Bonhams : A magnificent and important Okvik Eskimo ivory head
A magnificent and important Okvik Eskimo ivory head

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Lot 1121Y
A magnificent and important Okvik Eskimo ivory head

US$ 150,000 - 250,000
£ 120,000 - 200,000

Native American Art

9 Dec 2013, 11:00 PST

San Francisco

A magnificent and important Okvik Eskimo ivory head
200 BC - 100 AD, of smoothly ovoid proportions, the arching brows joined over recessed eye sockets and crescentic eyes in slight relief, an "S"-curve of dots as tattoos below the proper right eye, the elongated straight nose above a down-turned mouth.
length 3in


  • Provenance:
    Consigned by the Eskimo family who excavated it on Punuk Island off St. Lawrence Island in summer 2012

    This artistically sculpted walrus ivory head of a human figure has all the desirable attributes of a masterpiece. The composition is of classic Okvik proportion. The inherent aesthetic beauty shines through the overall even patina, a deep cocoa brown with an occasional hint of mahogany coloration. The figure is clearly female, according to the known practice of tattooing females at puberty with dots on the face. Details such as the carefully placed individual eyebrow hairs, the well finished, rounded top of the head, the long nose ending in a delicate pyramidal tip, and the serene countenance indicate it was carved by a very skillful hand.

    The horizontal plane of the neck clearly shows four small hatchet-like marks—forensic evidence of the well documented practice of purposefully severing heads from bodies of figures of this scale. The purpose for which the figures were created, however, is not well established. There are references in the literature that they might have been portraits of living individuals, perhaps revered members of the tribe, and that, upon the death of the subject, the head and body were ritually severed and buried distant from one another. There are mentions that they might have been made as tokens for life events, such as a pregnancy charm or an amulet for an important hunt, which were severed when the purpose was fulfilled. Though not definitively determined, these larger heads are from figures that seem to have been made for different functions than were the smaller, whole-body figures, which are usually found intact.

    Interestingly, this Okvik head was excavated at the same site, at the same depth, just five feet away from the example in lot 1122, indicating there may have been a temporal relationship.

    Conserved to American Institute for Conservation's current standards and recommended practices.

    Stylistically this Okvik head relates to the following: Sotheby's New York, The Saul and Marsha Stanoff Collection, May 17, 2007, lot 73; Christie's Paris, Art Africain et Océanien, December 13, 2011, lot 234 and examples from the Edmund Carpenter and Adelaide de Menil (Rock Foundation) collection as featured in Le Musée du quai Branly 2008 exhibition "Upside Down" Les Arctiques, p. 96. For a related example, see Sotheby's New York, Arts of the American West, May 22, 2013, lot 141.


    Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan assembled an impressive collection of ancient Eskimo ivories and Northwest Coast Indian art during the 1970s, beginning with Okvik and Old Bering Sea period carved walrus ivory human figures and heads from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. In characterizing the prehistoric Eskimo carvers of the Bering Sea region, the Prince stated, "[t]hose who did not know they were sculptors possessed the eye of the heart which alone sees the invisible." (1)

    Revered art collector Saul Stanoff, in articulating his emotional connection to the works that most appealed to him, with an Okvik head in his hand, contemplated: "[s]mall objects that have a monumental quality to them have always had a special attraction for me. Holding or touching an object is an intimate experience. A small gem of an object like this never lies. Just look at the elongated nose ... the high eyebrows ... the prominent cheekbones, and the richness of the walrus ivory that's lain in the permafrost for 2,000 years!" (2)

    Yet, ancient Eskimo carved ivories have not always been so highly prized as works of art. Following the paths of these objects that have passed from the hands of their makers' descendants to become souvenirs in the pockets of whalers, to being exhibited as Native American Indian art to ultimately arriving in the finest art collections may help elucidate why they are so passionately pursued today.


    About the same dimensions as Long Island, St. Lawrence Island, inclusive of a chain of three tiny islets off its southeast coast called the Punuk Islands, is situated in the Bering Sea, approximately 39 miles off the east coast of Siberia, approximately 160 miles west of Nome. Being the largest strip of the Bering Land Bridge in the midst of the sea since the Bridge was almost completely submerged an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, it is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Any vessel traveling between the Bering Sea and the North Pacific must pass either side of the Island.

    In the time of known Arctic civilization, there have never been trees on the Island, and other vegetation is relatively sparse. The mainstay resource for the ancient Eskimos was walrus, which provided their basic needs—food, fuel and clothing. For everything else, they had walrus ivory and bone and driftwood, their only carving tools being flint and slate prior to the introduction of metal. Because of its orientation with respect to ocean currents, it has always been a magnet for migrating marine mammals; thus, St. Lawrence Island was a hub of early Bering area civilization.

