The name of the late London dealer Ernest Ohly, who enjoyed international renown during his lifetime, was on everyone’s mind at one of 2013’s first major provincial sales.
The items from his estate which dominated
the January 8 sale at
Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury - a £410,000 event described
by auctioneer Will Hobbs as their best-ever traditional year-opener
- of course featured much of the tribal art with which the family
name is almost synonymous.
Not only did it sell very well, it
underlined the prospects for British auctioneers in a specialist
field which has largely been left to Paris and New York in recent
As ATG readers will have seen, tribal art
has made a number of very successful appearances at provincial
sales in recent years and, at Salisbury, Mr Hobbs said: "I've been
trying to develop tribal art for some time and build a reputation.
A sale such as this obviously helps."
Ernest Ohly inherited the Berkeley Gallery
in Mayfair from his famous father, William. Although he closed it
in 1977 he continued to be an active collector/dealer.
On his death three years ago, Christie's
took the prize piece of the collection, the so-called Ohly figure,
an 8ft (2.44m) tall, carved wood figure from Central Polynesia
which took a premium-inclusive €961,000 in Paris in June 2011.
Such stratospheric heights, however, remain
the preserve of Paris and New York rather than the UK.
"Christie's and Sotheby's used to include
tribal sales in London," said Mr Hobbs. "But sometime in the '90s
they took the decision to hold high-end tribal auctions in Paris or
London fell behind, to the chagrin of
specialist dealers such as Clive Loveless who says: "In Britain
we're just waking up again to tribal art. We've been rather asleep
for the past few years. I don't think the British Museum closing
their separate Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens after 30
years and moving the ethnography back to the main Bloomsbury
building in 1997 helped.
"The major collectors are in America, France
and Belgium, which is why Sotheby's and Christie's hold their top
sales there. But interest is growing here with new collectors
coming into the market.
"There is a range of good material to be had
for three figures and although a rare figurative piece will sell at
£5000-7000, that's still reasonable for a beautiful piece of
Both he and Mr Hobbs agree that online
catalogues and bidding are a major new force, providing access to
world markets for regional salerooms that wish to move into
Certainly this was a factor at the Salisbury
sale. There was also considerable interest in the room but almost
all the top lots went to European or American dealers or
Of the 113 lots of tribal art, 36 were
provenanced to Ernest Ohly, accounting for £111,400 of the
section's £123,500 total. Both African and Oceanic art featured
among the higher prices.
Topping the day was the Yaure mask from the
Ivory Coast. The 15in (38cm) tall mask with ribbed horns and white
pigment, and pierced and pointed beard, carried the section's
highest estimate of £4000-6000 and sold at £17,000.
An example of the much-prized work of the
Kuba people of the Central Congo was a 10in (25cm) high
anthropomorphic cup with a shaped coiffure and an interlaced line
and dash motif. The toes were missing but the £800-1200 estimate
was, as with all the Ohly pieces, of a here-to-sell variety, and it
duly sold at £12,000.
Also keenly sought are the carvings of the
Fang people who now occupy areas of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and
Here a 12in (30.5cm) high female figure,
with her hands over her abdomen, with a red pigment and ebonised
coiffure, made a 20-times estimate £6500.
Other African material to eclipse estimates
included a Luba (Katanga) 5ft (1.53m) long staff of office, with a
Janus head finial and panel carving at £5800; an Ovimbundu (Angola)
wood and metal pipe, of a 21in (53cm) long standing figure with a
bead necklace at £5200 and a 19th century Baule (Ivory Coast) 9in
(23cm) high beauty mask, with a triple crest coiffure and the
remains of three horns at £5500.
Although Mr Ohly's African pieces dominated
the higher prices, Oceanic art was well represented by a 22½in
(57cm) high, carved wood standing male figure from the Solomon
Dated to the early 20th century, the
ebonised figure with white and red pigments sported a hat, inset
shell eyes, a circular chest pendant, a shaped pendant to his back
and shark 'tattoos' on his legs.
Estimated at £300-400, it sold at
Also performing well were two of Ohly's
tribal pieces related to North America.
A Woodland Indian war club of gunstock form,
2ft 3in (68cm) long, was worked with ebonised dog-tooth notches to
one side and four incised figures to the other. These 'war
records', denoting the number of kills by the owner are desirable
additions and this example was further inscribed in ink War
Club belonging to the Chief of the W. Rice Indians / with
Pitched at £2000-3000, it sold at £5200.
But less of a known quantity was a 9¾in
(25cm) high carved wood oval mask with a dark green patina.
Catalogued as 'possibly Alaskan', it was estimated at
£200-300 but sold at £4300.
Above: two Yoruba carvings of women from the
Ernest Ohly collection each estimated at £300-400 at Woolley &
Wallis. The example pictured left, made £6200. The other, right,
As in any strong market, tribal art is
bringing concerns about fakes, or perhaps more fairly in this
field, the modern craftwork on traditional lines produced for the
tourist trade. It is known to some by the somewhat disparaging term
So while there may occasionally be boot-sale
bargains to be had, what buyers look for are a good provenance and
the expertise of a specialist.
But even when both are very much in
evidence, as with the Ernest Ohly pieces at Woolley & Wallis,
there can be marked differences in prices. A case in fact were two
female figure carvings at the sale which were both made by Yoruba
(South West Nigeria and Benin) craftsmen and both were estimated at
One was a 13½in (34cm) high kneeling figure
with beads and offering bowl and a child on her back came with a
stockbook note Ayasse, Ilorin[Nigeria]confiscated by E.C.
Pickwood, 1922. It made £500.
The other was a 16½in (42cm) high mother and
child group with red and ebonised staining which sold at £6200.