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19th Century Ethnographica heads for auction

28th August 2018. By Oonagh Drage

A powerful 19th century Ancestor Head, made by the Fang people of modern Gabon, is one of the highlights of the forthcoming Militaria and Ethnographic Sale at Tennants Auctioneers on 5th October. Consigned from a private collection, the head is offered for sale with an estimate of £2,000-3,000 plus buyer’s premium.

The Fang believed in the spiritual power of ancestral relics and developed an ancestral worship practice known as bieri. An itinerant people, migrating from area to area throughout the regions around modern Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, the Fang were unable to build permanent grave shrines; instead each family group kept a portable bark box filled with skulls and bone fragments of important ancestors.

Atop the reliquary was placed a carved head or figure, guarding the shrine from the forbidden gaze of women, uninitiated boys and intruders. The earliest of these ancestor figures were heads, such as the present lot, but busts and full figures began to appear from the early 20th century. Rather than represent a specific person, ancestor heads exemplified the qualities the Fang admired – tranquility, vitality and the ability to hold both in balance.

Whilst the Fang did not regard the wooden ancestor heads as sacred themselves, they were representative of the ancestral presence. The present lot is typical of Fang nlo bieri or reliquary statues, with its penetrating gaze from inset brass rivets, high-domed forehead and deep, glossy patination from the ritual anointing with palm oil.

From the same private collection also comes a 19th Century Yaure Carved Wood Mask from the Ivory Coast, said to have been purchased in 1913 from M.  Guernier, Administrator to the ‘Circle’ (District Commissioner) of Bouake, now the second largest city in the Ivory Coast (Estimate: £600-800 plus buyer’s premium). Other highlights of the Ethnographic Sale include a 19th Century Zulu Knobkerrie or Club made from rhinoceros’ horn (Estimate: £2,000-3,000 plus buyer’s premium) and a 19th Century Fijian Ula or Throwing Club made of patinate hard wood (Estimate: £1,500-2,000).

A fully illustrated catalogue for the sale of Militaria & Ethnographica will be available on our website leading up to the sale, alternatively, please contact the salerooms for further details.

Oonagh Drage

Oonagh Drage

Militaria, Ethnographica Specialist, General Valuer

+ 44 (0) 1969 623780

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