level of prices in a particular field sometimes attract different collectors than the "major" auctions. Normally, the best works are put into evening sales, but the remainder of the works in the "day" sales, which are much bigger in terms of the numbers of lots offered, often include some very fine pieces. Because the quality of works traditionally offered at evening auctions is normally very high, such evening auctions usually have fewer works that go unsold than the much longer and larger day auctions. Generally, a "good" auction will be one in which 85 to 90 percent of the offered lots sell with the majority within or above the pre-sale estimates. Very rarely do all lots sell, but it has happened.

This auction sold only 59.2 percent of the 225 lots offered, which is very poor, but some of the other auctions this season have even had lower rates, which is surprising as generally the estimates have been reasonable, the quality typical and the economy, while volatile, still relatively strong.

When a work of art does not sell, or "passes," or is "bought-in," its value is obviously diminished, but perhaps more importantly its owner is not likely to be able to sell it for more at auction for a few years, and the piece is considered "burned" in the marketplace because its failure to sell has become a matter of public information. Occasionally, works will be reoffered within the next few seasons but inevitably with lower estimates than initially given.

The auction specialists, of course, do not accept everything offered to them for auction and those that are accepted are given estimates that the specialists consider "reasonable" given current market conditions and knowledge, and past results of similar or related works. Over the last decade or so, the major auction houses have generally been quite conservative in their estimates, arguing with their consignors that lower estimates encourage more bidding and de-emphasizing the possible psychological impact of the estimates on potential buyers on the basis that knowledgeable buyers will have a good idea of what a piece is worth. Neither the consignor nor the auction house likes buy-ins, obviously, for economic reasons. For the consignor, the buy-in not only means no revenue but also incurs various charges such as insurance and photography and sometimes a fee for not selling.

The argument that buyers are not significantly influenced by estimates is questionable as most collectors are interested in more than one item in a particular auction and often have elaborate and complex "game plans" for bidding that they may adjust at the time of the sale depending on how the auction is going and whether they have "disposable" funds remaining.

In any event, the estimates are never casual and the auction houses have a pretty good overall record of accuracy, perhaps not for an individual lot, but for the entire auction. This season, however, many auction specialists have spoken about "competitive pressures" in the marketplace that have driven up estimates and resulted in more "buy-ins" than usual. The pressures result mostly from consignors arguing for higher estimates, and reserves, based on the recent escalation in art values in recent seasons, and from the entrance of a new competitor, Phillips Auctioneers, which has let it be known that it was willing to make pre-sale financial arrangements with consignors with regard to advances and guarantees. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been making such arrangements to get major consignments but they have been discrete in disclosing such arrangements. A third factor this season has been the litigation over collusion between Sotheby’s and Christie’s over fees that has resulting in very high fines that have significantly increased economic pressure on them to get more business and revenues and apparently weakened their resistance to consignors’ pleas for higher reserves and estimates.

While there has been no apparent fall-off in attendance at this season’s auctions, there has been a fall-off in bidding and a great many lots have been offered and received no bids at all, which is rather unusual and particularly difficult to reconcile with the fact that there does not appear to be a dearth of funds for some works. The argument that buyers have become more sophisticated and knowledgeable and are only interested now in top quality lots rather than good, decorative works and that speculation is on the wane sounds good, but too many fine, high-quality lots have not sold this season, possibly indicating that many formerly active buyers, possibly including dealers, are experiencing financial difficulties or concerns about the economy and the market.

Whatever the reason, the market now is very inconsistent and that is likely to make the next season even more difficult for the auction houses. Consignors like to have some confidence that their consignments will sell. It would be foolish to predict that the market is falling or that the auction houses will relinguish their large share of the art market to dealers, but it may well be that dealers will regain a more prominent position. Auctions offer consignors the prospect of a "quick sale" and in the escalating market of the past few years the prospect of getting very high prices whereas consignments with dealers sometimes take much longer to result in sales.

This auction had quite a few disappointments.

The "cover" lot, Lot 333, a "Fine Mayan Polychrome Vessel, Late Classic, circa A.D. 550-950, had an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000 and failed to sell. The handsome and colorful 5 ¼-inch high vessel had four images of the Hero Twins as scribe, each seated crosslegged with hands in gestures that creating circles.

Lot 304 is a Teotihuacan Mask, Classic, circa A.D. 450-650m whose superb condition made it look like it was made yesterday. The 8 ¼-inch high mask of a classic idealized face with a serene expression is surprisingly abstract and impressive. It had an estimate of $75,000 to $95,000 and it failed to sell.

Lot 266, a very dramatically abstract Olmec carved bowl, early Preclassic, circa 1200-900 B.C., had an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000 and failed to sell. The 5 1/8-inch high vessel had a deeply carved fold depiction of the dragon-serpent deity.

One of the most interesting works in the auction, Lot 228, a Jama Coaque figural double vessel, circa 500 B.C.-A.D. 500, shown at the top of this article, had an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000 and failed to sell. The catalogue gave the following description of this fascinating, 18-inch-high work: "the priest in an advanced stage of a ritual transformation invoking serpents, standing alertly with short arms raised and serpents forming the hands, the removable head with interior chamber forming a whistle and pieced at the back, the fact with broad protruding tongue applied with snakes, fangs at the side, bulging globular eyes with double-headed serpents as brows, wearing created headdress with beaded trim, multiple collars, and flaring belt similarly trimmed by beadwork and sinuous serpents, attached by three tubes and a strap-handle to a globular vessel at the back, the spout with slender snakes emerging and a crouching figure at the rim."

