The human skull – an enduring symbol of mortality – is one of the most powerful motifs portrayed by artists and designers through the centuries. Another such emblematic image that’s a fierce or friendly totem of strength is the bear. You’ll find both displayed in many guises as part of the most eccentric sale you may ever encounter – viewable at Sotheby’s London between March 4 and 10.
More than 500 works feature in Sotheby’s Bear Witness three-day sale (March 10-12) of contemporary art, objects and bizarre novelties amassed by one single-minded collector. It embraces major work by 20th-century and contemporary artists, including Gerhard Richter, Lucio Fontana, Sigmar Polke, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer, Anish Kapoor, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Keith Haring, Gary Hume and Ed Ruscha. Treatments range from Edvard Munch’s ghostly, swirling Kiss of Death lithograph (1899; estimate £15,000-£20,000) to Michael Craig-Martin’s colourful, cartoon-like Untitled (Skeleton) (2000; £20,000-£30,000, first picture). As for eye-catching objets d’art, you could snap up Migraine, a patinated-bronze skull by Jake and Dinos Chapman (2004; £20,000-£30,000), Life is Great, a life-size polar bear by Paola Pivi (2007; £50,000-£70,000) made from polyurethane, wood, steel and feathers, or celebrity silversmith Theo Fennell’s silver skull stopper, dated 2013, with a blue 19th-century poison bottle (£1,000-£1,500).
Other skull-related curios range from a death’s head-decorated silver match case (£80-£120) made by FS Gilbert around 1910 to a 19th-century coffin-shaped papier-mâché snuff box (£100-£150, second picture) with a silvered-metal “Memento mori” engraving. Nor has the skull-loving seller confined his collecting habits to the western world. There’s a pair of carved-wood skull bookends (£300-£500) from southeast Asia, a painted terracotta Day of the Dead skull (£120-£180) from Mexico and a Japanese ivory and mother-of-pearl cane from 1910 to 1925, whose handle is carved with a human skull, a toad and snake (£300-£500).
The menagerie of bears is equally eclectic. It includes a bronze Bugatti bear (£50,000-£70,000, third picture), a white-glazed porcelain bear made around 1903 by Otto Jarl for Meissen (£1,000-£1,500), an Asprey & Co paper knife in a leather case (£600-£800) from 1908, a silver-plated polar bear-shaped cocktail shaker (£400-£600) from around 1950, and a 20th-century Swiss settee supported by a pair of carved wooden bears (£2,500-£4,000).
“This is quite possibly the most extraordinary exhibition Sotheby’s has ever staged in its 270-year history,” says Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of Contemporary Art, London. “The collection does have a carnival-esque feel, but the quality and breadth of the contemporary art shouldn’t be overlooked.”
In traditional fairground parlance: don’t miss the greatest show on earth.