Tuesday, December 6, 2016


Follow up to “A Lynching in Paris”.  October 2013.

While in Paris for the Parcours des Mondes tribal show this year, I was able to meet with Bertrand Claude, the owner of the famous (or infamous) Dayak sculpture condemned at the same show in 2013.  He graciously provided another opportunity to view the statue in a private setting.  I was curious to have this additional inspection, three years later, to determine if time had changed my opinion of the piece.

Despite the nearly overwhelming positive response to my original blog post, “A Lynching in Paris”, and the lack of any proof that the piece was a fake, very few in the tribal art market were willing to publicly support its authenticity.  Many will still claim, “they don’t know for sure”, to avoid taking a side in the controversy.    

It is a sad fact in this business that as little as one negative off-hand comment made about an obviously authentic object, let alone a targeted barrage of criticism, can send many collectors (and dealers) into a panic.  Too many pieces are deemed suspect because too many in the market form opinions with their ears and not their eyes.  I admit to this flaw as well and have certainly passed on good pieces because I listened instead of looked.  Sometimes the negative buzz is spot on, so it is important to pay attention, but ultimately, we should form our own opinions using logic and observable facts first, before listening to the surrounding noise.  

That said I was off to revisit the piece.  The sculpture was placed at the end of an open hallway, bathed in low light.  I have to say that once again I had the same “blink” moment, or gut reaction, that I had in the Schoffel-Valluet gallery basement in 2013.  The piece dominated the space, emanating power and menace, just as any traditional Dayak guardian figure is meant to do. 

Having no need to rush this time, I was able to carefully examine the piece from every angle, repositioning it to catch the light from all sides.  Everything about the surface indicated an ancient and naturally eroded process.  Reviewing all of the negative arguments, I found no “smoking gun” that would indicate this piece was a forgery.

Additionally, I was able to take a close look at the top of the head of the figure, to check a feature I missed in 2013.  Aside from the convincing erosion pattern, I found the remains of a rectangular shaped post, projecting upwards.  I have come across this exact feature, often with a similar erosion pattern, on many other older Dayak figures.  Assuming the original post section was taller, this often indicates the sculpture was once part of a structure and likely supported a crossbeam or plank.  It is common among the Kayanic groups of Eastern Kalimantan to carve guardian figures into support posts that held up funerary (or other ritual) platforms or crypt houses.  Another possibility, assuming top post was originally shorter, is that it was used to hold a valuable brass gong.

Regardless of its intentional use, it is a common feature found on traditional sculptures of this type.  In my opinion this adds weight to the argument in favor of authenticity.

It’s unlikely that the doubters will change their minds or the supporters to speak up loud enough to make a difference, but it is still my honest opinion that not only is this wood sculpture authentic, it is an important work of Borneo art.   It should be resurrected and placed in an honored position in the Kayanic Dayak art canon.

Mark Johnson
December, 2016

Note to readers of this blog.  Bertrand Claude has put together a website (in French and English) that includes the known history of this amazing sculpture.  He discusses the original find, the purchase in Indonesia, the scientific evaluation, the journey taken up to and through the time it was offered at the gallery in Paris, and lastly, the aftermath of opinions.  A fascinating read.  Please go to: http://scienceandtribalart.com/