NEW YORK — The design for the ceremonial Eskimo mask comes from a shaman’s dream. Fantastical, with a wide grin of pointed teeth and a halo of feathers, it is a highly expressive piece of Native American art — and had been tucked away in a private collection, unseen by the public for a half-century. Until now.
The mask, and another like it, once belonged to Surrealist painter Donald Donati, and were sold for a combined $4.6 million at the Winter Antiques Show this month. Donald Ellis, owner of the gallery that offered them for sale, said it was a record price for Native American art.
The two masks, more than a century old, were among the most important items on display at the show, one of the country’s premiere antiques events. Seventy-five dealers are at the annual bazaar, which runs through Jan. 30. Wealthy New Yorkers tend to be the main clientele, and museum curators peruse works both well-known and obscure.
The Donati masks were created by Yup’ik Eskimos in Alaska for use in winter ceremonies, based on ideas envisioned in dreams by their holy men.
“Donati thought, these are more surreal than the Surrealists,” said Ellis.
Some pieces at this year’s show came from private collections in living rooms. Others were hidden in attics and some were covered in grime.
One, a painting of two boys in turn-of-the-century New York City, was the work of a well-known artist, misidentified.
The painting, titled “The Dead-fall,” is by Martin Johnson Heade, an artist known for landscapes and images of orchids and hummingbirds. It depicts two boys in a forest clearing setting a trap for an animal. The clearing was smack in downtown New York, in an area that later was torn up to make room for the World Trade Center.
But the painting wasn’t signed, and was thought to be the work of William Sidney Mount, a contemporary of Heade’s. It had not been shown publicly since 1844, adding to its mystery. The Alexander Gallery bought the work when it came up for sale recently and started to wonder about its origin. Gallery representative Laurel Acevedo said they did extensive research — and it was the way a tree stump was painted that eventually tipped scholars off that the painting was Heade’s.
The gallery is offering the work for $2 million, and says it would be good for a museum.
“It’s thrilling, to go through the whole history and to figure out what you have,” Acevedo said.
Juneau Empire ©2013. All Rights Reserved.