Nigerian sculptures antique, but not really old

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Not everything that’s sought after at auction carries a large price tag. That’s something Lynn Sigurdson – my father – found out at a recent appraisal session held at DuMouchelles Art Gallery and auction house downtown.

Sigurdson brought in a number of African pieces that he had received as gifts beginning in the mid-1960s. All came from a now-deceased family friend who had worked as a professor at Wayne State and, later, at the University of Ghana.

“He started sending them to us in part as a thank you for selling his house in Detroit for him in 1966,” Sigurdson explained. “We took care of the details after he left the area.”

That friend continued to send pieces through the subsequent years, Sigurdson says. “He sent jewelry for my wife, other things too,” he told the appraiser. “We’ve never really found out what it was all worth, but always were curious.”

Appraiser Alex Diebel took a closer look at the two representative pieces he brought to a downtown appraisal session. She identified both as being Nigerian, but said that they aren’t quite as old as Sigurdson may have hoped. The bronze piece, she said, is a good example of a Benin-style bronze, and was usually known as the head of an Oba, which often represented a king. The word comes from the Yoruba language of Nigeria, the appraiser added.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a 16th-century example from Benin in their permanent collection. Unfortunately for Sigurdson, his version wasn’t quite that old. “Plaques and heads like this are very common,” the appraiser told my father.

And while they’re “very cool,” and sell well, they don’t bring a huge amount on the secondary auction market, she said. “We would probably list them at about $100 each,” she told him. They are technically classified as antique at more than 100 years old, but “they’re not really that old by auction and African standards,” she told him. “There’s a lot of this type of work out there. The plaques alone come in a number of different sizes.”

She told him that some examples of African work bring more than others. Among the most in demand are carved wood masks that incorporate raffia and cowrie shells. Those bring typically $150 to $250 at auction, she said. Sigurdson says he has a few of those too. “They’ve all been hanging throughout the house for the past 40 years,” he told her. “We’ve always liked them and long wanted to know more about them.”

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About this item

Item : Nigerian sculptures

Submitted by : Lynn Sigurdson

Appraised by : Alex Diebel, DuMouchelles

Estimated value : About $100 each at auction