It may seem gruesome to some, but for a tribe in Indonesia it was the equivalent of a family photograph.
Next week collectors of the unusual may be drawn to the auction of two tribal skulls, relics from the Asmat people of Papua New Guinea. The skulls, priced between £4,000 and £10,000, are both examples of ancestor skulls known as 'ndambirkus', treasured possessions for the Asmat people.
Asmat men would carry the skulls of their ancestors in order to pay tribute and remember them. Some were ceremonially dressed (as other similar skulls in recent auctions have shown) and kept in secure places. But these fascinating relics also had a practical use, as they were often used as pillows or headrests.
The Asmat tribe had a reputation as head-hunters and cannibals and was left relatively untouched by civilisation until the early 1950s when Catholic missionaries established an outpost nearby.
Exploring parties had previously avoided contact due to their fearsome reputation (the ancestor skulls are well-preserved compared to the skulls of their enemies, which all feature holes where the brains were removed to be eaten!).
However, Dutch expeditions had passed through the area during the early 20th century and the Asmat artefacts they brought back generated huge interest throughout Europe. They are thought by some experts to have influenced modernist and surrealist Western artists such as Matisse.
The interest in tribal art has grown steadily over recent years, with the market offering some superb opportunities for entry-level investment. When these two ancestors skulls go under the hammer next week there could be a great deal of interest for collectors looking to get ahead in the market. Or perhaps someone just looking for a new pillow.
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