What’s a Sepik Figure Worth?
What’s a Sepik Figure Worth?
By Michael Hamson
Ancestral spirit figures from the Sepik River Basin are some of the most iconic and sought-after pieces of Oceanic art. Their anthropomorphic forms satisfy our preconceived notions of what a sculpture should look like, while their often-otherworldly demeanors excite our love of the wildly different and imaginative. As a group, these figures range from solid, straightforward examples to ancient pre-contact masterpieces of awe-inspiring power and elegance. But how exactly do these differences in aesthetics and age translate into differences in financial value? Let’s look at the auction results of eight Sepik figures from the full spectrum of the market to determine what factors warranted the price realized.
For the purposes of this exercise, I have selected the popular figure style with long nose that comes from the coastal area at the mouths of the Sepik and Ramu Rivers (which are only 10–15 miles apart). The eight figures range in size from 5” to 13” in height—so they’re relatively small.
Figure #1 sold on July 3rd, 2020, for $125. The main reasons the piece sold at such a modest value are fairly simple, as most of you could probably guess—the piece is neither old nor authentic. It is a common made-for-sale version crafted by carvers at the mouth of the Ramu River. So while stylistically correct, it lacks the soul and artistic intent of an authentic piece of tribal sculpture.
The second illustrated figure sold on March 7th, 2020, for 738 euros. With its deep-set but slightly bulging eyes, I would place this stylistically from Manam Island just off the mouth of the Ramu River. While hardly a masterpiece, it has the benefit of being 100% authentic with some real age—probably 1920s. There is no guile here—no forced beauty or false age—just a respectable, honest figure at what should be considered a rock-bottom price for a piece of authentic Sepik figurative sculpture.
The next is quite nice. Figure 3 has a towering headdress, good, clear expression and is very competently carved. It is completely authentic and classic from the German colonial era—pre-WWI. It sold for 5,000 euros on November 22nd, 2017, which is a very fair price for a figure of this quality and age. That it didn’t sell for higher is probably because it is metal-carved and from the post-contact period. Nonetheless, this is of a quality most collectors would be pleased to have join their collection.
Figure 4 sold last year at Sotheby’s as part of the Harry Franklin Collection. While small, it is powerfully built with nice full volumes. It is pre-contact and stone-carved, which explains its jump in price to $9,375. It is hard to overstate the importance of a New Guinea object being pre-contact. One of the reasons we collect Oceanic art is for the object’s connection to the culture and people who produced it. The art serves as a physical representation of a place, an era and belief system that we find enchanting and worthy. Pre-contact objects just take that connection to a deeper, sometimes unimaginable, level. So while this figure would not be considered a masterpiece, it has that undeniable presence of stone-age New Guinea.
I have not seen figure #5 in person, so I cannot say for sure whether it is pre-contact and stone-carved, but I would give it the benefit of the doubt based purely on the form, the style and the expression of intent and menace. Here we see the potential of greatness with an overly large head slung low on the chest in a display of power. This definitive tilt toward sculptural importance justifies in my mind its 18,750-euro price paid in June of 2017.
Figure #6 is a real beauty. It has everything one would want in a Sepik sculpture. It is clearly pre-contact and stone-carved with smooth surfaces totally devoid of any hint of metal tool marks. The form is well executed by a master carver with a sure and deft hand. The head is large and low on the chest, there are tiny piercings for the ears and it goes without saying the nose is pierced. The volumes are in all the right places—the head, broad shoulders, chunky calves. The arms nice and thin—not exactly sure why the oldest New Guinea figurative sculptures often had wimpy arms. … Nonetheless, this is a near-perfect example of classic Sepik/Ramu art. And to top it off, the tiny bead eyes produce a laser-beam gaze of mesmerizing focus. This figure sold in November of 2017 for 37,500 euros—a bargain.
One of the aesthetic criteria I have mentioned in the Aesthetics section of my website is the quality I call Departures from the Norm. Figure #7 rises high above 99% of Sepik/Ramu figures on the strength of this particular quality. The form is truly amazing, with its huge head that swells from the lower back up and over like a crashing wave. There is an ingenuity in the composition that makes you scratch your head at the mind of the carver. It is that aesthetic sense of surprise and admiration that elevates this to the masterpiece level that warranted a price of 62,000 euros back in October of 2018.
The final figure for this discussion, #8, is truly in a class unto itself and its selling price of $56,250 in May of 2014 was a steal at the time. If one wants to collect at the highest level, you must be alert when a truly remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime piece comes around. Then you just have to be willing to bid one time more than anyone else. This figure, while diminutive in height at 5”, is a powerhouse of art. It is unquestionably pre-contact and stone-carved, as evidenced not only by the absence of straight lines but, more importantly, by the brutal archaic quality of the form where the classic traits of large low-slung head and tapered limbs are taken to unheard of limits. Great art doesn’t just meet our expectations, it redefines them. A figure like this reminds us of what is possible in New Guinea art, and for this, you must be willing to suffer the pain of your bank account being squeezed to zero.
I would like to thank Aurélien Cuenot and Artkhade for permission to use their images and auction results.
27 July 2020