Dream Piece #13 Coastal Sepik/Ramu River Mask Dream Piece #13 Coastal Sepik/Ramu River MaskLoudmer Auction, Paris, 24 November 1988, Lot 161 Even though this mask is one of my ultimate Dream Pieces I sleep easy at night knowing there was zero chance I could have won it at the Loudmer Auction in Paris on 24 November 1988. Not only did it sell for a shockingly high 420,000 French Francs at the time but I know the eventual buyer, John Friede, would have bid much higher if need be. At the time Friede was intent on building the best New Guinea art collection in the world and this mask would be a centerpiece. While most of us would be happy with an early pre-colonial era Sepik mask that is classic, authentically used, and beautiful; this mask goes further, much further. It is what I call a category breaker—something so beyond what is expected and known that it breaks that particular object category wide open. It expands what is known to be possible for such masks that come from the low-lying coastal villages between the mouth of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik and Ramu Rivers—an area known to produce masterpieces. When our basis of understanding a particular art style begins with objects collected between the 1880s and 1914—that period of primarily German ethnographic collecting—then how do we asses or understand objects of obviously much earlier manufacture? I know we must take Carbon-14 dating results post-1700 with a grain of salt but when Friede tested this mask the results came out 1650 to 1820. In my opinion this sounds very plausible. I would have guessed the mask’s age being between three and ten generations prior to what was being made and used in the 1880s—and this carbon dating range fits that assessment. While we can’t know how many generations prior to contact this mask began its life we can still marvel at its otherworldly appearance. I mean, my God, look at the volumes. The mere depth of the mask should blow your minds. The deep-set eyes, the pointed overhanging brow, the bent long nose and the tiny, pursed mouth are all taken to their extremes. Notice the ears and other forehead loops for shell attachments long broken off but still pigmented over suggesting the mask had transformed from something danced to something venerated on a shrine. I am often asked why the insistence on age? Why prioritize the earliest objects over more recent creations? Well, this mask answers those questions. Not all old pieces are great, far from it, but once in a while something like this mask surfaces that strikes a powerful chord in our shared humanity—a basic, primeval respect, fear and astonishment. The mask’s provenance is equally superb being ex. George de Miré Collection and then Tristan Tzara Collection. It was part of the influential exhibition “Afrique Océanie” at Galerie Pigalle in Paris in 1930 and later sold at Drouot auction on May 7, 1931. The 420,000 French Francs it sold for back in November of 1988 equates to roughly $173,000 today—a very significant amount but a small fraction what this mask would fetch today if its present owner, the de Young Museum, would make the mistake of parting with it. Anonymous (attributable to Delamare or Collemant - View of the Africa and Oceanic art exhibition at the Gallery of the Théâtre Pigalle, Paris, March 29, 1930. Positive stereoscopic view. 6 x 13 cm. © Collection of the Société française de photographie (coll. SFP), DSCN9799.