    Alongside archaeologists in pursuit of prehistoric genomic evidence, scholars in interrelated disciplines have shown interest in St. Lawrence Island's role in ancient Arctic civilization. The question is, how did the earliest Eskimos, a necessarily semi-nomadic people, presumably following the food supply and adjusting to climatic fluctuations, adapt to some of the most inhospitable conditions on the planet and develop a highly sophisticated maritime culture? Simply stated, they carved their existence out of what resources the land and sea around them offered with their ingenuity and the tools they had.


    During the Age of Discovery, in the early 15th through 17th centuries, countries all around the northern hemisphere sent explorers in pursuit of a circumpolar trading route, the missing link of which was a waterway connecting the Arctic Ocean to the North Pacific, or the "Northwest Passage." In 1728 St. Lawrence Island was first landed by Danish-born navigator Vitus Bering, under dispatch of the Russian Tsar Peter I the Great to map, claim and name everything on both sides of the as-yet-unnamed Bering region—and every island, islet and rock formation in between.

    New England-based whaling ships began entering the Bering area from the North Pacific in 1848, driven to do so because the Atlantic whale population had been depleted. This opened a new outlet for raw goods—exotic Siberian/Bering region ivory and furs—that had only been exportable in prior centuries via overland Russian routes to dominions as far flung as China, Persia and the Middle East, where old, permineralized walrus ivory was coveted for its deep and varied coloration as well as its rich patina.

    Through the remainder of the 19th century, the Northwest Passage proved to be a booming trade lane, traversed by thousands of commercial vessels. St. Lawrence Island was a popular layover destination. The stream of visitors to the Island included sailors, whalers, traders, tourists and amateur field collectors; and all were avid to pocket "specimens" from their travels, to buy or barter for carved trinkets—buttons, bowls, knife handles, dolls, animal figures, snow goggles, harpoon points and counterweights, you name it.


    In the 1920s and 1930s, a new wave of adventurous academic investigators, some with interest in finding skeletal evidence in support of the Land Bridge Theory, others interested in documenting ancient Bering territory culture, began visiting St. Lawrence Island, each making his own unique contribution.

    Incidental to his duties of documenting remains and sorting artifacts, Henry B. Collins of the Smithsonian developed a classification system that still serves as the basis of dating and identification today, with little refinement. Collins is credited with documenting 2,000 years of more-or-less continuous habitation on St. Lawrence Island, encompassing all the known cultural periods of civilization in the Bering region, piecing information together from excavations at several sites. (3)

    Archaeologist Otto Geist, associated with the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, now the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was the first to apply the term "Okvik," meaning "place where walrus haul out," to the style of artifacts that came out of the ground during a 1931 dig on Punuk Islands that uncovered a massive cache of old ivory. Another interesting first attributed to Geist is that he arrived in 1934 on the first plane ever to land on the Island.

    In a 1930 Science Service newsletter, Dr. Aleš Hrdlička of the U.S. National Museum was acclaimed as a leading discoverer of an "Ivory Age" in the Bering region: "[p]erhaps before or while the Mayas built their cities and temples in Central American jungles, expert craftsmen in these desolate wastes were fashioning tools, weapons and trinkets of exquisite beauty out of walrus tusks." Even though the archaeology community's fascination with Hrdlička's array of specimens seemed to lay in the remarkable mechanical competency they saw in the elaborately decorated tools produced by the ancient carvers, they could not help but be moved by "the craftsmanship of men with artistic ideals and a delicacy of technique far beyond merely utilitarian demands ... " (4)

    The institution-sponsored work during this time had an enormous impact on bringing news of this remote island's archaeological importance to the world and, in the same turn, bringing much broader public exposure for its cultural materials and artistry than was possible in the "trinket days."


    Rounding the turn of the 20th century, even as the price of whale baleen was free falling, what with corsets going out of fashion and the buggy whip going out of use, interest was brewing on other fronts around the globe that would eventually elevate ancient Eskimo ivories to the status of objets d'art.

    The case that indigenous materials should be looked at as "art with a capital A" was already in the making, with an international art audience having turned curious eyes to "primitive" works from Africa, Oceania and the ancient Americas. Lines of influence and inspiration have historically been drawn between tribal art and modernists and cubists such as Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani, noting their exposure to the material through galleries, museums, exhibitions and publications.

