Dinosaur skulls and mammoth tusks: Antique oddities target new collectors

CNN  — 

A pair of mammoth-tusk Chukchi snow goggles, an allosaurus dinosaur skull and a self portrait fragment from the sculptor Jamie Salmon are some of the eccentric offerings going under the hammer at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Curiosity III auction at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre on April 4.

‘Precursors to museums’

Now in its third incarnation, the auction format was inspired by the curiosity cabinets of the 16th century, which housed encyclopedic collections of objects – religious relics, preserved animals, precious gems, objets d’art – that were precursors to museums.

With estimated value of $6.4 million, the 76 lots that make up the auction bring together objects from the Jurassic Period to the present day and span a wide geographical space from the Siberian tundra to Egypt. The improbable array of items illustrates how Sotheby’s is encouraging existing clients to get more creative with their collections.

Allosaurus Skull

“A lot of collectors in Asia are still consigned to one area of collecting, such as Chinese painting, and with ‘Curiosity,’ we’re trying to promote a more eclectic style of collecting and encourage collectors to be more sensitive to antiquities, say, or African art,” says Nicholas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, and international head and chairman of the Chinese works of art department.

Inspired by the aesthetics of an early surrealist movie, Chow shot a minute-long Super 8 film to promote the auction, which has received around 40,000 hits across various online platforms including Instagram and Weibo.

Auction highlights

One of the lots Chow is particularly excited about is the Chukchi snow goggles, which would have belonged to a wealthy native of the Northern Siberian tundra.

A Pair of Mammoth Tusk Chukchi Snow Goggles

“They were probably made 200 years ago, and are one of the very earliest examples of sunglasses. They’re crafted from mammoth ivory from tusk found in the permafrost and are incredibly streamlined. Aesthetically they’re not rooted in space or time, and that makes them quite extraordinary.”

Sothebys curiosity Bamana

Another piece that has made a big impression on Chow is the Bamana statue from Mali, a standing female figure with an ethereal quality that dates to the 15th or 16th century.

“A colleague helped me find me this in Paris from a very grand collector of contemporary art who was intrigued by what we were putting together and willing to consign one important piece.”

A lot of the discoveries were due to serendipity, he adds.

“In London, I met a collector of Chinese art with a cabinet of curiosity, and he consigned a Roman marble bust that made the cover of the auction catalogue. There’s another bust, a torso of a man that’s so withered it looks like a Chinese scholar’s rock; all that wear and abrasion has made the piece appear very abstract.”

Targeting younger buyers

In addition to encouraging collectors to extend their repertoire, Sotheby’s is targeting millennials with celebrity collaborations. K-pop icon T.O.P, who has everyone from Rudolf Stingel to Jina Park in his collection, curated a contemporary art evening sale, #TTTOP, last October.

It represented the highest-value sale of Western contemporary art ever held during a major auction series in Hong Kong, realizing more $17.4 million (HKD$136 million).

“As he’s a collector of contemporary art, T.O.P has a strong relationship with one of our specialists here so that’s how it came about. It was hugely successful in terms of publicity – the social media exposure was off the charts. Collaborations are a great draw for people, and we’d definitely look at doing a similar auction again,” says Chow.

A new state for traditional auctions

Hosting more unusual lots and departing from the traditional auction format is a tactic all the major auction houses have employed as they attempt to keep themselves relevant.

Since 2013, Christie’s has held an annual sale, “Out of the Ordinary,” that has previously seen everything from a taxidermy specimen of a two-headed lamb that fetched $16,320 to a lifesize waxwork figure of Sigmund Freud that sold for $9,600 at auction.

Introduced in 2008 to offer the finest examples in collecting categories across the traditional decorative arts including silver, porcelain and clocks, Christie’s “Exceptional Sale” made waves in Paris last September by selling the gun that poet Paul Verlaine almost shot his lover Arthur Rimbaud with in 1873. It fetched $460,000 (435,000 euros) – almost seven times its estimate.

Like Sotheby’s, Phillips is also attempting to encourage its clients to take a more holistic approach to collecting.

Sotheby's curiosity 5

Jonathan Crockett, Phillips’ head of 20th century and contemporary art and deputy chairman for Asia, says, “We’re making things as relevant as possible to today’s collecting community by engaging the younger generation on Instagram, who are discovering art online from the very first time and buying with us. We like to promote collection categories across the board – younger collectors might start off buying photography then move onto fine art. We don’t want to categorise them as just photography collectors, or art collectors.”

So if the weird and the wonderful appeals, why not bag a wax anatomical model of a head or a Songye chief’s ceremonial judgement thorn crown? There’s no reason why you can’t position it among your cutting edge contemporary art collection.

Curiosity III is on display at the Hong Kong Exhibition Centre from 31 March. The auction will take place on 4 April.