By: Joseph Jacobs
It was with good reason that the Portuguese, who in 1471 began trading with the Akan-speaking people of West Africa, gave the name “the Gold Coast” to the region today known as Ghana. Gold was both the spiritual and material foundation of the region, where vast quantities of the precious metals were mined from the rich forest soil between the Volta and Ankobra rivers. To weigh gold, the Ashanti, Fante, Baule and Anyi tribes, of what would become the Akan empire in the 18th century, developed so-called gold weights—small cast metal objects, generally brass, that were used from around 1400–1900.
Commerce in gold dust predates the arrival of the Portuguese. It began in the late 14th century, when Arabs established trade routes across the Sahara desert. This contact resulted in a need for an accurate system of measurement. From about 1400 until the arrival of the Portuguese, the Islamic ounce, based on the Byzantine and Roman ounce, was used, as well as another Islamic measure called the mithqal. With the Portuguese came the Portuguese ounce, and toward 1600 the Dutch introduced the heavier troy ounce. An Akan trader therefore had to have several sets of weights, one for each system.
The earliest weights were abstract. One type was a flat, slab-like bar containing geometric patterns reflecting Arab and Western designs in addition to African aesthetics. The other type is more three-dimensional; such weights took the forms of pyramids, squares, diamonds and stars. By the 17th century, representational gold weights had appeared, portraying figures, flora, fauna and artifacts, although abstract examples still predominated. Many scholars believe that a large number of the representational weights reflect Akan proverbs. A hornbill caught by a snake, for example, is an emblem of patience, since the snake has to await the bird’s landing; while a square knot reflects the adage that a knot tied by a wise man cannot be undone by a fool.
What makes these weights so remarkable is that they were made using the lost-wax casting process, usually reserved for much larger sculpture. While most works were the result of an artist shaping wax, some were made by casting actual objects, such as a chicken claw or a peanut. Since the mold is destroyed after the work is cast, every weight is unique, although the same motifs appear over and over. Some three million were produced until the British, who declared the Gold Coast a colony in 1874, brought an end to their use. Twentieth-century weights were made for the tourist trade and are aesthetically inferior.
While major collectors tend to ignore gold weights, preferring masks and figures, the diminutive artworks should not be overlooked. “It’s easy to appreciate the gold weights as forms because of their amazing diversity, artistry and whimsy,” says Carlo Bella, director of Pace Primitive in New York. “Their tiny stature engages you and begs you to get close in order to inspect the details. They are essentially miniature representations of Akan culture.”
Today, gold weights are somewhat scarce and hard to find at major galleries. Tim Teuten, head of African art at Christie’s Paris, notes that they “aren’t as fashionable as they were 15 years ago.” Occasionally, gold weights can be found at auction, with several grouped in a single lot. Arte Primitivo, for example, recently sold several lots in its online auction, and Sotheby’s New York will have a handful for sale this spring, with the average price per weight expected to be about $1,000.
Amyas Naegele, New York
Arte Primitivo, New York
Pace Primitive, New York