Mangbetu Hair Pin

by Barbara Steinberg

On 10 December 2014, Sotheby’s Paris held an auction of African and Oceanic Art consisting of 105 exquisite lots.

The inspirational connection between Modernism and African art was forged when European colonists brought back sculptures, masks, reliquary objects, furniture, and hair ornaments from the cultures they had enslaved, murdered, and misrepresented as primitive. Picasso continually described his shock and revelation after visiting an exhibition of African art at the Trocadéro Museum in 1907 and became a life-long collector.

Mangbetu artists of the Congo reduced sculptural elements to their simplest forms. Usually, their hair pins are softly curved at the top into one disc-shaped finial. Two or more are worn in women’s distinct, bound hair styles and were prized possessions of people with high rank. The discs represent the sun. If a hair pin had more than one disc, it was usually assembled from two pieces of ivory.

The revelation I want to present today is an ivory hair pin from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which means it was made after 1960: 20 1/2 inches long and 52 centimeters high. Lot 87 was made from one piece of ivory and has three discs. The widest and heaviest disc is on top, defying physics.

Because no other date information is included, and anything from the early days of the Belgian Congo would skyrocket in price, Sotheby’s said a similar hair pin resided at the American Museum of Natural History, presumably from Herbert Lang’s 1915 expedition. I checked.

The only one I could find in the online database had one huge disc. Herbert Lang also collected some narrow ivory pins topped with exquisite carvings. The patina on the American Museum of Natural History’s ivory collection shows its age.

However, Sotheby’s post-1960 piece is more than a hair pin. It is an eloquent, elegant, abstract sculpture. May it be noted that they list the collector as a Belgian gentleman, but the artist remains unknown. Sotheby’s estimated the pin at 10,000 – 15,000 EUR, but it sold for 63,900 EUR.

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