By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
It’s a good time to be a collector of tribal art. Just six months after major pieces from the late Frieda and Milton Rosenthal’s collection fetched $10.8 million at Sotheby’s New York, the auction house is preparing for another promising sale drawn from the holdings of the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation. Sotheby’s estimates that the 81 lots will bring $3–4.4 million on May 15. Gross, an Austrian-born sculptor who emigrated to New York in 1921, was among the earliest American collectors of tribal art, stuffing his Greenwich Village home with magnificent African and Oceanic objects. (The house, which is open by appointment, was the subject of Art & Antiques’ March 2008 cover story.)
“Chaim Gross was not one of the artists who was inspired by African art in his own work—he didn’t carve in the African style,” says Heinrich Schweizer, head of Sotheby’s African and Oceanic art department. “He was fascinated that African artists working in wood faced the same challenges that he did as a Western artist.”
The sale will disperse the cream of Gross’ collection, including items he purchased in the early 1940s from Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, another pioneering collector. Among the leading lots are a Senufo kneeling female figure expected to garner $250,000–350,000 and a Ngbaka male ancestor figure estimated at $400,000–600,000. Schweizer says the humble posture of the Senufo figure, which was made by a tribe from what is now the Ivory Coast, “is unique for Senufo art, and to my knowledge, unique to art in western Africa.” The Ngbaka sculpture, from the Ubangi region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was one of Gross’ favorites. “It’s of an exceptional artistic quality, very sculptural,” says Schweizer. “The degree of naturalism is very unusual in Ngbaka sculpture, which tends to be more abstract.”
Mimi Gross, Chaim and Renee’s daughter and president of the foundation’s board of directors, handpicked the works that will go to auction. She says the sale is a necessity; without it, the institution would likely have had to close. The proceeds will replenish its endowment and underwrite plans to invite lecturers and offer sculpture classes. (Gross says the auction house gave the foundation an advance against the sale.) “We’ll still have hundreds of African art pieces—for research and for ambience—to make the house look the way it always looked,” she says, adding, “I hope the works go to good homes.”
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