Benin Wood Altar Head
Lot 172
Head for Shrine (Altar), Edo People, Benin-Nigeria
Sold for US$ 7,500 inc. premium
Auction Details
Lot Details
Head for Shrine (Altar), Edo People, Benin-Nigeria
height 18 in (45.7cm)
Wood, nut shell

Henri Kamer, Paris and New York
Private Collection, New York

Carved of reddish-brown hardwood, the hollow form rising from a cylindrical neck, the lowest portion being a rounded base, then diagonal sections surround. The neck is encircled by nine rows of coral beaded necklaces (odigba) extending to a stringed motif on the head back. The face carved fully in relief with straight line lips, flaring flattened nose and oval eyes inset with shell (nut) for the pupils. Along the forehead are six frontal scars treated with rectangular cavities inset with nut shell. Diminutive ears on each side of head, each C-shaped with inset Y forms. A head band consisting of three rows of coral beads and an upper row of large beads (agate) with small cowrie shells between, around to the back with ties. Wearing an elaborate headdress on the front portion of the head in a lattice, crisscross pattern. The back of the head in a squared pattern. On the right side of the head, a single feather extends upward from a beaded rosette. Behind the ear, two long hair braids hang down to the beaded collar then becoming loops reaching down to the base. The left side of the head having a long, single braid behind the ear hanging down to the beaded collar, becoming a loop reaching down to the base. A beaded rosette at the top of the braid. On each side, three locks of hair appear at the temples, under the headband. Having an open hole with a circular motif on the top of head and a rectangular open crevice along the back. Insect damage in various areas; very old worn surface, exhibiting much age.

"Wooden shrine heads were allowed to sit on the altars of chiefs and important individuals as opposed to the copper alloy heads that were exclusively used by the royalty of Benin.

Osemwede (reign: 1816-1848) was the first Oba who decreed that human heads could be carved for the altars of chiefs of the royal lineage, instead of just wooden antelope, and perhaps, goat heads. Thus, chiefs of the blood in Benin City (but not throughout the Benin Kingdom, where antelope heads continued to be commissioned and used well into the twentieth century) enjoyed the greater dignity conferred upon them by having the right to put human rather than animal heads on their ancestral altars. Thus the (wooden) human heads are according to tradition later than ca. 1816, but the actual age will depend on the condition, insect damage, etc." (Fagg, William, Christie's, London, 1988, Lot 206)

"These wooden heads were placed on juju altars that consisted of a row of low terrace-shaped clay benches" (Marquart, Joseph, 1913, The Benin collection of the Imperial Museum of Ethnology, Leiden)

"Feathers were worn by chiefs as a mark of status. The heads have a hole in the top that was intended to hold a large carved ivory tusk. When positioned in this way, the tusk represents ede, a protrusion from the head that links the human and spiritual worlds." (Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK)
  1. Fredric Backlar
    Specialist - African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
    7601 W. Sunset Boulevard
    Los Angeles, 90046
    United States
    Work +1 323 436 5416
    FaxFax: +1 323 850 5843