Tribal art scholar’s discoveries to be sold at Heritage Auctions Sept. 16
DALLAS – An outstanding selection of items from renowned Pre-Columbian and tribal art scholar James M. Silberman will be offered in a single-owner auction Sept. 16 at Heritage Auctions. The selection spans more than 200 lots collected during 70 years of travel and consultation until his death this year at age 103.
Absentee and Internet live bidding will be available through LiveAuctioneers.com.
“Few collections have received as much exposure as those items belonging to Mr. Silberman,” said Delia Sullivan, Senior Specialist of Ethnographic Art at Heritage. “His collection helped many institutions better understand the art and culture of Africa, and he later became a consultant on the subject.”
Silberman became passionate about tribal art and especially African art during his college years at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the 1930s. He joined the Department of Labor in 1941, working on production of war material for World War II and then became chief of the productivity division in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This expertise led to invitations from European governments in the postwar period to do productivity surveys of their industries, and subsequently, to develop the Marshall Plan technical assistance program, for which the government of France named him “Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur” in 1953.
This program resulted in frequent trips to Europe and it was during these trips in the late 1940s that Silberman visited galleries and bought from fellow collectors specializing in African art, and purchased items such as an alluring and important Pwo female mask from Angola (above), representing the Chokwe founding female ancestor (est. $15,000-$25,000) and a seated female figure from Igala, Nigeria, (est. $10,000-$20,000).
Silberman’s position later required travel to West Africa and the Congo. He bought extensively then, but by the mid-1950s, having moved to the U.S. foreign assistance program, he began traveling extensively to West Africa and the Congo where he again bought extensively, both in galleries in the main cities and also while traveling through rural areas.
A Hemba ancestor figure (below) from the Democratic Republic of Congo (est. $8,000-$10,000) is on offer, as is a fine old Songye Divination Implement in the form of an Oracle (est. $8,000-$10,000). A small, heart-shaped mask from Lega, Democratic Republic of Congo, was formerly owned by members of the Bwami society, who displayed the masks on specially constructed fences (est. $8,000-$10,000).
Additional masks include one made by the Lwena people in Angola and their counterparts, the Lovale in Zambia (est. $4,000-$6,000). This mask (below) represents a founding ancestor who acts as a guardian of the boys during initiation and sequestration in the bush-camp.
An expressive Bamileke dance mask (below) – customarily used during festivals and funeral celebrations of important individuals – was made in Cameroon (est. $4,000-$6,000).
During the 1960s, Silberman became a close associate of Warren Robbins, who began the Museum of African Art, the predecessor of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution; and he helped mount two major exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art on North West American Indian Art and African Art. During this time, he developed a new career as an appraiser of African art and a consultant to other collectors, notably as consultant to Lee Bronson as he assembled his collection, which became a major traveling exhibition, “A Survey of Zairian Art.”
Silberman retired from government in 1973 and increased his appraising and consulting work with hundreds of collectors and dozens of colleges, universities and museums. He also added extensive additional travel to Africa to buy traditional works of art that were becoming increasingly difficult to find.
“His family selected Heritage Auctions to offer ‘the best of the best’ to its clients,” Sullivan said. “Most all of these works have not been made available outside his collection in decades.”
View the fully illustrated catalog and register to bid absentee or live via the Internet as the sale is taking place by logging on to www.LiveAuctioneers.com.