On the Hunt

Palos Verdes-based Oceanic art dealer highlights the essentials to prospective collectors.

Along the southern coast of New Guinea, a number of large rivers flow into the shallow gulf where the people live in houses built on posts above the brown, muddy waters. The inhabitants were some of the most fearsome headhunters and cannibals of the South Pacific at the end of the 19th century—often killing and consuming the first missionaries sent to convert them.

The men lived separately in large, cavernous long houses with walls of skulls—relics of past ancestors and trophies of enemies killed in battle. Alongside the skull shrines were flat, oval, wooden boards representing the ancestral spirits—those mythological beings responsible for the origin of the people themselves but also their continued wellbeing. These carved and decorated boards, usually referred to as “gope,” brought to life the spirit that ensured success in battle: fishing and garden produce for each clan.

That the object was made for ritual purposes and not for sale ensures a spiritual purity and a strong emotional presence.

The gope board illustrated here is a superb, late 19th-century example from the Tomkins Collection and illustrated in the new book Embodied Spirits: Gope Boards from the Papuan Gulf, edited by Virginia-Lee Webb, 2015.

Oceanic art includes traditional art and artifacts from the South Pacific islands such as older, ritually used masks, figurative sculpture, shields, and beautifully decorated utilitarian objects like wooden bowls, drums and clubs. In collecting Oceanic art there are three critical factors to consider: age, authenticity and beauty.

Age determines when the object was actually made. In general the earlier in relation to contact with the West the better—with the most sought-after material being “pre-contact” (those pieces made without the use of steel tools and prior to outside Western religious influence.)

Authenticity is of immense importance to Oceanic art and all tribal art. That the object was made for ritual purposes and not for sale ensures a spiritual purity and a strong emotional presence. In their traditional village contexts, these pieces were not meant to just represent ancestral spirits but were actual manifestations of those spirits, bringing them to life. So the best pieces of Oceanic art still convey that living, breathing spiritual presence.

Of course, of paramount importance in any piece of Oceanic art is beauty. While there are many older, authentic, worthy artifacts from the South Pacific, what I deal in are those objects that have a higher aesthetic component with remarkable beauty and form. The best traditional artists from the South Pacific created objects with an otherworldly quality and a free-form aesthetic that made the art being produced by their 19th-century Western European counterparts look conventional and pedestrian.

There is a reason why many of the most famous avant-garde modern artists of the early 20th century—such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and André Breton—all avidly collected Oceanic art.