    British sculptor Henry Moore, as another example, studied ethnographic collections at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum when he was a student in London in the early 1920s. Commenting on tribal sculpture in a 1941 essay on "primitive art," Moore acknowledged the limited value of understanding the cultural context of a work but felt ultimately that "all that is really needed is response to the carvings themselves, which have a constant life of their own, independent of whenever and however they came to be made ..." (5)

    Artifacts from ancient cultures all over the globe were being re-envisioned, emphasizing aesthetic appeal above cultural context; and Native American Indian art was an important part of the conversation. Surrealists who had been "exiled" to New York in the 1940s were particularly drawn to Alaskan and Northwest Coast Native American Indian pieces they saw in galleries and museums. Enrico Donati, for one, drew inspiration from later-century Native Alaskan masks of the Yupik tribe.

    Anthropologist and art collector Edmund Carpenter in his introduction to Form and Freedom describes the surrealists' putting together a small, decidedly "art" exhibit for the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1946. The exhibit included some of the works they had collected themselves as well as 18 pieces borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History: "[b]y taking them off display in one part of New York and putting them on display a mile away, the Surrealists declassified them as scientific specimens and reclassified them as art." (6)


    Native American Indian art started to gain traction in exhibitions in the early 1930s. The "Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts" opened at Grand Central Art Galleries in Manhattan in 1931 and was hailed by critics as the first exhibition of "Indian art as art, not ethnology." (7) The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco included an exhibition of Indian art of the United States and Alaska. Considered the landmark exhibition referenced by almost all exhibitions of Native American Indian art that followed was the 1941 Museum of Modern Art's exhibition, "Indian Art of the United States." With a laudatory publication foreword written by Eleanor Roosevelt, it included a few pieces from the Arctic region.

    In the 1970s, Eskimo art, and particularly carved ivories, appeared in the context of art with greater frequency. The National Gallery of Art's 1973 exhibition "The Far North: 2000 Years of American Eskimo and Indian Art" showed several carved ivory harpoon counterweights and human figures. The most extensive representation yet of Eskimo art appeared in "Sacred Circles: 2000 years of North American Indian Art," a 1976 traveling international exhibition that opened at the Hayward Gallery in London. Curated by influential collector and scholar Ralph T. Coe, it featured a carved ivory head from St. Lawrence Island on loan from the National Museum of Denmark.

    Carved walrus ivory figures and human heads finally came front and center in the 1986 exhibition "Ancient Eskimo Ivories," curated and catalogued by Allen Wardwell, recently of the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition opened at the Anchorage Museum of History and traveled on to the Museum of Natural History in New York. Wardwell meticulously culled objects from private, museum and university collections—167 in total—one of which was on loan from Mr. and Mrs. J. Gordon Douglas, III, later owned by Saul Stanoff (referenced earlier).

    More recently, the Musée du quai Branly in Paris in 2008 exhibited what they described as "around 500 of the most important pieces from ancient Eskimo and Inuit culture" in "Upside Down" Les Arctiques. (8) The exhibition featured quite a number of St. Lawrence Island carved ivory human heads and whole human figures, the majority of which were loaned from the Edmund Carpenter and Adelaide de Menil (Rock Foundation) collection.

    An ambitiously integrative, comprehensive exhibition of ivories from all around the Bering area, "Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait," at the Princeton University Art Museum in 2009, featured recently excavated Russian objects that had not previously been published in English. A number of heads from St. Lawrence Island were also exhibited. The exhibition was occasioned by the alumnus gift from Lloyd Cotsen of a collection that was put together in the 1970s and 1980s by collector/dealer Jonathan Holstein, "who recognized the uniqueness of Bering Strait ivories the first time he laid eyes on them." (9)

    Even a selective survey of exhibitions involving ancient Eskimo ivories shows the complexity of the interwoven relationships among art museums, ethnographic museums, educational institutions and collectors.


    Collectors have played a major role in selecting objects from the vast array of artifacts and bringing them forth for consideration as art. Further, their connoisseurship has contributed immensely in determining what defines a masterpiece among those works. A few collectors, particularly in the area of Native American Indian art and the subselection of St. Lawrence Island objects, are worthy of specific mention here.

    Collecting to a much-admired, self-cultivated aesthetic, Saul and Marsha Stanoff acquired works across all areas of tribal arts, with an intense attraction to small works with big impact. Probably the best example published to date, the previously mentioned Okvik head appeared in Wardwell's 1986 exhibition. After Stanoff's death in 2005, it sold for a record $288,000 at Sotheby's in a 2007 single-owner sale.

    Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury, after purchasing their first modern sculpture from Henry Moore in 1932, launched on an exploration of aesthetic connections in African, Oceanic and other tribal art areas, including North American. They collected their first piece from St. Lawrence Island in 1952, a standing human figure. Upon loaning the figure to a 1963 exhibition at the Nelson Rockefeller-founded Museum of Primitive Art, New York (now defunct), Sainsbury writes, "only thus could I explain how I regard the objects in this exhibition, and at the same time attempt to justify my plea that they be looked at and judged, in the first instance, as works of art in their own right ... there are, in my opinion, still too many museum directors and staff who consider the great works in their care only as ethnographical or archaeological specimens ... " (10) The piece also appeared in "Sacred Circles" in 1976. The Sainsburys gifted their entire collection, which had grown to what is now considered one of the greatest art collections of the 20th century, to the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England in 1973.

    Eugene Thaw collected with a stated mission of bringing great masterpieces to the public. To that purpose, he built a number of specialty collections and donated them to notable institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library in New York. His rather extensive representative collection of Native American Indian art, now in the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York with a very selective eye for artistry and craftsmanship, include a small number of ancient Eskimo ivories. In Collecting American Indian Art: The Thaw Collection, Ralph Coe quotes Thaw: "I want to stress that I look at Indian material culture as art ... It stands rightfully with ancient art, with masterpieces of Asia and Europe, as their equivalent, and I wish it would be looked at this way. To make less of it than other civilizations' art or to try to make it more by removing it from art by pretending it is so exclusively ethnic that no one else can study it, is to separate it from the real world which we all inhabit." (11)

    Art collectors Richard and Gloria Manney are well known for their generous patronage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their extensive collections are informed by astute connoisseurship and inspired by a passion for the unique. The Manneys at one time owned the carved Old Bering Sea ivory goggles that in 2006 took the world auction record up until that time for a St. Lawrence Island work of art ($216,000, Christie's) . While owned by the Manneys, the goggles appeared in the Wardwell exhibition, and they were recently featured in an article in Tribal Art (Autumn 2012).

    With sufficient St. Lawrence Island material being seen and evaluated in the context of art, collectors have shown a clear preference for a select few categories of carvings. The three that repeatedly come to the fore are ivory human heads and figures, wooden and ivory snow goggles and intricately carved ivory harpoon counterweights.

    Perhaps the greatest contribution from the collecting world has been the aligning of Bering Sea culture on the timeline of civilization with other ancient cultures through aesthetic investigation, which also, as if strung on a buoy line, establishes for Okvik ivories their rightful place in art history. Wardwell eloquently paints the picture: "[p]arallels to Asian art in particular have often been noted, especially between the Sino-Siberian animal style of northern Asia and certain Old Bering Sea and Ipiutak forms. Bronze and jade masks of the Shang, Zhou, and Han dynasties in China have been compared to bone Ipiutak burial masks ... Whatever its sources, the art style undoubtedly underwent considerable local development, and evolved to become the richest and most sophisticated of all the expressions of the prehistoric Eskimo. It is unique in the art of the world and, once known, is unmistakable." (12)


    At last, everyone agrees that these miniatures pack a mighty punch: though the scale of the material might limit the size of the work, it cannot limit the amount of cultural information and artistry a gifted carver can put into it. Perhaps one day these mysterious jewels of the Arctic, imprinted and encoded with their indelible past, will be decrypted. Come what may, they will always be treasured by all.

    Bonhams gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Vincent P. Plescia, New York-based independent art and museum consultant, in preparation of this essay and associated catalog entries, occasioned by the offering of three exemplary ancient Eskimo carvings from St. Lawrence Island in this sale (lots 1121, 1122 and 1123).


    1. Christie's, NY. Important American Indian Art: Including Property from the Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection of Eskimo Ivories and Northwest Coast Art. October 20, 1994, introduction.

    2. Alpert, p. 62.

    3. Fitzhugh, Hollowell and Crowell, p. 260.

    4. Science Service. "Ancient Ivory Tools Testify to Existence of Alaskan Culture." The Science News-Letter, Vol. 17, No. 458, January 18, 1930, pp. 36-37, 44.

    5. Wilkinson, Alan, ed. Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2002, p. 105.

    6. Holm and Reid, p 11.

    7. Marcus and Myers (Mullin), p. 166.

    8. Press release for the exhibition at Musée du quai Branly, 2008.

    9. Fitzhugh, Hollowell and Crowell, p. 9.

    10. Sainsbury, Robert. The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, The Museum of Primitive Art, NY, Catalogue of an exhibition May 15-Sept. 8, 1963, introduction.

    11. Vincent, Brydon and Coe, p. 13.

    12. Wardwell, 1986, p. 17.
A magnificent and important Okvik Eskimo ivory head
A magnificent and important Okvik Eskimo ivory head
A magnificent and important Okvik Eskimo ivory head
A magnificent and important Okvik Eskimo ivory head
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