“They are strongly charged objects, triggering ideas of travel and escape,” says Paris gallerist Jean-Baptiste Bacquart. The former head of Sotheby’s tribal art department is describing the antique canoe paddles from Oceania, Africa and the Americas he has dealt in for over 25 years. With “their striking, sculptural shapes and fascinating patina”, the paddles created by indigenous cultures are sought after by both maritime and folk‑art enthusiasts. Important examples featured in the collections of Jacob Epstein and André Breton, and more recently in the Royal Academy’s sell-out Oceania show.
The appeal lies in their pared-down, handcrafted beauty, articulated with nuanced variances in shape and decoration – plain, carved or painted. A striking example of the latter can be found at Bradbury Ketelhut’s eclectic gallery in Colorado: a carved c1950 wooden paddle (£1,300) created by the Ndyuka people of Suriname has a bright, bold design “akin to an abstract painting”, says Ketelhut.
Often the paddles used for propelling a canoe were fairly plain. “Prices for those from Africa start at a few hundred pounds,” says Bacquart. A geometrically decorated 19th-century paddle of the Duala tribe, in Cameroon, sold for just €325 at German auction house Zemanek-Münster last year. Paddles used for steering, however, have a larger blade that lends itself to decoration, as seen in a finely carved c1850 Austral Island paddle that Bacquart is offering for €18,000, alongside a c1900 Inuit propelling paddle (€7,500) of wood and whalebone – “an ethnographic item, quite plain, but its rarity is interesting,” Bacquart notes. “The market is strong for pieces of exceptional quality such as these.”
A paddle’s wet/dry lifestyle means that pristine examples are hard to come by – “The beauty, shape and patina of a piece all affect the price, as do traces of wear,” says Bacquart – but signs of use can add to the value, adds Australian dealer Richard Aldridge, specialist in New Guinea art and tribal artefacts. “The shiny sections on the shaft, where it has been worn smooth by thousands of strokes, are part of the appeal.” Aldridge recently sold a c1930s paddle from the Middle Ramu district of Madang Province in Papua New Guinea, with a mask-like face on the pommel and an abstract spirit figure on the blade, for $7,500. “People interested in Pacific culture can’t usually have a canoe in their house, but they can have a paddle – and they look great displayed on a wall.”
Also from Papua New Guinea is an attractively marked mid-20th-century Sepik river paddle that was showcased at Christie’s New York last year. With an initial estimate of $800-$1,200, it sold for $10,000 – a figure no doubt bolstered by its provenance from the estate of Peggy and David Rockefeller, but also reflecting a general upward trend in prices.
Interest is also high in the canoe culture of indigenous North Americans. Christie’s Paris sold a Haida paddle with black totemic markings in 2011 for €13,750, and an early-19th-century carved paddle from Maine’s Passamaquoddy people is available for £4,700 from Gloucestershire dealer Adam Prout, a co-founder of the Tribal Art London fair held every September.
California tech specialist Clinton Nagy has been collecting indigenous tribal art for over 40 years. He has 10 paddles in his home in San Francisco; four are Inuit and his oldest, c1750, is from the Cree tribe. “It may well be the oldest Cree paddle in existence,” he says of the piece, which is decorated with a zigzag pattern. “I’m attracted by their utilitarian simplicity, but also the cultural attributes and religious concepts behind the designs.”
This rich symbolism can be seen in a carved and painted late-19th/early-20th-century paddle of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth people of Vancouver Island, offered by Anthropos Gallery in Laguna Beach, California, for $1,950. It depicts two haietlik, mythological serpents said to have tongues that shot lightning bolts. “They were painted on the sides of canoes, paddles and harpoons to invoke spiritual aid in whaling,” says gallery owner Ronald Normandeau. “Lightning serpents were an integral part of Nuu-Chah-Nulth cosmology, important for the Wolf Dances.”
Which brings us to paddle-shaped objects that were not used to paddle but rather for ceremonial purposes, including an intricately carved c1820-1840 Austral Island paddle sold by Christie’s Paris last year for €17,500 – more than triple its estimate. “Paddles from the Austral Islands are appreciated for their craftsmanship,” says Bruno Claessens, European head of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s. “The fine details are incredible, especially as they were carved with stone or shark tooth.” Bacquart has a finely carved c1850 Austral Island paddle for €18,000, while a pair of c1940 ceremonial paddles from the Solomon islands are on 1stdibs for $24,975. “But the most sought after are those from Easter Island”, says Bacquart. “They are stylised anthropomorphic figures, which elevates them to sculpture.” As such, they can fetch sky-high prices: in 2017 a rare pair of sinuous c19th-century rapa (dance paddles) sold at Sotheby’s Paris for a record €3.88m – proof that water isn’t needed for a paddle to make a splash.