African Art: a prestigious Swiss collection

Milan, Wednesday 14 October 2020


Lega (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Ivory with a light, natural coating
H 14,3 cm
Object of great renown in Bwame society.
A sculpture carved in ivory, which corresponds to an old style in Lega tradition. The statue faces the front, with its face in the shape of a diamond. Its half-closed mouth and eyes the shape of concentric disks bestow an expression of amazement upon the face. Its arms are barely noticeable, and its short legs sustain its cylindrical body. The sculpture is adorned with a series of zigzag patterns and small circles, which form a complex decoration. This is typical of Lega ivory works.

This sculpture belongs to the category that has been defined by Belgian researcher Daniel Biebuyck in 1986 as one of the two greatest styles of Lega anthropomorphic sculptures: the flat, diamond-shaped face style.This type is very rare, and there are perhaps only 15 similar ones that we know about. Crafted by a sculptor from the 1800s, seven of them are exhibited in collections at the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central in Tervuren, Brussels. This is a style that established itself in the second half of the nineteenth century. A similar sculpture, on an Inagaki base, was sold in Paris by Paul Guillaume (1891-1934) in the ‘30s.

This sculpture comes from Josef Muller’s collection. It is likely that he acquired it during one of his trips to Paris between 1929 and 1942.In the photo here, taken from the Swiss magazine published in 1978, a year after Muller passed away, you can see the sculpture on the shelf, surrounded by other small African objects.


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- Josef Muller antique collection (Solothurn, Switzerland 1887 - 1977) (*);
- Former Paolo Morigi (Lugano) (Morigi inventory label num. 634);
- Former private collection (Lugano);


- DU - Europaische Kunstzeitschrift, Num. 450, August 1978, Zurich “Die Sammlung Josef Muller” pag. 69;
- SOTHEBY'S "African, oceanic & Pre-Columbian Art including property from Lerner, Shoher and Vogel collections" New York auction on 11th May 2012, lots 165 and 201;
- CHRISTIE’S “Art d’Afrique et d’Océanie” Paris auction on 23rd June 2016, lot 276;
- CHRISTIE’S “Chefs-d’œuvre d’Arts d’Africaine et Océanien de la collection Adolphe Stoclet” Paris, auction on 30th October 2018, lot 73;
- CAMERON ELISABETH L. “Art of the Lega” UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 2001, pag.165, fig. 8.93; pag. 166, fig.8.95; pag. 168, fig. 8.98;

(*) Josef Muller (1887 - 1977). Born in Solothurn, in the most beautiful baroque city in German-speaking Switzerland, put together one of the most significant collections of art of all time during the course of his life. At the age of 6, he was orphaned, and subsequently raised by rich, bourgeois, Swiss relatives. From an early age, he would visit the homes of those interested in modern art, where he saw Picasso’s first works. In 1907, aged 20, he met many artists in Paris and bought works by Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir, Braques, Picasso, Léger, Mirò and many other greats.Between 1929 and 1942, after frequent stays in the French capital, he became interested in African works of art and acquires a series of Fang works, which arrived in France from the colonies.He meets art dealers Ernst Asher and Charles Ratton, among other people, who acquire André Derain’s famous Teke/Tsaye mask, a mask that would become the lynchpin of his collection of tribal works. In 1923, before the Second World War, he organises a trip to Africa where he explores the French Congo (Congo Brazzaville and Gabon) for six months. He acquires many objects made by the greatest ethnic groups, such as the Fang, Kota, Mahongwe, Lumbu, Punu and Kwele. All these important works would be studied and commented on by the specialist Louis Perrois in 1978. They form a remarkable collection in Europe, and have been documented by Perrois in the prestigious volume: “Art ancestral du Gabon dans les collections du Musée Barbier-Mueller” Geneva 1985.
Josef Muller founded the Museum of Geneva in 1977 along with his daughter Monique and son-in-law Jean-Paul Barbier. It is a prestigious institution which hosts the largest private collection of art from non-European cultures in the world. The Barbier-Muller Museum organises expert displays with catalogues, as well as an annual publication dedicated in particular to ancient art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.


African Art

Via Paolo Sarpi, 6 - milano
Phone: 02 3363801