Lower Sepik River Neckrest Christie’s New York, 22 November 1996, lot 220 Dream Piece #16 Lower Sepik River NeckrestChristie’s New York22 November 1996, lot 220 I have to admit that I started this DREAM PIECES section out of pure self-interest. I wanted to systematically go through the old auction records looking for amazing objects that I would have loved to have tried to acquire—notwithstanding the financial realities of the time. In doing so I hoped to train myself to recognize these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in real time so I would be able to gather my resources, fortify my resolve and go for broke—literally. As you might imagine, this is shockingly difficult to do. Maybe less so with this present neckrest as the Swiss collectors who ended up buying the piece at that Christie’s auction in 1996 had been acquainted with it for decades. As part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection they had seen the neckrest published several times and on a trip across the US in 1969 they had detoured through Chicago to see it in person. When the Art Institute decided to deaccession their Oceanic art collection and the neckrest came up at Christie’s New York in 1996 the couple were determined to get it. It did not come cheap—with buyer’s premium it cost $107,000—which equates to over $202,000 today. The neckrest is the masterpiece of four known of similar type and iconography—The Friede example at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is also superb. They are all attributed to the Lower Sepik River but the particular style of faces suggests, at least to me, of them originating on the coast at the mouth of the Ramu River—the rounded foreheads, naturalistic features and the stacks of shell nose rings are commonly depicted on masks from this region. The composition is intriguing and complex with multiple figures, heads and crocodile forms interlinked as in metamorphosis and transformation. The significance of the individual figures and the history they represent is unknown but what is equally fascinating is how this story might have related to the sleep and dreams of the man whose head used to rest upon it. The provenance is equally impressive. Before its time at the Art Institute of Chicago the neckrest was part of the groundbreaking Galerie Pigalle Oceanic art exhibition in Paris in 1930. It then sold at a Hotel Drouot auction in 1931 and subsequently into the collection of Georges de Miré before landing with Daniel Catton Rich—the director of the Art Institute of Chicago. At the Institute the neckrest was part of the wonderful “Art of the Sepik River” exhibition and catalog of 1971 by Allen Wardwell. What I tell my clients is to focus on acquiring the best object they can. Meaning, it is better to buy an A quality drum rather than a C+ figure. This neckrest represents the pinnacle of that philosophy. The artistry and spiritual punch that went into the neckrest far surpasses virtually all figures that I know from that area. The prevailing perspective that elevates figurative sculpture to the top of the New Guinea art hierarchy is artificial. Recognizing and appreciating masterpieces in whatever form present themselves is the ultimate skill. Being able to seize the moment when they show up in the market is even more difficult.