François de Ricqlès, President of Christie’s France, says: “This selection of African and Oceanic sculptures is illustrative of a time of astute art collecting specific to those who discovered African art at a time when classic tastes reigned supreme in the Western world.
It is a fascinating testament to two leading figures in the history of the appreciation of tribal art, who ignited a path to the field’s fame: Aristide Courtois and Charles Ratton.
It is clear that this auction will be a sale of great importance; one that will draw the greatest collectors into bidding wars not soon to be forgotten.”
The appearance on the market of the Madeleine Meunier estate has been eagerly awaited. In recent years, speculation about the content of this collection has taken on mythic proportions, because Meunier was married, successively, to two great figures in the world of African art: Aristide Courtois and Charles Ratton. Each played a major role in the discovery of African art, Courtois in Africa and Ratton in Paris.
Aristide Courtois (1883-1962), a French colonial administrator in the Congo, brought back hundreds of objects acquired during his assignments in the regions where he was stationed. Having an exceptional eye for distinguishing between masterpieces and ordinary objects, Courtois was one of the first colonial administrators to see these ritual objects as true works of art. Once back in Paris, Courtois worked with the first great African art dealer, Paul Guillaume, with whom he would conduct many transactions. Courtois married Madeleine Meunier in 1938 and the couple had a daughter, Annie. Madeleine Meunier kept a number of works from this period in her life: three Kota reliquaries from Gabon and four major works of Kuyu art from the Northern Congo, all collected by Aristide Courtois. Upon Guillaume’s death 1934, Courtois developed ties with Charles Ratton, who became a loyal customer and purchased many pieces from Courtois. Ratton’s purchase records from 1938 to 1943 list some two hundred transactions, including the famous six-eyed Kwele mask known as the “Lapicque mask”, now part of the collections at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.
A few years later, Madeleine Courtois separated from her husband to marry Charles Ratton. Meunier would have a son with Ratton: the recently deceased Charles-François Ratton.
Charles Ratton (1897-1986) – who was honoured with an exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in 2013 – had a significant impact on the history of African art by virtue of his talents as an expert, collector and dealer. He played a fundamental role in raising so-called primitive objects to the ranks of true art. Sensitive and erudite, Ratton forged a path as a dealer for ‘Haute Époque’ (Medieval and Renaissance) objects, which led to an interest in African arts, then antiques from South Seas and the Americas, and, atypical for the time, Eskimo art. In 1935, he w as a major lender and advisor to the landmark African Negro Art exhibition (Museum of Modern Art, New York), the first African arts show held in a museum of modern art. Ever seeking new opportunities to place African art on the forefront, he included his Yaka headrest (estimate: €40,000-60,000) at an exhibition at the Théâtre Edouard VII in Paris in 1936 celebrating the film premiere of The Green Pastures. Ratton also served as artistic advisor to the renowned 1953 film Les Statues Meurent, Aussi (Statues Also Die), directed by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais for Présence Africaine (it was the subject of an exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris in 2010). Two pieces from the Meunier collection appear in this film, whose whereabouts remained a secret for the past fifty years: Charles Ratton’s superb Fang male on a base by Inagaki (estimated value: € 300,000-500,000) and a Luba-Shankadi headrest (estimate: €500,000-800,000).
This masterpiece can be attributed to the most renowned sculptor of the pre-colonial period: The
Other great objects formerly in the collection of Charles Ratton are an exceptional Hungana pendant (estimate: €15,000-25,000) and two Sepik River works from Papua New Guinea, probably acquired from Pierre Loeb, including a four-caryatid headrest estimated at €30,000-40,000.
The Antiquities section comprises lots coming mainly from Egypt, but also from Greece and Rome. Several are of particular interest: an Egyptian limestone relief dated to the New Kingdom and representing the deceased praying in front of two women richly dressed, with three columns of hieroglyphs in between; an Egyptian bronze head of Onuris with inlaid eyes dated to the Third Intermediate Period; a Cycladic marble idol with crossed arms, Late Spedos (circa 2500-2400 B.C) and a charming Attic black figured white ground lekythos representing Hercules's fight with the Triton. This collection stands out by the numerous glass inlays and mosaic fragments it encompasses from the Ptolemaic Period, which evokes the famous ancient glass collections of the early 20th century of Kofler and Groppi.
On December 15th collectors and connoisseurs will have the opportunity to acquire these treasures kept by Madeleine Meunier for over half a century. This collection is the embodiment of a bygone era, illustrating the refined tastes of two legendary figures in the world of African art.
Drawn from the very heart of African art, Viviane Jutheau, Comtesse de Witt's collection of African art masterly combined the archaism of the works with a highly modern sculptural style. All the works express both the classicism of the great African art styles and the originality of the artists who imbued them with their individual creative genius.
The sale was led by a Kota mask which achieved €847,500, a world record for a Kota mask. This rare large dance mask is a masterpiece from the former Solvit collection. During this auction, the bidders recognized the quality of this rare piece and eventually the mask over-doubled its high estimate of €300,000.
Viviane Jutheau, the first female auctioneer in Paris, began to assemble what has become one of the most striking collections of African art after meeting celebrated art expert André Schoeller at the beginning of the 1980s. It embraces the core of African art, where strength and sensitivity, archaism and modernity meet in dialogue. The art of Gabon – Fang, Kota, Kwele – is the main focus of the collection: each artwork testifies to the individual genius of its sculptor and of the institutions which fed their imagination.
The collection charts the discovery of this art in the West at the beginning of the 20th century, with major figures such as Paul Guillaume, Walter Bondy, Roger Bédiat, Charles Ratton and later André Schoeller, as well as the legendary exhibitions in Paris and New York, all contributing to its recognition. Beyond the collection, Viviane Jutheau, whose family has had close links with Africa for three generations, conceived a manifesto where ‘African art is not a way of making, it is at first a way of being, a way of being more’ (Aimé Césaire, 1966). Sothebys.com