PARIS, Dec. 13, 2006—The sale of the Lebel Collection of American Indian masks by Calmels-Cohen at the Hotel Drouot in Paris on Dec. 4 was a major event for collectors in the field—and the interest was reflected in the high prices paid for the best examples.
Collector Robert Lebel, the writer and biographer of Marcel Duchamp, was a friend of surrealist poet André Breton, and both men shared a passion for Eskimo art, which they collected during their exile in America in the 1940s. They bought mainly at the New York gallery of Julius Carlebach, which Max Ernst discovered when he stopped in to try to buy a Haida spoon. When Lebel, Breton and other surrealists were collecting this type of art in the ’40s, it was virtually unknown to the market. They introduced it to Paris when they returned after World War II.
The collection auctioned off last week included six Pueblo masks from Arizona and New Mexico, as well as one Kwakiutl mask from British Columbia and nine Yup'ik Eskimo masks. Yu'pik masks from southern Alaska are made for propitiatory festivals associated with hunting and fishing and include depictions of a wide variety of beings, both natural and supernatural. Those were the stars of the sale.
Seven of the nine Yu'pik masks were bought by Canadian dealer Donald Ellis, who said that there will never be another sale like this one. The remaining two were preempted by the French government for the recently opened Musée du Quai Branly. It took a mask in the image of a diving bird for €363,388 (est: €120-150,000), and a wood mask representing a half-walrus/half-caribou for €599,266 (est: €120-150,000).
Among the masks that Ellis bought—both for clients and his own inventory—was a wooden mask representing a stylized human face, for which he paid €540,298, more than five times the high estimate of €100,000; and a mask in the shape of a bird's head, for €269,036 (est :€80,000-100,000).
In addition to their startling beauty, the Lebel masks have an illustrious provenance. Many of the pieces are well known, having been widely published and displayed in famous exhibitions at the Musée Guimet and Centre Pompidou in Paris, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The dispersal of Lebel's collection marks the end of sales from the period when tribal arts entered France.