There is a case to be made that these sorts of descriptions in auction houses’ marketing copy are harmless, and even necessary. And the houses haven’t entirely omitted context—there is a more extensive description
in the Christie’s sale catalogue that includes some information about the kifwebe mask’s functions in Songye culture (though it still eschews any mention of colonialism).
Christopher Steiner, professor of African art at Connecticut College, notes that in the past decade or so, the significance of “star quality” provenance has increased—meaning the higher the pedigree of Western collectors who have owned an object and the more Western artists have been inspired by it, the better. This he attributes, in part, to the fact that “as more and more copies/replicas enter the markets, collectors have become less confident in their own ability to judge quality and authenticity,” he said. Instead, they rely on provenance as a guarantor of an object’s value.
“In the end, we are dealing with the empowerment of two ‘spirit beings,’” Steiner added. “The original African religious context and the near-godly status of some esteemed dealers and collectors in art-market history.”
In the case of the Christie’s kifwebe mask, it is not that this object was made for export or should be subject to restitution. “Our market covers works of art [that] were made and used within the culture for traditional purposes. We cannot comment on the value of items that we don’t auction, such as objects made specifically for export,” a Christie’s specialist said via email.
At the end of 2018, when museums and galleries were in the heat of a reckoning with their colonial pasts, Christie’s released
a statement saying it remains deeply committed to researching the provenance of consignments and will only auction objects it feels comfortable selling. The auction house undertakes a “comprehensive pre-sale due diligence process,” the Christie’s specialist said. “In cases where potentially problematic provenance is found, Christie’s will not take on the consignment.”
When asked for additional information about the kifwebe mask’s origins, the Christie’s specialist said that a Songye artist made it in the 19th century and that Walschott purchased the mask before 1933, and also described her status as a collector: She was “one of the first and few women to become a dealer and collector of African art,” the specialist said. “She had an exceptionally long career, spanning over nearly 50 years and opened her first gallery in 1923.”
Still, Marlowe offered an additional criterion beyond airtight provenance for such artifacts: “The ethical collector should want to see some indicator someone in the country of origin has given his blessing to this sale.”