African art: envy for pulleys

True miniature jewels of West African sculpture, the delightful heddle pulleys turn collectors' and enthusiasts' minds. One commonly associates masterpieces of African art with the magnificence of its masks or the elegance of its statuary. But the immense talent of West African master sculptors is also to be found in everyday objects, in particular in the heddles of weaving looms.

Pursuing both beauty and functionality, these pulleys rival each other in virtuosity. “A Gouro craftsman, asked by an ethnologist what was the point of carving such a banal object, replied that one could not live if one’s purpose was not to make things beautiful. Which is the simplest and most magnificent way to discuss art,” writes Jean-Jacques Breton in his book Les arts premiers (PUF, 2019).

Consisting of a fixed support and a moving coil, these modestly sized objects (mostly between 10 and 20 cm) are sculpted in the shape of human or animal heads, sometimes with more abstract figures. They are true miniature masterpieces, often bearing the stamp of the great master craftsmen known for their masks or sculptures. “Studies suggest that the prominence of pulleys in the public square, hanging in plain sight on their looms, was a great opportunity for artists to demonstrate their carving skills in the hope of attracting commissions for masks or larger pieces,” explains the Metropolitan Museum.

If pulleys are particularly remarkable from the perspective of the care given to their ornamentation, the reason is undoubtedly also to be found in the symbolic significance that joins weaving and speaking in the cultures and cosmogonies of West Africa. In Dieu d'eau, Marcel Griaule suggested in 1966 that the act of speaking is itself comparable to weaving with its back-and-forth movements, “the word is in the noise of the pulley and the shuttle. Everyone hears the word; it interposes itself in the threads, filling the gaps in the fabric.”

Evolution of the number of lots offered for sale

Evolution of the turnover

Symbolic or usual, ritual or aesthetic… With a global turnover of €5,094,100, pulleys are now among the everyday objects that collectors and lovers of African art are most interested in. The number of lots testifies to this, with a slow but steady increase since the 1990s. In total, 1,983 objects were offered for sale, reaching an average price of €3,912.50. However, the market remains rather modest as a whole, with annual turnovers never exceeding the €500,000 mark. However, there are significant variations from one year to the next, depending on certain exceptional results, such as in 2001, 2006, 2011 or 2019.

Mentioning 2011, the highest price ever achieved at auction for an object of this type was a Baule heddle pulley from Ivory Coast sold for €240,750 at Sotheby's in Paris during the summer auction. Estimated at between €30,000 and €50,000, it was part of the Léonce and Pierre Guerre collection, an ensemble formed by three generations of these African art enthusiasts. Described by Pierre Guerre in his inventory notebooks as a “buffalo head with two horns representing Gouli, son of Nyamé, the sky […]”, this masterpiece appeared in major exhibitions devoted to the recognition of the history of African art since the 1950s.

Evolution of the bought-in ratio

At the vacation of the Marceau Rivière collection at Sotheby's Paris on 18 and 19 June 2019, a Gouro pulley support from Ivory Coast also fetched an impressive €162,500. Well-known in scientific literature, this object of exceptional aesthetics was one of the jewels of the exhibition “L'Art Nègre, Sources, Évolution, Expansion” organised in 1966 in Dakar under the impetus of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Belonging to “the very limited corpus of large loom pulleys (height over 25 cm), this one is distinguished by the exceptional size of the head, while exalting the beauty of a young Guro woman, whose high rank is expressed by the wearing of a bun girded by a säba amulet; it testifies of the artistic individuality of its author” according to the auction house.

In third position on the price ranking is a Gouro pulley from Ivory Coast that was sold for €91,812 on 14 December 2018 at Drouot in Paris by Binoche & Giquello. With its half-closed almond-shaped eyes and haughty stance, this object from a French private collection often attributed to the master of Bouaflé, bears a striking resemblance to the Barbier-Mueller Museum emblem.

Baule Heddle Pulley, Côte d'Ivoire, Léonce and Pierre Guerre Collection sold € 240,750 through Sotheby's Paris June 15, 2011 and resold € 113,400 on November 30, 2021

The next highest prices are achieved by two Dogon pulleys from Mali, both sold by Sotheby's in New York, the first on 11 May 2012 for $80,500 (€62,225), the second on 7 May 2016 for $68,750 (€60,200). But the vast majority of pulleys do not reach these auction heights: 98.65% of the lots, almost all of them, are sold for less than €50,000 and accounted for almost 85% of the overall turnover.

Very early on, these objects attracted Western art lovers, traders and collectors. Some of the examples include art critic Félix Fénéon to whom the Musée du Quai Branly has devoted an exhibition in 2019, New York composer Harold Rome of whom some pieces are now kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or French Attorney General Liotard of which the collection of 78 pulleys were auctioned by Maître Loudmer on 2 July 1987. However, provenance only plays a minor role in the appreciation of these objects, since the average price with provenance is €5,570 compared with €3,750 when it is unknown. Anyway, the vast majority of these objects (93%) have no identified provenance.

Ligbi Heddle Pulley, Côte d'Ivoire, Marsha and Paul Stanoff Collection sold $ 54,000 through Sotheby's New York

Heddle pulleys are found in various ethnic groups. Reputed weavers, Baule people and their Gouro neighbours excel in this delicate art, as do the Senufo and the Dogon from Mali. The breakdowns are more or less the same, whether in terms of the number of lots offered or in terms of results achieved, which tends to show that the prices are relatively similar whatever the ethnic group of origin: €4,400 for the Gouro or €4,300 for the Baoule. But with an average price of €2,600, the Senufo make less than 10% of the turnover, while twice as many lots are sold.

Far ahead of any other country, France is the leading market for heddle pulleys with a total turnover of € 3,641,900, or 71.5% of the global share. The exceptional pieces sold in Paris and some outstanding exhibitions devoted to them, including in Parisian galleries, have reinforced this enthusiasm. In 2005, for example, “Poulies secrètes” (“Secret Pulleys”) organised by Renaud Vanuxem in his venue on rue Mazarine presented a great selection of nearly 70 pulleys from Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso; or Laurent Dodier’s “Esthétique du quotidien : les poulies de Côte d'Ivoire” (“Aesthetics of everyday life: pulleys from Ivory Coast”), organised for the 19th Parcours des Mondes.

In France, the average transaction for a pulley exceeds €4,500, a price that is also much higher than those observed in other countries. As for the rest of the world, the United States came in second with 21.50% of the lots (425) and the same ratio of turnover (21.70% or €1,106,425) and an average price of around €4,000. The United Kingdom – with 6.40% of lots – represents barely 3.5% of the global result. When excluding bought-ins, the annual growth for repeat sales is rather attractive since it reaches 5.3% per year. All these indicators tend to show that the pulley market still has a bright future ahead of it.