What to do when you’re tied up in Kansas City and you desperately want to bid on a piece in a Paris auction?
Last winter, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art director/CEO Julian Zugazagoitia went through the cliff-hanger experience of bidding by phone in Sotheby’s December 14 Paris auction of African and Oceanic art. He hoped to land a rare Kongo nkisi figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the museum’s African collection.
The 30-inch-high, nail-studded power figure carved from wood was recommended by Nii Quarcoopome, the Nelson’s former curator of African art. During his tenure at the museum, Quarcoopome analyzed the collection and determined that an nkisi was a typology missing in the collection, Zugazagoitia said. The Sotheby piece was “a singular work with an impeccable provenance,” he added, beginning with its inclusion in the collection of noted London-based dealer and collector William O. Oldman, who acquired it around 1920.
Before taking the auction plunge, Zugazagoitia had some hurdles to clear, including checking in with one of the museum’s foremost donors of African art. “I went to Don Hall,” he said. “He doesn’t have an nkisi and is still actively collecting. I asked Don, ‘are you bidding?’ and he confirmed he was not.”
Acquisitions also require board authorization. Zugazagoitia received approval to bid up to $220,000 for the nkisi, which carried an estimate of 150,000 to 200,000 euros (roughly $160,000 to $223,000 in U.S. dollars). Although Quarcoopome thought it could conceivably bring as much as $10 million, Zugazagoitia decided, “Let’s just make sure we’re there.”
“There” meant the conference room next to Zugazagoitia’s office on level 2 of the Bloch Building, where a screen was set up so that Zugazagoita could watch the auction live on the internet as he was participating — or so he thought.
“Between the signal that came up on the computer and the phone there was a 30-second lag,” he said. That lag between the bidding made on the phone, and what appeared on the screen made for some nerve-wracking moments.
The day of the auction coincided with a day of board meetings in the Bloch Building’s Rockhill Room. Zugazagoitia excused himself when the African and Oceanic art auction began.
Things were tame at the start.
“There was not a lot of action on the sale,” Zugazagoitia said. “There was not a lot of fighting and the lots went quickly. Then our lot came up and went up to 150,000 euros after three or four bids: 140,000 150,000 155,000. We bid 160,000 (euros). There was silence for 30 seconds; then, on the screen, we saw the gavel go down, but we did not have confirmation. That lag made us suffer! When we knew we got it, we were jubilant.”
With the board convened just steps away from the conference room, the acquisition was ratified immediately by the Committee on the Collection, Zugazagoitia said. The discussion quickly turned to using the acquisition to honor Don Hall.
“I called him and he was very happy we got it. He has a deep, profound passion for this material,” Zugazagoitia said. “He was reluctant to accept the honor, but agreed. It was the testimony of the committee to announce the acquisition in his honor, to strengthen and build on his legacy and vision.”
The work will go on view in the museum’s African galleries in May or June.