Two iconic statues at Sotheby's december 2022 auction in Paris

Two of Spectandum's iconic ethnographic objects are included in Sotheby's Art from Africa, Oceania, Indonesia and the Americas auction

1. Kongo Power Statue

 height 23,5 cm


This Kongo Power Statue was selected by the Belgian anthropologist Frans M. Olbrechts (1899-1958) for his groundbreaking exhibition Art of the Congo in Antwerp in 1937-38- it was catalogue number 421. In 1937-1938, Olbrechts organized, at the request of the Antwerp municipal administration, the exceptional exhibition entitled "Arts of the Congo".

(The statue of Hemba ancestor, which belonged to the former private collection of Bela Hein and had been purchased by the Vleeshuis Museum in 1931, was on the poster. The work still enjoys international renown, being considered one of the major works of African art.)


Thanks to this innovative exhibition on the Congo, the Antwerp metropolis put the Belgian colony back on the map after the Universal Exhibitions of 1885, 1894 and 1930. The curator, J. Denucé, was responsible for the historical section "Africa and Antwerp in past centuries" highlighting the history of the city and the port, with Belgian colonization in the background. Olbrechts was responsible for the "Arts of the Congo" section. Olbrechts was one of the first to distinguish the hand of an artist on purely stylistic grounds, as explained in his famous book “Plastiek van Kongo”. This magnum opus was based on the short catalogue of the 1937 exhibition which lists the 1525 works on display, of which only some were illustrated. Constantijn Petridis wrote about the Plastiek van Kongo, that it was undoubtedly one of Olbrechts' most important scientific achievements, subsequently influencing many other scholars (Petridis, C., Frans M. Olbrechts in search of the arts of Africa, published in 2001 in collaboration with the Ethnographic Museum of Antwerp, p. 171). In 1937, the Antwerp city authorities invited Olbrechts to organize a major exhibition on the art of the Belgian colony, partly to show the importance of the city's African collection kept at the Vleeshuis Museum. Never before had an exhibition of this magnitude been devoted to the art and culture of a single part of Africa. In his preface to Plastiek van Kongo, Olbrechts also clarified that the participation and lending of works by a large number of private collectors was one of the main objectives of the exhibition, and also one of the reasons why it was so different from previous exhibitions on African art. Thanks to his wide network of contacts, Olbrechts was able to include a good number of previously unknown Congolese masterpieces. Olbrechts also decided to present objects considered ethnographic as real art objects. E. Bassel lent this Kongo Power Statue to the exhibition; his initials are reproduced on the back left foot. 



The MAS-archive not only holds the catalogue of the 1937-1938 exhibition but also a drawing Frans Olbrechts made of the Kongo Power Figure catalogued under number 421. (inv. nr. AE.2001.0044. 0004.D). 

The exhibition dedicated to the Congo was a success and had a considerable impact on the subsequent development of the non-Western collections of the Vleeshuis Museum. The first initiatives to build an independent ethnographic museum for non-Western works, of which Olbrechts was a strong supporter, emerged. The Advisory Commission of the Vleeshuis Museum clearly expressed the need for a new public establishment and the "discovery" of Congolese art by a wide public.





Olbrechts, Tentoonstelling van Kongo-Kunst, 1937, p. 421 (un dessin de la pièce par Olbrechts est conservé dans les archives du

Museum aan de Stroom d'Anvers)



Anvers, Stadsfeestzaal, Tentoonstelling van Kongo-Kunst, 24 décembre 1937-16 janvier 1938.



Collection Roland Albert, ca. 1934

Collection E. Bassel, Anvers, 1937

Transmis par descendance

Pierre Bergé et Associés, Mobilier - Objets d'art, 23 novembre 2009, n° 360

Collection privée belge, acquis lors de cette vente


2. Kongo/Yombe phemba Maternity Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo 

Height 31cm 


The hieraticism of the Phemba Maternities has brought this corpus into the General History of Art as a symbol of fertility (MacGaffey in Tervuren, 1995: 290) and maternal protection. Best known with the child lying down (Lehuard, R., Art Bakongo, the centers of styles, p571 to 581), this Phemba offers a rarer type of child in a sitting position. Generally, most children are presented in the classic breastfeeding position. The sculptor of our maternity nevertheless chose to position the child sitting in front in the middle of his mother's knees, thus assigning him an active role in communication with the viewer. This original choice and the resulting difficulty also demonstrate the skill of the sculptor who is thus forced to hollow out the space behind the child's legs. Through this "piece of bravery" he emancipates himself from the traditional representation of motherhood, and technically easier to achieve, with the body of the child sculpted in the extension of the legs or a knee of the mother.


This maternity is also distinguished by its fine network of scarifications in the shape of coffee beans that extends along the entire length of the back comparable to the Phemba maternity of the Arman collection (Musée de Marseille, 1996, n°108), and by its face with realistic modeling obtained by a protruding sculpture associated with a neat polish. Finally, its slightly bent back, and its altier head carry participate in the impression of majesty that emerges from the sculpture, making Kongo / Yombe maternity wards a universal symbol of Congo art.


On the back of the trunk the inventory number G.F.K 357 refers to the Georges Frederik Keller Collection (1899-1981), a modern art dealer of the first half of the twentieth century well known for his taste and knowledge of African art. It then passed into the hands of Paolo Morigi to appear in the sale of his collection at Sotheby's in 2005.



Jacob A., Statuaire de l'Afrique NoireABC, 1976: n° 42.

Grunne (de) B., Kongo Phemba, TEFAF Maastricht, 2022 : p. 88, n° 36.



Collection Georges Frederik Keller (1899-1981), Paris

French private collection

Loudmer-Poulain, Paris, Arts Primitifs, 8 June 1978, n° 294

Collection Paolo Morigi (1939-2017), Magliaso-Lugano

Sotheby's, Paris, Paolo Morigi Collection. Important African Art, June 6, 2005, No. 168

Belgian private collection, acquired during this sale


December 10, 2022