Native Village
Youth and Education news
 Volume 4  February 2011

Yup'ik Eskimo masks bring $4.6 million to highlight Winter Antiques Show
Read the entire article: and The Canadian Press

Condensed by Native Village


New York: A 1800's Donati Studio Mask sold for over $2,500,000 during the Winter Antiques Show in NYC. Purchased by a U.S. collector, it sets a new record for indigenous U.S. art sold at public auction. 

A second mask sold for more than
$2,100,000 to another private American buyer.

These headpieces were created by Yup'ik shamans for traditional dances to bring good weather. Shamans and other community members would experience visions, then ask Yup'ik carvers to make a mask based on that vision. The shaman would then compose a song to perform with dancers before discarding the mask after one use.

"This was a prayer that was done, and they finished it by either burning (the mask) or laying it out on the tundra, and then they would be remade every year for the next dance,"  said anthropologist Ann Fienup Riordan.

The masks sold at last month's auction are among the rarest and most famous shaman masks of the Yup'ik peoples. In 1945, surrealist artist Enrico Donati added them to his collection.  They inspired his works and those of other surrealists, including Andre Breton.

"They were functioning things, but these artists made them extraordinary, though they weren't seen as art until later," said Donald Ellis, an antique art dealer. "Breton famously said that the first time he saw a Yup'ik mask, he was angry and said 'These are more surreal than we are,'"

While the masks may have inspired artists, their importance to the Yup'ik peoples was much greater. The Yup'ik people lived in harsh areas, and the masks were used to request abundance for the years to come -- be it good weather, game or driftwood.

In the 1900s, these and other "weather masks" were purchased from the Yup'ik by trader and collector Adam Hollis Twitchell. Many are now in major museums across the world.

Justin McCarthy is a collections manager at the Burke Museum in Seattle. He is also Adam Hollis Twitchell's great grandson. McCarthy had hoped a museum or wealthy collector would purchase the masks, then donate them to the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center and Museum in Bethel, Alaska.

"It would be fantastic if this mask would be available to the Yup'ik community for future generations in a museum," he said.

Ann Riordan agrees. She works closely with Yup'ik people and elders and says they are glad that museums kept some specimens.

"They were really grateful and expressed their gratitude to the museums for saving these pieces because if the museums hadn't, they wouldn't be there," she said.

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