A carved Tobacco God figure from Australasia was among the star performers of Sotheby’s Aboriginal Art auction in London today (March 14).
The delicately carved piece, which comes from the Torres Strait islands to the north of Australia, sold within estimate for £87,500 ($122,000).
Known as a Sokop Madub, the circa 130-year-old carving once stood next to the islanders’ tobacco crops to keep them safe and help them grow.
Tobacco has traditionally been a key trading commodity for the islanders, and also has ritual importance.
Amy Bolton, Sotheby’s African and Oceanic art researcher, said: “This figure is significant not only for its traditional use within the fields of tobacco; it also demonstrates the remarkable skill of the sculptors within the Torres Straits to create characteristic contours, meaningful expression and pleasing form, seamlessly uniting function and beauty."
British missionary Reverend Henry Moore Dauncey brought the piece to the UK following a visit to the islands in the late 1880s.
Dauncey left much of his collection, including this item, to the UK’s Walsall Public Library when he died in 1932. The library sold the item in 1967. This is the first time it has appeared for sale since.
“The remarkable provenance of this charm, reaching back 130 years, only strengthens its exceptional history and makes it all the more important and unique,” added Bolton.
While ethnically separate from Australian Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders do share some language and culture.
Among the best performing pieces of the sale was a 19th century broad shield from the Murray River in south eastern Australia.
The beautifully carved item sold for £72,500 ($101,000), more than doubling its £30,000 valuation.