Rare Papua New Guinea Trobriand Kiriwina Island Massim Carved Black Palm Betel Nut Mortar


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Object Description

A Rare Papua New Guinea Trobriand Kiriwina Island Massim Carved Black Palm Betel Nut Mortar Carved with Interlocking Scrolls Infilled with White Lime the Body Tapering to a Loop Handle with Pierced Fins
The base with inventory number ‘4738’ and ‘New Guinea Wbstr 1898. P.’ painted in yellow
Mid 19th Century

Size: 13.5cm high, 5.5cm wide, 5cm deep – 5¼ ins high, 2¼ ins wide, 2 ins deep

Object History

Ex collection W.D. Webster (1868 – 1913) Bicester, U.K. inv. no. 4738
Ex collection Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827 – 1900) Rushmore Dorset acquired from Webster in 1898 (in catalogue of the collection Vol. 8 pg. 2189)
Thence by descent
Sold Christies London 2nd October, 1990, lot 76

cf: A similar Betel Nut Mortar in the Barbier-Mueller collection Geneva, Switzerland, formerly in the Beasley collection inv. no. 4154

Object Literature

Kiriwina is the largest of the Trobriand Islands and the entire Massim region’s contact with the west intensified in the last decade of the 19th century. Many Christian missionary stations were established during this period and consequently artefacts from the area were collected and taken back to Europe at this time, but most objects are now in museums and do not often appear on the open market.
Betel nuts are the seed of the Areca palm and the main stimulant used on the islands, although locally grown tobacco is also used. The main ingredients needed for chewing betel are the nuts, the fruit or leaf of the betel plant and lime made by burning coral. People with good teeth crush the nut, add the betel plant fruit and a little lime taken from a pot with the aid of a lime spatula. However, the elders of the community with fewer teeth use a mortar and pestle to crush the betel nut.
The art of the Trobriand Islands is distinguished by its refined curvilinear style. Objects are carved from ebony, black palm and turtleshell and then decorated with incised motifs that are filled in with lime to accentuate the designs. The Massim believe that all human activities can be furthered or hindered by magic, and material objects can play a role in this. A lime spatula or betel nut mortar over which the appropriate magic has been performed can greatly affect, even kill, a person to whom it is lent for use.

Object Details

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By appointment only.

Dealer Contact

+44 (0)7768 236921
+44 (0)7768 236921/+44 (0)7836 684133

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Suite 744
2 Old Brompton Road

Exhibition address:
Cromwell Place
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