Yoruba society altar figures showcased at Sotheby's African art auction

Two altar figures from the Yoruba society in Benin are among the standout lots for art collectors at Sotheby's African and Oceanic art sale in Paris on December 14.

Very few altar figures from this part of Benin are known. They are the work of a talented and imaginative artist, and served as complementary ritual items intended for a specific altar.

As with many ancient altar and veranda figures, they reflect how Yoruba society was balanced between the assertive power of men, as hunter-warriors and horsemen, and the concealed, more intimate power of women. They have a high end estimate of £512,000 each.

The sale will also feature a number of notable African Masks.

A Boa-region mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a type cited by William Rubin as an aesthetic influence on Picasso, has an estimate of £256,000. The people in this region seldom used masks, making those of the Boa all the rarer.

Benin altar figures
Gender wars? The altar figures reflect the balance of power in Yoruba society


An Ikwara mask from South Gabon, used for many years in secret rituals in the equatorial forest, is a rare work of considerable quality and age. It has an estimate of £384,000.

A Polynesian god stick from Rarotonga (Cook Islands) is the highlight of the Oceania lots. Is one of only sixteen full-sized god sticks of this type known to be conserved in public or private art collections.

These objects are believed to offer a home for divine spirits during religious ceremonies. It has also been suggested that they are genealogical staffs made for the royal family. It is estimated at £256,000, a figure that may tempt many art collectors looking for investment-grade items.

Paul Fraser Collectibles will bring you all the key results from the auction next month.

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