Get behind the mask
This Malekula figure is expected to fetch between $200 and $400 at next month’s auction.
Plumes and pearlshells, the recent Art Gallery of NSW exhibition devoted to the art of the New Guinea Highlands, was largely the product of private collector Stan Moriarty, who sourced most of what was on display in the 1960s.
Those who saw the exhibition and left thinking how cool it would be to have, for example, a PNG Timbu wara spirit figure in their living room, will be interested in the sale of David Baker’s collection by Theodore Bruce Auctions on September 8.
Experts rate the David Baker collection as one of the most significant in Australia. He was president of the Oceanic Arts Society until his death in 2009. This auction covers items from his expeditions to Vanuatu, the Trobriand Islands and New Ireland. It’s the first part of what should be a series of sales, such was the size of his collection.
A large Malekula figure, from Vanuatu with an estimate of between $500 and $700. Lot 75_01_sml.jpg
Baker grew up in Brisbane, where his father ran radio station 4BC. Baker first worked for 2UW in Sydney (the sister station of 4BC) then became media manager for the Hansen-Rubensohn-McCann-Erickson advertising agency.
In 1976, he started his own agency, Schofield Sherbon Baker, with Leo Schofield and David Sherbon. When this business was bought out by the Dentsu corporation, Baker found himself with the time and money to concentrate on his lifelong fascination with the art of the Pacific nations.
He went on collection trips in Papua New Guinea, the Trobriand Islands and Vanuatu, especially the islands of Malekula and Ambrym, where he sourced a large body of art and artefacts.
This 70cm-wide New Ireland ceremonial disk, is tipped to make about $200.
Baker sensed a business opportunity and part of what he collected was sold through the New Guinea Gallery he set up in Surry Hills in Sydney. This gave him an excuse to continue travelling and collecting in the Pacific.
Through the gallery, he sold arts to many important collectors and institutions, notably the National Gallery of Australia. It displayed several items in their Kastom: Art of Vanuatu exhibition in 2013.
Many pieces of similar museum quality will be offered at the Theodore Bruce sale. The catalogue includes intricate Malangan sculptures, Massim splashboards and a wide range of masks, figures and massive drums from Vanuatu.
A Malangan figire from New Ireland. Yours for between $400 and $600.
There are serious collectors of this material around the world, which sells for serious money at auction. Bonhams New York holds an annual sale dedicated to African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art. It recently sold a ceremonial paddle from the Austral Islands for $US16,250 ($17,400).
One of the highlights from the Theodore Bruce sale is a monumental Vanuatu slit drum, which stands about five metres tall. Estimates are $2000 to $3000. Another desirable object is a Malekula Ramparang figure, valued at $800 to $1200. All lots are being sold without reserve.
The Sydney auction is curated by indigenous and oceanic art specialist James Elmslie. He first travelled to PNG in 1983, eventually setting up a tourist lodge on the Sepik River.
For him and most other collectors, the fascination with tribal art is in its connection to ritual and ceremonies; what he describes as the “unknowableness which we as outsiders will never quite understand”.
He notes that tribal warfare continues to this day in many parts of the Pacific region, and rituals are still woven into their society and culture. Part of this is what he calls the warriors’ “ceaseless desire for prestige through extravagant body adornment”.
Some of the David Baker collection was made for him by tribal elders according to traditions dating back thousands of years. Yet it’s likely that many of these objects will be traded over the internet via the invaluable auction network. At Elmslie’s last auction of tribal art, more than half of the lots were sold to internet bidders, including some sitting at computers in Bora Bora and Honolulu.
The David Baker Collection of Oceanic Art (Part One) will be sold by Theodore Bruce Auctions, 6 Ralph Street, Alexandria, Sydney on September 8 at 6pm.
Online catalogue from www.theodorebruceauctions.com.au