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New York Dealer Chooses Webb’s

New York Dealer Chooses Webb’s

Items from the collection of one of the most venerated and knowledgeable African art dealers Merton D. Simpson, will be included in Webb’s Oceanic and African art auction to be held on 11 November 2010. http://www.webbs.co.nz/auction/oceanic-african-art

Merton D. Simpson, a New York collector and former artist, now aged 82, possesses one of the world’s most sought-after collections of Oceanic and African art. Simpson’s decision to work with Webb’s on the sale of a selection of items from his collection is a major coup for the New Zealand auction house and was influenced by recent successes of the auction house in previous sales of Maori, Pacific and African material. A sale in this category held in June this year achieved over NZ$830,000.

As Webb’s Managing Director Neil Campbell states, "what we’re experiencing is major international collectors have begun venturing beyond the markets on their doorstep and are actively roving the Oceanic region in search of world heritage art. And in doing so they are supporting our endeavours to present world class collections at auction"

Webb’s Tribal Art specialist Jeff Hobbs, who visited New York personally selecting the works for inclusion in the auction says: "without doubt, this collection of African and broader tribal arts will be a groundbreaking event in New Zealand and a real treat for us here Down Under, and for the collector, the collections impeccable provenance will certainly draw attention."

Webb’s is inviting interested collectors and investors to experience the collection that represents not only the world’s most sought-after collections of Oceanic and African Art, but also the artistic journey that is the life of Merton D. Simpson.

The auction will also feature Maori and Pacific artefacts including pre-contact and contact pieces, providing an overview of material culture from Aotearoa and the Pacific nations including adornment, weaponry, architecture, wood-carving and tools. This specialist field of collecting provides both a tangible connection to history and the potential for serious investment.

Highlights in the auction include: a fine African Dogon statue, with an estimate sale price of $25,000 to $35,000, as well as an important and early Cameroon grasslands buffalo mask of great balance and strong decorative elements, a testament to a master carver says Hobbs.

An item which became one of Simpson’s personal favourites and a highlight of his collecting career is also included in the sale; a footstool in the form of a crouching lion, with an estimate of around $15,000 - $25, 000. As Hobbs explains ‘Simpson saw this piece near a Baule village on the Ivory Coast during his trip to Africa in 1955 and two years later when he returned he received the piece as a gift form the mother of an African King". The footstool is an exceptionally well crafted piece, with the lion spots, which appear more like those of a leopard actually signify royalty.

Highlights of the Maori and Oceanic items included in the sale, are a superb 18th century Maori canoe bailer, with a tapering hollowed scoop leading to two tubular supports holding a large tiki face. A Tongan inlaid headrest of elegant abstract arching form, with a small wedge shaped feet, inlaid with mother of pearl. Together with an extremely rare and important 18th century Tongan necklace offering eight figurative goddess forms fashioned from marine ivory that are bound together with finely woven senit with an estimate of $40,000 – $60,000.

A selection of the works to be auctioned were presented at Michael Reid at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney during an Evening Preview in October. This partnership between Gallery Director Michael Reid and Webb’s represents the first time a New Zealand auction house has collaborated with an Australian dealer for a sale. It is a testament to the increasing interest of the Australian collecting market and the growth in expatriate New Zealand collectors based in Sydney, that Webb’s have chosen to extend their viewing to this country through Michael Reid at Elizabeth Bay. Merton D. Simpson biography attached on page 2.


A burgeoning passion for African Art led Merton D. Simpson to open the doors of his first New York gallery. Today, with more than half a century in the business, Merton Simpson has earned a reputation as one of the most venerated and knowledgeable African and Tribal Art dealers in this specialist field of collecting.

World over, institutional curators and committed private collectors alike have come to value Simpson’s eye for fine and unique Tribal Art. Numerous pieces from his collection have been published in reference texts on Tribal Art and are in museum collections across the globe. A history-maker with a boundary-breaking life in art, Merton Simpson’s influence reaches beyond his reputation as a leading, seminal, New York Tribal Art dealer. Institutional curators and committed private collectors alike have come to value Simpson’s eye for fine and unique Tribal Art. Numerous pieces from his collection have been published in reference texts on Tribal Art and are in museum collections across the globe. A history-maker with a boundary-breaking life in art, Merton Simpson’s influence reaches beyond his reputation as a leading, seminal, New York Tribal Art dealer.

