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Freddy Rolin was a well-known figure in the Tribal Arts world, often found in the museums and galleries of Brussels, Paris, London and New York. Interested buyers came in droves – private collectors, dealers, and institutions from all over the world – and those who could not be present in person kept the ten-plus telephone lines buzzing.

The keen bidding activity led to a long drawn-out sale, which resulted in 304 out of the 326 lots selling, making a premium-inclusive sale total of €1,497,335. This translates as a remarkable 95.26 per cent sold in money terms and 93.25 per sent sold by lot.

In many cases prices were driven way beyond expectations by resolute competition, and nowhere was this more in evidence than in the case of a New Guinea skull rack that made 50 times estimate, selling to a US private buyer for €50,000 (£32,260).

The large palm spathe skull rack was of long oval form, 14ft 51/4in (440cm) long, Middle Sepik river, the 13 palm spathe panels decorated with three painted masks amid scroll motifs in reddish brown and black on a white ground, the whole lashed to a bamboo base and with 21 spikes above for the ancestral skulls. It is similar to a more elaborate skull rack that was collected in the Sepik Expedition of 1912/1913 in Yentschemangua and is now in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin.

Traditionally, Sepik skull racks were decorated and kept to display the heads of enemies as trophies to give prestige to the hunter or his village.

Otherwise skulls of dead relatives were kept for religious ceremonies. All skulls, whether of relatives or enemies, were believed to be bearers of supernatural powers.
Headhunting was carried out in the Papuan Gulf for all important activities – initiation, housebuilding, and canoemaking. Only the successful headhunter had the right to carve a rack and old ones were repeatedly painted as new heads were received.Examples such as these rarely appear at auction, and in the event it proved highly sought-after.

To return to less macabre stars of the Rolin sale, two lots brought the top price of €65,000 (£41,940). The first of these was quite unexpected – a Djenne terracotta female figure, 153/4in (40cm) high, which had been estimated at €6,000-8,000 and sold to a French private buyer. The other top lot was a rare and important Luba drum, probably from the Zela royal court, 2ft 6in (76cm) high. The drum support was carved as two female figures squatting back to back, the bent legs carved in relief against a circular base, which had a band of incised chevrons at the outer edge. Each figure was adorned with brass upholstery nails to the forehead, eyes, nose, nipples and umbilicum, keliod scarification to the abdomen and arms were raised to hold up the drum with a reptile skin membrane. This piece fetched a double-estimate from the French trade.

Another lot from Luba, a stool, 22in (56cm) high, took triple-estimate €60,000 (£38,710) from the Swiss trade. Against hopes of €15,000-20,000, a Songye large magic figure, 2ft 9in (84cm) high, sold to the Belgian trade for €55,000 (£35,480). A Maori canoe prow, 2ft 43/4in (73cm) long sold to UK trade for a triple mid-estimate €30,000 (£19,355).