An extremely fine African Baga snake sculpture brought €2.3m ($3.1m) to Christie's African and Oceanic art sale in Paris yesterday evening (June 19).
The impressive sale price represents a 95% increase on the serpent sculpture's €1.2m ($1.6m) top estimate - testament to its rarity, cultural significance, and excellent provenance.
The iconic Baga serpent, which has been carved from a single length of wood, hails from the Republic of Guinea.
Crucially, it was discovered during the 1950s by curators Helene and Henry Kamer, who were among the first visitors to the isolated Baga region in the lowlands of Guinea, ensuring its authenticity.
Since frequent flooding left vast swathes of the region impenetrable for extended periods, relatively few field studies were undertaken until the 1950s. The Kamers left the country with a hoard of culturally significant items, many of which now reside in the world's pre-eminent museums, including the Louvre in Paris and New York's Metropolitan Museum.
In Baga, frequent floods provided a hunting and breeding ground for large colonies of water snakes. Subsequently, the snake grew into something of a totemic animal among Baga peoples, connoting, simultaneously, notions of life and death, beginnings and endings.
Exceptional Baga snakes are very scarce and seldom come to market. In May 2002, a moderately fine example sold for $17,925 at Sotheby's.
Following the law of supply and demand, the present, outstanding Baga snake sculpture has attained a price that would have been unimaginable in the 1950s.
On the subject of price hikes, Henry Kamer wrote: "This extraordinary increase in the caste of African art objects has encouraged hunters in great numbers, Africans as well as Europeans, who no longer hesitate to undertake expeditions demanding a great deal of time and enormous amounts of investment in order to bring to the market pieces for which collectors and museums will eagerly vie against each other.
"Accordingly, there has developed a parallel activity, the manufacture and sale of copies and fakes."
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