Merton Simpson grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, in the United States. From a young age, he was both an artist and a talented jazz musician. As an African-American in the racially segregated South during the 1940s, there were few, if any, defined prospects for persons of colour to pursue artistic passions.

Fortunately, Simpson had an unprecedented opportunity to study art at the Gibbes Museum, where he held a job after school. His work attracted the attention of noted painted William Halsey, who mentored him throughout his career. As a youth in South Carolina, Simpson played in bands, taught art classes and received numerous awards. Halsey sponsored Merton’s first solo exhibition, open to both blacks and whites. The first African American to receive a prestigious five-year fellowship from the Charleston Scientific and Cultural Education fund, Simpson left South Carolina in 1949 to study at New York University and Cooper Union. He studied under notable artists including Hale Woodruff and William Baziotes. Supporting himself by working at Benevy’s Frame Shop, which he considers his "real education", he received feedback on his work and learned new techniques from important artists including Max Weber, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. This education clearly paid off. In 1952, Simpson’s painting entitled Nocturnal City was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was also during this inspired early New York period that Simpson first discovered African sculpture via the collections of Hale Woodruff and Paul Robeson, and he began to cultivate his own collection. The evolution of Simpson into the role from collector to dealer accelerated after his first trip to Europe in 1959 where he saw the best in African Art in leading Paris and Belgium galleries.

In 1951, with the United States involved in the Korean War, Simpson enlisted in the Air Force where he was chosen to play in the band. His artistic talents were soon discovered, and he was appointed official Air Force Artist. Simpson painted portraits of many notable generals, including a future United States President, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

With an end to his military services in 1954, Simpson returned to New York, immediately regaining the notoriety that he obtained during his show at the Metropolitan Museum when his painting Poem 2 was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum of Art. Many more successful exhibitions would follow. His artistic career and growing collection of African art naturally led Simpson to open his Madison Avenue gallery, which concurrently featured African and Modern Art. Today, the Merton D. Simpson Gallery, located in Chelsea, NY, follows the same formula.

The continuation of the civil rights movement would lead, by 1963, to the formation of the Harlem-based artists’ collective, the Spiral Group, of which Simpson was one of the original founders along with Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff, Richard Mayhew, Emma Amos, Alvin Hollingsworth and Reginald Gammon. These socially conscious painters decided to address and chronicle the social, political and economic concerns of the day, through the medium of art. For Simpson, this experience culminated in an important body of work entitled the Confrontation Series, a provocative and racially charged series of paintings in mostly black and white, depicting the brutality Simpson saw first hand on the streets.

In late November this year several paintings from the series will be exhibited at the Greenville Museum Of Art and Hampton III Gallery, both in his home state of South Carolina USA. Refer page 45. Further to this, Simpson’s works will be exhibited at galleries in New York; Works will be included in an ancestral-themed abstract group show at Wilmer Jennings Gallery in Manhattan as well as their inclusion in the exhibition African American Abstract Masters to be held at Opalka Gallery, Albany, New York. Further information can be obtained from the Merton D. Simpson Gallery, New York.

Seeking to empower Americans, particularly the black middle class, to learn about and wisely invest what they could afford in African Art, Simpson funded several educational programs, including one at the Brooklyn Museum. To build one of the world’s greatest African Art collections, he divided his time between New York and Paris, securing relationships with the best Parisian Tribal dealers of the day. It was this drive that saw Merton evolve into a trans-Atlantic force and ensured that, when the African Art market matured in the late 1970s and 1980s, he and his clients were rewarded for their commitment and vision.

While the 1980s and 1990s would continue to be filled with solo exhibitions around the themes of Simpson’s love for jazz music, it was his professionalism as a Tribal Arts expert that attracted the most attention. His expertise (and notorious gallery parties, where he could always be seen playing the sax) was regularly featured in newspapers and magazines. By this time, Simpson owned one of the world’s most extensive quality collections of Oceanic and African Art, which attracted the most committed and sophisticated collectors, both private and public. A piece released from the Simpson collection in 1999, a fine reliquary figure, sold at a major auction house for $332,500. Since then, the Tribal Art market has continued to expand and attract a new generation of dealer and collector.

At the age of 82, Simpson has gained a rich patina that reflects the love and energy he has attracted and given throughout his life. He is the consummate Tribal Jazz guy playing to a future beat; perhaps this why he has honoured us with the task of offering these remarkable works back to the world


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