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The Wandering Eye Goes Ethno

Our blogger, interior designer Carey Maloney, and his partner Hermes Mallea, an architect, are principals in the M (Group).

On Friday January 15, Stair Galleries will have a two session “Asian and Ethnographic” sale.  Before Stair became so international, we grabbed some great buys there in the Ethno field.  The weekenders were focused on Ye Olde Americana stuff—the guy buying a weather vane wasn’t going to be fighting us for a Sepak Valley shield. Those days are gone—I fear Stair’s online presence will have us competing with dealers in Paris and Bruges. Oy.

This sale definitely falls into my “see it and touch it before bidding” category.  Failing that, break out the yard stick at home and mock up the dimensions—then call the gallery for condition reports.  There are four geese (lot 337) that, in theory, would be fun on a dining table or by a fireplace.  In fact, they are the size of calves—huge!  Who’d a thunk it? Try to preview the sale in person—avoid surprises.
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We’re great fans of Ethnographic art.  The first piece in our “collection” was a mask my parents brought me from Africa in the early ‘70’s.  As a college student, I bought and schlepped back a Bambara antelope from Cape Town. I cherished it until it got smashed in a move.  Maybe lot 479 is a replacement?

Ethnographic is defined as art produced by indigenous peoples.  Once we called it Primitive Art.  Now, in our post-Colonial world (some would argue Neo-Colonial) the PC term is Primary Art.  The Metropolitan Museum opts for the truly safe “Arts of Africa, the Americas, and Oceania.”

Assuming we all know what constitutes Africa (well - Sarah Palin was a bit confused on the continent versus country status…) and “the Americas,” most of us don’t know what makes up Oceania (love that name! Mythical.)  So here’s a map. 

Huge right?  Besides the geographic diversity, you have cultural diversity to the tune 800 different languages spoken in New Guinea.  (800?!?)  These little tribes would live tooth and jowl—villages within sight of each other—and could not speak any mutual languages.  Sounds like a recipe for chaos right?  Add cannibalism (still a “lifestyle”) to the fracas, and you’ve got a bunch of skittish natives.  Oh—and English is the national language, spoken by 1% (!?) of the populace.  What we have here is a failure to communicate…

The jewel in our personal Oceanic crown is a slit gong from Vanuatu.  These are the largest musical instruments in the world and were used to send messages from village to village or island to island.  Ours spent many years in the driveway of a client’s house in Hobe Sound (how cool is that??).  Now he holds court in our living room.  Those crazed whirl-a-gig eyes symbolize the morning star and the slit is the mouth.  One piece of wood, 14’ tall.  Kewl.

I’ll admit it—we buy for looks and price since we are not experts in this field.  Like anything else, if you look at things carefully and analyze condition with a bit of common sense (if this wooden statue had spent its formative years in a hut on the African veldt, would it look like this today?).  And only spend what it’s worth to you—then, even if it’s a fake, you can’t go wrong!

Lots of cultures fetishize statues and other objects believed to have magical powers.  There are a number of these in the sale and lot 385 says it all.

Materials used in making these fetishes may include blood, human hair (head hair and pubic hair), horns, shells, nails, feathers, mirrors, metal, twine, paint, cloth, raffia, fur, beads and herbs—anything thought to add power or magic.

While we’re on the fetish subject, what’s with Posh and these shoes???  Damn.  And David Beckham dressed up like a race track tout?  What a waste…
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I love “dress up”—Bantu Barbie guards our coat closet, which is sheathed in a Coromandel screen. She’s very multi-cultural.

One of our purchasing Rules of Thumb: always consider how the piece is mounted.  Pricey custom mounts (or frames or lamp bases…) imply the owner spent enough on the thing to warrant the expense of the mount.  People usually don’t spend big bucks displaying dreck.  (That said, I’ve been known to spent ten times the cost of the ‘art’ on a frame… So buyer beware at our House Sale!)

Case in point: Check out Lot 206 for the best mounting I’ve seen in a long time. This handsome little horse resides in a beautiful glass vitrine with bronze mounts.  It puts today’s Lucite boxes to shame.  The horse benefits from this guilt by association—Mrs. Warburg spent a bundle on the box so maybe she spent a bundle on the horse too!

For the best art mounting in New York City, go to William Stender—he is brilliant,  The Met uses him, every dealer we knows uses him, and his firm has a great website and catalog for off the rack things.  Put a little rock on a Lucite cube and suddenly it becomes an important little rock. 

Locally, our friend Jeff Budd at Budd Ironworks (518.325.3912) has worked his magic for us for years.  He got Bantu Barbie upright with a very clever cantilevering thingy…  (I can hear the screams from some dealers in Hudson as I give out his name. My theory on “trade secrets” is, spread the word and help our favorites get more work—keeps us all in business.)

There are some pre-Columbian (before 1492) things in Ethno sale.  I love Colima dogs—those fat little ancestors of my Pancho.  They were made as funereal offerings and were buried with Mayans so they’d have food in the afterlife (!?).  There are lots of fakes out there—every airport gift shop in Mexico features these puppies.  Pancho Senior came from our favorite dealer in pre Columbia stuff, Spencer Throckmorton, and hangs out in my dining room with the Japanese fox.

Stair’s lot 395 would be a perfect cacti container.

Lots 1- 130 are yet more beads and jewelry from the estate of the collector, Patti Cadby Birch.  Fun stuff.  We spent the holidays in Palm Springs and a friend took us two hours west to Quartzsite Arizona—the Brimfield of the rock and gem world.

OMG…Patti woulda gone nuts.  Over 1,500,000 people trek to the desert and wander acres of parking lots lined with trailers and tents full of rocks, gems, beads, Americana, Asian stuff.  Who knew? 

Our own Metropolitan Museum’s recently reopened Michael Rockefeller Wing is the nearest world class cache of Primary Art.  Michael Rockefeller disappeared in New Guinea while on a post-Harvard research trip in 1961. His camera was later found in a cannibal village, but his fate remains a mystery.

When you’re in Paris, do yourself a favor and visit the Musee Quai Branly.  Only the French can pull off such fantastic support of the arts…for Asian, visit the Musee Guimet—talk about great mounts, each piece is shown to perfection.  Helena Rubenstein’s world-class collection is housed in the little Musee Dapper and is well worth the time.

Rural Intelligence StyleFor books—I believe if you try any one of these, all by J. Maarten Troost, you’ll end up reading them all.  He is FUNNY.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu
Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 01/12/10 at 03:49 AM • Permalink