What you see: Magatama, a 1946 sculpture carved from onyx by Isamu Noguchi. Wright estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.
Who is Isamu Noguchi? Born in Los Angeles to an American mother and a Japanese father, he grew up in both countries and became a leading sculptor of the 20th century. He also created memorable furniture designs for the Herman Miller company. He created what is now the Noguchi Museum in 1985 in Queens. He died in Manhattan in 1988 at the age of 84.
What does Magatama mean? It’s a word that describes curved beads that appear in jewelry and ceremonial objects from pre-historic Japan.
How often did Noguchi sculpt in onyx? “Pretty darn infrequently. The sculpture itself is unique,” says Richard Wright, founder and president of the eponymous auction house, noting that he made at least one other sculpture in the semi-precious material. Its whereabouts are unknown.
What makes Magatama such a powerful sculpture? “The best Noguchi sculptures, to my thinking, are directly carved in stone. He did work in other materials, but stone is best,” he says. “To me, the striations are almost like a counterpoint. It’s linear, while the form is round and smooth. It’s sensuously curved. He must have enjoyed the opposition of the strong, linear lines over the curved form. And the spiral itself is an ancient symbol of the universal and the infinite.”
How does the sculpture’s celebrity provenance–Noguchi gave it to director John Huston, and it was later owned by actor Tab Hunter–affect its presale estimate? “It’s been 20 years since a Noguchi stone sculpture from the 1940s has come to market,” he says. “It’s never been to auction. It’s clearly a work that’s exceptional and has a nice backstory. It adds collector interest that hopefully translates to additional value.”
Magatama measures just over three inches high, just over five inches wide, and five inches in diameter. How does it feel to hold it in your hand? “It feels pretty good,” Wright says. “I’m sure through its life it was often picked up. The scale of it, the weight of it, the smooth feeling of it makes you want to hold it. It’s impressive. And it does have a really strong presence in person. It radiates an aura.”
Images are courtesy of Wright.