Thursday 23 November 2017

Treasures: Cash in on Oceanic art

Angolan chokwe is in the sale
Angolan chokwe is in the sale
I Am Its Secret

A few months ago, a private collector of Oceanic art happened to drop into the Ballyogan recycling centre. He was just disposing of his rubbish when he noticed a woman about to throw a Fijian war club in the skip.

The collector intercepted and, following a brief negotiation, the artefact changed hands. The war club is now in his collection and is valued between €300 and €500. It might, potentially, have been worth a great deal more.

This August, a Tongan war club dating from the 18th or 19th century sold at Marlow's in the UK for just under €22,000. The club, a South Pacific version of the shillelagh, was just under 3ft long and carved with stylised figures and patterns.

Earlier in the summer, a slightly larger Tongan war club with a spatula head sold in Sussex for €22,615. This marks a significant rise in the value of Oceanic art of the 18th and 19th centuries which, along with African and indigenous American art, is often referred to as 'Tribal Art'.

It is almost certain that a large number of tribal art pieces are lying neglected in houses around Ireland. Some pieces are almost worthless. But if your great grandfather fought in the Boer War, the mementos of his campaign may be very valuable indeed.

This is an area where provenance is particularly important and the greatest interest is in pieces that came from a known collector of the late 19th century or early 20th century. This summer, a number of pieces from the Denton-Miller collection were sold at Mealy's. Denton-Miller is a known collector, but because he amassed his collection of African art in the 1960s, individual pieces were mostly priced between €300 and €500.

One of the most valuable pieces in the collection, a particularly beautiful wood-carved Bambara sculpture of a breast-feeding mother and child, possibly from Mali or Guinea, is still available for €12,500. Its symbolism relates to motherhood, fertility and ancestral spirits. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, who did not menstruate, were seen as closer to death and more able to communicate with the spirit world.

The sculpture is certainly antique and probably by the same artist as its near twin in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which, according to George Gerard Mealy, is insured for six figures. "You could almost drop a zero from the price of the one we're selling because it comes from the Denton Miller collection and not from one of the early colonial collectors."

The auction at Mealy's also included a grisly nail fetish, a carved poppet into which nails were stuck by a witchdoctor with ill intent. Cavities in the figure contained the skin and hair of the victim and the red and white pigment around the eyes signified death and the power of magic. "We were so glad to get it out of the building," said Mealy. "You got a weird feeling off touching it." Remarkably, the fetish sold for €400 and remains in Kilkenny.

Some of the tribal art here was brought into the country by those Victorian Protestant missionaries that managed to avoid dying of malaria or yellow fever in Africa, or being boiled and eaten in the South Pacific.

"These tribes lived in total isolation from outside influences, without metal and using implements that were based on techniques that had been used for thousands of years. The moment Western culture came along, the reason for making that stuff was gone," says Stuart Purcell of Whyte's.

A late example of such an object, a stone adze from West Papua, was given to a UN official in the early 1970s by the Dani tribe to thank him for his help in teaching them how to use radio. It will be up for auction at Whyte's History, Literature and Collectibles sale on October 17 with a guide price of between €200 and €300.

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In the salerooms


The contents of a period house in Newbridge, Co Kildare, and of Hylands, Carrick Road, Dundalk will be auctioned in the Milltown Country Auction Rooms on Monday, September 14 at 5pm.

Fine furniture will include several Georgian pieces in mahogany: a bureau (€400 to €500); a tray-back sideboard (€400 to €500); a corner cabinet on a stand (€500 to €600); and an 18th century carved oak corner cabinet (€300 to €400).

Nineteenth century pieces include a carved oak coffer (€600 to €800); Victorian mahogany extending dining table with two extra leaves (€800 to €1,200); and a Victorian mahogany linen press on chest (€400 to €500).

Viewing is on Saturday September 12, 10am-6pm; Sunday, September 13, 12pm-6pm; and on Monday, September 14, 10am-5pm. For full details see


Clontarf Castle Antiques Fair takes place on Sunday, September 13 from 11am to 6pm and will include a selection of vintage movie memorabilia and graphic art from Jim Magill.

Along with the expected selection of classic posters from movies such as West Side Story and Midnight Cowboy, he will also be selling a linen-backed poster from the 1922 movie Shifting Sands, and a poster from the 1956 B movie, The Beast of Hollow Mountain. For further information call 087 2670607.


Results from the most recent auction of fine jewellery and silver, which took place at O'Reilly's Auction Rooms on September 3, included a diamond solitaire ring, the emerald cut diamond to tapered baguette diamond shoulders, which sold for €60,000; a diamond solitaire ring, the brilliant cut diamond mounted in yellow gold (€20,000); and a pair of diamond stud earrings, the old cut diamonds mounted in white gold (€8,000). The next auction will be on Wednesday, September 30, see


An auction of Irish and International Art will take place on Monday, September 14 at the RDS, Ballsbridge. It will include a pair of charcoal drawings by Paul Henry that have not been publicly seen in Ireland since the 1940s. Boy With A Flute (c.1910) and Woman With Fagots (1904) are each estimated to sell for between €15,000 and €25,000. The auction also includes Dalesman and Dewdrop (1950), by Basil Blackshaw (€15,000 to €25,000) and I am Its Secret (1993) by the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat (€3,000 to €4,000). See

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