Pre-Columbian Art


June 2, 1999

Huari inlaid figure of a dignitary

Lot 17, a rare Huari inlaid figure of a dignitary,

South Coast, Middle Horizon, circa A.D. 600-1000,

4 inches high, mussel shell, turquoise, greenstone,

lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl and silver

By Carter B. Horsley

Pre-Columbian Art is one of the few major collecting areas that has not witnessed significant price increases in recent years, probably reflecting the double-whammy of lingering concerns about forgeries in the field, instabilities in some Latin American economies, and growing national concerns about retaining their artistic patrimony within their borders.

This auction did not have too many spectacular works but fared reasonably well, selling 77 percent of the 416 lots offered. "This was an extremely successful sale indicating that interest in Pre-Columbian art remains high," Stacy Goodman, the director of the Sotheby’s Pre-Columbian Department, said after the sale, adding that "top quality objects with excellent provenance continue to sell extremely well."

Lot 17, a rare Huari inlaid figure of a dignitary from the South Coast, Middle Horizon, circa A.D. 600-1000, was the cover illustration of the catalogue and the most spectacular lot in the auction. It sold for $233,500 (including the buyer’s premium as do all sales prices in this article), more than three times it low estimate of $75,000.

The exquisite 4 inch high figure, shown above, is, according to the catalogue, "the only known example of a freestanding figure entirely covered by inlaid shell technique....This figure is a classic example of the Huari use of small portable objects (including textiles, ceramics), to convey religious iconography and social status. The garment prominently worn by the dignitary emulates the carefully interlocking weave using formal geometry and a play of dual images in a repetitive, yet unified and fluid composition."

The inlays on the piece, which was acquired by a private Latin American collector, include mother-of-pearl, mussel shell, turquoise, greenstone, lapis lazuli and silver.

Such a precious piece is infinitely more delightful than the more common Pre-Columbian gold pieces, several of which were in the auction and generally sold within their estimates. Lot 34, for example, a very impressive but not too decorative Calima gold tweezer, circa A.D. 200 - 400 and 8 1/4 inches long, sold for $34,500 and had a low estimate of $30,000.

Not all the most attractive works were so costly. Lot 4, for example, shown below, is a very fine and large copper Early.Middle Mochica mask, circa 300 B.C. to A.D. 300. Estimated at $10,000 to $15,000, it sold for $23,000. While it was missing the traditional large nose piece and the eyes did not have inlaid pieces of shell as many such works do, this was in very good condition otherwise and was particularly expressive.

Large Mochica copper mask

Lot 4, large Early/Middle Mochica copper mask,

circa 300 B.C. - A.D. 300, 13 inches wide

Even more reasonable but also very impressive was Lot 30, a Chorrera/Valdivia stone mortar, circa 1500-500 B.C., shown below. The 7 3/4 inch long work in the stylized form of a puma sold for $13,800, well above its $9,000 high estimate.

Chorrera/Valdivia stone mortar in form of a puma

Lot 30, a Chorrera/Valdivia stone mortar in the stylized form of a puma,

circa 1500-500 B.C., 7 3/4 inches long

A nice, typical Quimbaya seated male figure, Lot 31, circa A.D. 1000-1500, one of the most popular and attractive examples of Pre-Columbia art, sold for $3,450, more than twice its low estimate, a reasonable level that has held relatively constant over the past few years. The price for this 12 1/2 inch high figure is a good indication of how the market is moving upwards, although the fact that this piece still had a large gold nosering indicates that it is still rather reticent compared to some other fields.

Lot 43, a Costa Rican Jade figural axe-god, possibly Guanacaste/Nicoya region, circa A.D. 1-500, 7 1/8 inches long, sold for $20,700, well over its high estimate of $12,000, probably reflecting its good size, a recent major exhibition on Costa Rican art, and its fierce face with triple serpent-like tongue and headband decorated with opposing alligator heads.

Another Costa Rican piece, Lot 47, was consigned by the High Museum of Atlanta and sold for $9.775, almost double its $5,000 high estimate. It was a stone effigy mace head, Chorotega region, circa A.D. 1-500 and was 4 3/8 inches high.

Surprisingly, however, a good Costa Rican stone effigy metate in the form of a jaguar from the Atlantic Watershed, circa A.D. 1000-1500, sold for only $4,025, just over its $4,000 high estimate. This low, curved table was only 20 1/2 inches long while many other tables are about twice as long, but almost all are very impressive.

Olmec vessel with pinched top from Guerrero region

Lot 66, an Olmec incised vessel with pinched top of translucent creamy aragonite

from the Guerrero region, Early Preclassic, circa 1200-900 B.C., diameter 9 3/4 inches

A marvelous and very impressive, rare Olmec incised vessel of translucent creamy aragonite from the Guerrero region, Early Preclassic, circa 1200-900 B.C., Lot 66, shown above, sold to an American "institution" for $101,500, nicely over its $90,000 high estimate. The work, 9 3/4 inches in diameter, had an impressive exhibition history and was once in the Alice Kaplan collection. The light-colored stone vessel had a pinched top and a slightly rounded bottom with a deeply incised continuous band, the catalogue noted, of "four repeated segments incorporating an elongated s-scroll surrounded by symmetrically opposed forked motifs (possibly snake tongues) and sprouting elements, separated by recessed squares, with each end carved with a pair of bold zigzag motifs with the outside edge of wavy design, vertically flanking a recessed square, the rim with six small scrolled elements linked by an incised line, with extensive remains of thick, bright red pigment in the carved areas."

Two Late Classic, Mayan depictions of dignitaries, circa A. D. 550-950 were among the highlights. Lot 169 was a fine polychrome stucco head of a dignitary, 16 3/4 inches high, that was formerly in the Alice Kaplan collection and sold for $145,500, more than twice its $70,000 high estimate. Lot 177, an excellent, 10 1/2 inch high statue of a full-figure statue with a very dynamic pose from Jaina, sold for $200,500, well past its $120,000 high estimate.

Among the disappointments of the sale was Lot 81, a West Mexican stone mask, Colima/Jalisco region, Protoclassic, circa 100 B.C.- A.D.250, 5 5/8 inches high, that failed to sell and had a low estimate of $35,000. The finely carved mask in a luscious dark green stone was impressive and interesting because of the almost abstract slit cuts for the eyes and mouth.

Lot 131, a Zapotec figural urn, Monte Alban IIIB, circa A.D. 450-650, 17 inches high, modeled in the form of a dignitary with outstretched arms and a large headdress, failed to sell and had a $30,000 low estimate.

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

See The City Review article on the November 1998

Pre-Columbian Auction at Sotheby’s

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