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January 08 2011

Rare Yup’ik Mask Could Set Record Price

The Wall Street Journal

An article in the Wall Street Journal reports that a rare Yup’ik ceremonial dance mask could set a record price for a Native American work of art. On view at Donald Ellis Gallery during the Winter Antiques Show in New York, January 21-30, the so-called Donati Studio Mask was once in the collection of a leading Surrealist and is one of the greatest works of Yup’ik art remaining in private hands.

Known to the Yup’ik as ‘the mask that brings the south winds,’ the Donati Studio Mask was collected in the village of Napaskiak, Kuskokwim River, Alaska by trader Adam Hollis Twitchell in 1905. It was later sold to George Gustav Heye, whose collection forms the core of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. In the 1940s, as the museum ran into financial troubles, Heye deaccessioned several works collected by Twitchell and sold them to New York art dealer Julius Carlebach. Carlebach’s gallery was a magnet for the European avant-garde seeking exile in the United States during the Second World War. He resold several Yup’ik masks collected by Twitchell to Surrealist artists including André Breton and Robert Lebel. The mask now on view at the Winter Antiques show was previously in the collection of Surrealist painter-sculptor Enrico Donati. 

As the article emphasizes, ‘four of those five masks are now owned by museums. The most famous of the five, once owned by Mr. Breton, is on view at the Louvre; another is at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, the private museum established by the late Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler.’ The last remaining weather-related mask collected by Twitchell is now offered for sale by Donald Ellis Gallery. Sharing many stylistic similarities, it is widely considered one of the greatest works of historical Native American art left in private hands. 

In an interview with the newspaper, Donald Ellis explained that Yup’ik masks are sought after by modern art collectors, rather than Native American art collectors, because of their relevance to 20th-century modernism. 'These are conceptual works of art,’ he says. John Molloy, dealer and advisor to Christie's Auction House, adds that ‘the influence of this mask and others collected by Twitchell on the group of Surrealists living in New York in the 1940s is immeasurable but undeniable. It's a great piece and deserves to be the record-holder.’

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Rare Yup’ik Mask Could Set Record Price