Inventory no.: 4049

Massim Sculpture, Milne Bay, New Guinea


Fine, Carved Ancestor Figure with Lime Inlay

Massim People, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

collected in & so before 1945

height: 28.5cm, width: 12.5cm

This very charming and well-proportioned image of a human figure is from the Massim people of Milne Bay in eastern New Guinea. It has been carved from a single piece of wood, perhaps kwila wood (Intsia palembanica).

According to two old labels affixed to the base, the item was collected from Milne Bay in November 1945 in exchange for some supplies (some of the writing is now indistinct.)

The figure has been decorated with light carving including numerous solar-like motifs, front, back and along the narrow sides and then this carving has been filled with powdered-lime highlights.

According to Peltier & Morin (2010, p. 183), free-standing human figures are comparatively rare among the Massim. There is no evidence that such figures were meant to represent ancestors or culture heroes, but instead, they appeared to serve as vessels in which spirits could dwell, as a protective device for the owner of such objects.

The item here appears to be carved in the tradition of Mutuaga, a celebrated Masssim carver who was active in the 19th and early 20th centuries and who died around 1920. Mutuaga did not adopt Christianity, but gained the friendship and patronage of the missionary Charles Abel at the nearby Kwato Island Mission. Interestingly, the label affixed to the base of the item here includes the word ‘Abel’ with the surrounding words being indistinct.

Sotheby’s New York in their ‘African and Oceanic Art’ sale of November 19, 1999, had what appears to have been a related sculpture, as lot 169. This example was deemed to be carved in Boitalu style, Kiriwini Island, Trobriand Islands.

The item is in excellent condition.


Peltier, P. & F. Morin, Shadows of New Guinea: Art from the Great Island of Oceania in the Barbier-Mueller Collections, Somogy, 2007.

Starzecka, D. C., R. Neich & M. Pendergrast,

The Maori Collections of the British Museum, British Museum Press, 2010.


UK art market; UK private collection

Inventory no.: 4049