A carved fossilised walrus tooth of a human figure, Okvik, Old Bering Sea I, Alaska, 200 B.C. – 100 A.D.

Lot 3078. A carved fossilised walrus tooth of a human figure, Okvik, Old Bering Sea I, Alaska, 200 B.C. – 100 A.D.; 13.5 cm, 5 1/4  in. Estimate 900,000 — 1,200,000 HKD (115,110 - 153,480 USD)Lot Sold 1,125,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2018

with an elongated face tapering to a pointed chin, the slender facial structure centred with a long thin nose flanked by subtly rendered cheekbones, all resting on a gently flaring T-shaped body incised with geometric lines.

ProvenanceCollection of Avrom Isaacs, Innuit Gallery, Canada.
Collection of Bill and Carol Wolf, U.S.A.

LiteratureDonald Ellis, Art of the Arctic: Reflections of the Unseen, London, 2015.

Noteound in the Punuk Islands, a chain of three small islets in the Bering Sea off the eastern end of St Lawrence Island, the current figure not only exemplifies an extraordinary execution from 2000 years ago, it also provides a glimpse into the Okvik culture. “Okvik” stands for “the place where the walrus come on land” and it was Otto Geist of the University of Alaska to first apply it to the distinctive characteristics of the artefacts from the period that flourished around the Bering Sea.

The treeless landscape had led the semi-nomadic ancient Eskimos to adapt to their rather inhospitable environment by making use of all natural resources available to them, which included relying on sea mammals, particularly walrus, to satisfy their needs. In addition to eating the meat of the walrus, the blubber was used for heating oil and lighting – with the tusks being carved into tools, toys and even ritualistic artefacts.

The specific function of Okvik figures, such as the current one, has up to this point remained a topic of debate. It has been suggested that they were children’s toys, pregnancy charms in fertility ceremonies, hunting amulets or even representations of living individuals, possibly important tribal members, and were ritually severed when the purpose was fulfilled or upon the subject’s death. For related Okvik heads without the torso, see one sold in our New York rooms, 17th May 2007, lot 73, from the Saul and Marsha Stanoff collection, and another sold at Christie’s Paris, 13th December 2011, lot 234.

Tête Okvik en ivoire, Old Bering Sea, Amérique du Nord. Hauteur: 8 cm. (3¼ in.). Estimate EUR 6,000 - EUR 9,000. Price realised EUR 109,000 at Christie’s Paris, 13th December 2011, lot 234. © Christie's Image Ltd 2011

Tête Okvik en ivoire, Old Bering Sea, Amérique du Nord. Hauteur: 8 cm. (3¼ in.). Estimate EUR 6,000 - EUR 9,000. Price realised EUR 109,000 at Christie’s Paris, 13th December 2011, lot 234© Christie's Image Ltd 2011

NoteCf. Hooper, S., Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, vol.II, Pacific, African and Native North American Art, London, 1997, fig.176 pour un torse au visage comparable à cette tête.
Bien que l'on ne connaisse pas la fonction de ce type de statuette, certainement réalisée entre 200 avant J-C et 100 après J-C, le visage aux traits particulièrement stylisés rappelle de façon frappante l'oeuvre d'Amedeo Modigliani. 

Incised with lines to represent tattooed patterns on the face and accentuated with subtle curvatures, the current richly patinated female figure demonstrates the remarkable and expressionistic craftsmanship of the marine culture. Far from being a limiting factor, the enigma in which these expressionistic Okvik figures are steeped perhaps explains why they have been sought after over the centuries. This is precisely summed up by Allen Wardwell, curator of the Ancient Eskimo Ivoriesexhibition in 1986: "[p]arallels to Asian art in particular have often been noted, especially between the Sino-Siberian animal style of northern Asia and certain Old Bering Sea and Ipiutak forms. Bronze and jade masks of the Shang, Zhou, and Han dynasties in China have been compared to bone Ipiutak burial masks ... Whatever its sources, the art style […] evolved to become the richest and most sophisticated of all the expressions of the prehistoric Eskimo." 

Sotheby's. Curiosity IV. Hong Kong, 02 Apr 2018, 10:30 AM