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Eskimo masks a highlight of Winter Antiques Show

By Colleen Long
New York (AP) February 2011

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 Enrico 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 and his contemporaries felt the masks were more surreal than the Surrealists, Ellis said.

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 as they set 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.

The painting was not signed and had been 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 the way a tree stump was painted eventually convincec scholars 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.

Kim Hostler of Hostler Burrows gallery was offering for $48,000 a cabinet by Josef Frank, found in near-perfect condition complete with delightful images of herbs that Frank found in magazines and lacquered on.

“We feel a little like explorers and archeologists when we look for new pieces,” Hostler said, “and we’re giddy when we find pieces in this shape.”

Other works need a little TLC, like a bust of sculptor Antonio Canova found by Daniel Katz Ltd. covered in grime. Only plasters of the sculpture were ever displayed; it turns out the real thing was kept by the artist himself, Antonio D’Este, a friend and studio assistant of Canova. The white marble bust stayed in his family for years.

While Canova’s self-portraits tend to make him resemble a Greek god, this bust shows him as a man, with furrowed brow and longish hair.

“It’s a much more honest image of the man himself,” said Stuart Lochhead of Daniel Katz, which is offering the bust for $510,000.

Dealers may wait decades for a booth at the Winter Antiques Show, which benefits the East Side House Settlement, a nonprofit that offers social services and educational programs in the New York City’s South Bronx area. They view it as a prime chance to show off their best and most fabulous pieces.

For first-time participant Carlton Rochell, that meant a massive sandstone carving of the Buddha, his legs in a lotus position, that dates from the second century in India. The carving is among surviving images of the Buddha depicted as a man, and is on sale for $4 million.

Portraits of willowy, pale women by Thomas Wilmer Dewing in their original frames had hung for years in a room dedicated to the artist at a fancy estate in Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie. Alice Levi Duncan of Gerald Peters Gallery came across them recently and is selling them in New York as separates ranging in price as high as $1.8 million.

“Can you imagine, going into this room, perhaps it’s never even used, and there is this entire collection of paintings? It’s amazing,” Duncan said.

The Eskimo masks were created to appease the gods and prevent starvation. “They were functioning things, but these artists made them extraordinary, though they were not seen as art until later,” said Ellis, the dealer.

The masks were sold – likely for food – to a trader along the Kuskokwim River in Alaska at the turn of the 20th century. Donati bought them in 1945. They influenced his work so much that they will be part of an exhibit of works by Surrealists called “The Colour of My Dreams: Surrealism and Revolution in Art” on display in a few months in Canada’s Vancouver Art Gallery.