Middle Sepik River Figure Middle Sepik River Figure Tristan Tzara Collection, Loudmer-Poulain Auction, Paris14 June 1979, Lot 15 It isn’t often that one gets a legitimate shot at owning one of your dreams. But that is exactly what happened last month when this incredible Sepik figure I have always loved and admired unexpectedly came up at auction. I had just begun working on it as my next Dream Piece for July when I saw the announcement of it coming up at Christie’s Paris at the end of June. I was hardly surprised by the presale estimate of 100,000 to 150,000 euros. It would be at the very outer limit of my affordability, but I had to go for it—I mean it was my dream piece. My initial attraction to the figure had nothing to do with its incredible provenance—which I learned of only after being awed by its wonderful early aesthetic qualities. The figure seemed to reach back to that unrecorded era of Sepik art prior to early exploration. The foundation for appreciating New Guinea art starts with the classic period—which for the Middle Sepik River is roughly from 1880 to 1914. This is when the bulk of the early Sepik material was collected and lodged, primarily, in German museums. These objects serve as the basis for understanding Sepik River art styles and what comes after. But what about what comes before? This particular Iatmul figure is decidedly PRE-classic. Here the raw emotive power takes precedence over the elegant, composed lines of the classic Sepik that comes later. How many generations earlier this figure is from first contact is hard to say but it is the primeval ancestor to much of what the Germans were collecting before World War 1. Besides the excellent provenance of Tristan Tzara--one of the influential founding members of the Surrealist movement—this figure is a superb piece of early Sepik River figurative sculpture. As always, let’s begin with the expression that is both hallucinatory and mesmerizing. The enormous eyes are wide open, off-kilter and radiating. The mouth is open as if in speech or breath. The large oval head is perched atop a thin neck coming up from rounded, powerful shoulders. The narrow waist ends abruptly in wide squared-off hips. The older the sculpture often the greater the open space is between limbs and torso. I love the aged-rounded surfaces—from both stone-tooling and generations spent in the village environment—and the slightly wonky undulations of form—which are stable, stout but a bit off-kilter. In June of 1979 this figure sold for 15,500 French francs which in today’s dollars equates to $16,400. Real money for sure but a tiny fraction of what I was pretty sure it would sell at Christie’s on June 29th. The morning of the auction I was online, finger poised above the bid tab but alas by the time my finger stopped quavering my self-imposed bid limit had flown by. With almost a sense of relief I sat back and watched with pride as this ancestral spirit from a remote mosquito-ridden village along the Sepik River was hotly contested at a top auction house in the art center of the world all the way to a hammer of 320,000 Euros or 403,200 Euros with buyer’s premium. A significant price warranted by a wonderful sculpture with a remarkable, historic provenance. I congratulate its new owner. Wish it had been me.