Lot 253, a green stone Costa Rican figural axe-god, Guanacaste/Nicoya region, circa A.D. 1-500, had an estimate of $8,000 to $10,000 and failed to sell despite its large size of 11 3/8 inches and nice detailing of a half-man, half-bird figure with headdress.

Other Costa Rican jade pieces fared better. Lot 256, a 6 ¾-inch-long jade pendant from the same region and era as Lot 253, was carved at each end with a stylized alligator head and sold with its estimate for $7,800; and Lot 257, a 5 ¼-inch axe-god piece possibly from the same culture sold within its estimate for $9,600. It was finely carved with a fierce human figure whose eyes peered out behind buccal style mask and wearing a patterned headband with addorsed bird heads.

Jal;isco female figure

Lot 288, a Jalisco Female Figure, El Arenal style, Protoclassic, circa 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 13 7/8 inches high

The illustration on the catalogue’s back cover was Lot 288, a Jalisco Female Figure, El Arenal style, Protoclassic, circa 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. The 13 7/8-inch high clay figure had an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 and sold for $58,250, including the buyer’s premium as do all results in this article. The work has a very sinuous and dynamic form and pose and a fine dark patina.

Veracruz polychrome jaguar

Lot 305, a Veracruz polychrome jaguar, Late Classic,circa A.D. 550-950, 24 1/4 inches

The most dramatic and spectacular work in the auction was Lot 305, a Veracruz polychrome jaguar, Late Classic, circa A.D. 550-950. This striking work is 24 ¼ inches high and shows a guardian effigy of the jaguar wearing a thick collar with a pendant and crouching on its rear haunches with forelegs straight to the front with claws flexed and mouth open baring fangs. It had an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 and failed to sell despite the fact that it is a stunning work.

Veracruz warrior, RemojadasVeracruz warrior

Lots 307 and 308, Veracruz warriors, Remojadas, Early Classic, circa A. D. 250-450

Lot 307, a Veracruz warrior, Remojadas, Early Classic, circa A. D. 250-450, had an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000 and sold for $13,200, but a smaller but very similar warrior, Lot 308, from the same collection had an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000 and passed. The pieces were unusually bold in that the warriors had elaborate ornamental clothing and helmets that were very light-colored in bold contrast with their black skin. Normally, a collector would not pass up the opportunity to have a "mate," especially at a reasonable price.

Lot 297, a Colima Figure of a Seated Woman, of the same period as Lot 288, is a delightfully stylized and finely modeled figure with a "thoughtful face," and a skirt incised with depictions of outstretched lizards. The top of the head has a spout and the figure had a good patina. It had an estimate of $45,000 to $65,000 and sold for $52,500.

Lot 317, a 55 ½-inch high Huastec limestone figure, Late Postclassic, circa A.D. 1200-1500, sold within its estimate for $75,500. The catalogue described the work as "the majestic human figure of stoic posture…[with] serene face with parted lips." The imposing piece, however, was not finely detailed.

A very impressive Honduran marble vessel, Ulua Valley, Early Postclassic, circa, A.D. 900-1200, Lot 337, sold for $52,500, just below its low estimate of $55,000. The 8 1/8-inch high white marble vessel, which was covered with nicely detailed geometric patterns, had a central panel of a stylized feline face with oval mouth with fangs and teeth, and had "robust" handles in the form of jaguars.

The auction had numerous gold pieces, the most spectacular of which was Lot 239, a pair of Narino ornaments, circa A.D. 500-1000 that were finely hammered disks with dramatically projecting human faces surrounded by a band of high domes. The lot sold for $14,400 within its estimate.

In recent years, Valdivia stone figures from Ecuador/Colombia that are thin and very abstract small sculptures have become quite popular with collectors. They are dated circa 2300-2000 B.C. Lot 225 had an estimate of $5,000 to $8,000 and sold for $11,400. The 13 ¼-inch high statue of a stylized avian figure was more detailed than most with a double row of knobs above the beak.

Chimu silver beaker

Chimu silver beaker, circa A.D. 1100-1400, 5 5/8 inches high

A charming 5 5/8-inch-high Chimu silver beaker, circa A.D. 1100-1400, in the form of a crouching human figure wearing a loincloth and headband had an estimate of $3,500 to $5,500 and sold for $9,000. Many of the gold pieces sold within their estimates, but good silver pieces are rarer on the market in recent years.

Mochica works have also become quite popular with collectors and Lot 202 surprisingly sold below its conservative estimate of $3,000 to $4,000 for $2,400. The 11-inch-high figure portrayed a naked male figure with abstractly demarcated ribs, and nose and ears pierced and attached with rings with flattened dangles and more dangles trimming the lower lip and flanking the nose.

Mochica copper mask, Loma Negra

Lot 348, an Early/Middle Mochica copper mask, Loma Negra, 300 B.C.-A.D. 300, 6 3/4 inches high

Lot 348, an Early/Middle Mochica copper mask, Loma Negra, 300 B.C.-A.D. 300, 6 3/4 inches high, shown above, is a damaged but powerful work that had an estimate of $3,000 to $5,000 and sold for $2,400.

See The City Review article on the Spring, 2000 Pre-Columbian Art auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1999 auction of Pre-Columbian Art at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the November 1998 Pre-Columbian Auction at Sotheby's


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