Abelam Panel Abelam Panel Sotheby’s New York8 May 1996, lot 29 Ok, I guess you could say I am cheating a bit on this one because while I did not buy this ancient Abelam figurative panel at the Sotheby’s New York auction back in 1996 I did end up acquiring the sculpture about five years later; not from a fancy auction showroom but outside under the bright desert sun where it stood on the pool deck of the dealer Herb Baker’s Palm Springs home. That this masterpiece failed to sell at auction and was subsequently relegated to landscape decoration tell us a lot about the general appreciation of Abelam art. This sculpture is primoradial and iconic in both iconography and composition. Obviously created before contact with stone and non-metal tolls it has figures emerging in high relief from the roughly hewn surface. The central ancestral spirit is female with three smaller male children stacked below her sex. Surrounding her are birds probably symbolizing the natural world and above her head stand two hornbills—a classic totem for an Abelam clan. Each ancestral spirit’s eyes are closed and downcast as their gaze was considered too dangerous to behold. The sculpture would have been painted with magical pigments that have long since worn away. There are a number of reasons why I thought important to highlight this particular object. First, not all great things sell at auction—even those with fairly modest estimates such as the $12,000 to $18,000 on the particular figure. Secondly, the market is imperfect, things slip through the cracks. Abelam art suffered then as now by a surfeit of brightly painted, semi-authentic figurative sculptures produced in the 1950s and 1960s. This flood of mediocrity dulled the market’s appreciation for all Abelam art such that when a genuine historical piece showed up at auction it was greeted with a yawn. To this day I consider this sculpture one of the earliest and most quintessential figures of the entire Abelam corpus. You have to realize there really is no art historical record for Oceanic art, especially New Guinea art. We have centuries of records, commentary and appreciation of innumerable artists in all categories of Western art. In graduate school we learned certain medieval Italian artist’s work so thoroughly I could attribute an anonymous artist’s painting to a specific decade in the 14th century and the probable distance from Florence he worked by just looking at the style of face and the drapery of their robes. In New Guinea art we have nothing. Ancient, old, semi-old and relatively recent are jumbled together. Iconic and average sit side by side at auction. Great, good, mundane and masterpiece rub shoulders with nearly zero recognition of their differences. This is both an utter shame and an incredible opportunity. Take this art seriously. Western Europe did not have a monopoly on great artists—just their history. There were the equivalents of Rembrandts, Picassos and Van Goghs living, working and dying in the hot, humid New Guinea rainforests. Thankfully some of their creations have outlived them. Many are residing in museums, a few show up at auction, and some end up relaxing by the pool in Palm Springs.