Sotheby’s Brings Key African Statue to Marquee Contemporary Art Sale, Secures Works from Sidney and Bernice Clyman Collection


May 27, 2020 12:13pm

The Fang-Betsi reliquary statue headed to Sotheby’s in June.COURTESY SOTHEBY’S

As auction houses announce highlights for their marquee sales this summer, Sotheby’s has revealed that one of the lots due to appear in its contemporary art evening sale next month wasn’t even produced in the past century. In that sale, dated for June 29, the house will offer a Fang-Betsi reliquary head, which will appear alongside masterpieces by postwar giants like Francis Bacon, Richard Diebenkorn, and others.

The statue, which hails from the collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman, a prominent New York couple whose holdings are rich in both African and 20th century art, is expected to reach $2.5 million–$4 million. Sotheby’s also confirmed that it has secured the Clymans’ African art collection for a dedicated sale to take place on June 30. Select paintings from the Clymans’ holdings will also be sold in the contemporary art day and evening sales, as well as the impressionist and modern and American art sales during the week of June 29.

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In a statement, Alexander Grogan, head of Sotheby’s Oceanic and African art in New York, said that the statue can be considered a direct influence on work by European modernists such as Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. “The Clyman Fang head is one of the finest examples of classical Fang sculpture, which is quintessentially pre-modern African sculptural style and one of the first to arrive in Europe,” he said. “Traditional African Art and Fang Art in particular was a key catalyst to the ‘discovery’ of so-called modernist aesthetics by the early 20th-century European avant-garde, including the cubistic principles promoted by Picasso and Braque; as well as the liberating geometric sculptural abstraction of Brancusi and Modigliani.”

In the June 30 sale of works from the Clyman collection, 32 works of African art, among them a notable group of reliquary figures, will be on offer. The top three leading lots include Kota and Fang art figures valued between $250,000–$700,000.

The 19th-century statue carries a significant provenance history, having been first exhibited publicly in Paris by scholar Charles Ratton in 1931, then later sold to James Johnson Sweeney, a prominent curator at the Museum of Modern Art who included the statue in a 1935 exhibition at the New York institution. It has come up for auction twice in its history, first at Sotheby’s in 1986 through the sale of the Sweeney’s estate, then in 1992, where it was acquired by the Clymans.

“The Clyman Fang Head transcends categories,” said David Galperin, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art evening auction in New York. “Beyond its renown as a legendary icon of classical African art, what struck me about this singular sculpture when I first saw it in the Clyman home alongside their collection of postwar art was how its form appeared so radical and purely modern.”

The Clymans amassed their collection beginning in the 1970s, working with prominent dealers such as Gaston de Havenon and Allan Stone, as well as musician and tribal art collector Merton D. Simpson. The Clymans’ collection also includes works by foremost 20th-century artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Jean Dubuffet, Franz Kline, and Nicolas de Staël.

The practice of offering older works in contemporary art evening auctions was made popular by the 2017 sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvador Mundi at Christie’s. The strategy appeals to high-profile cross-categorical collectors and uses the marquee platform to reach a vast global audience.

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