Vibrant Memories of an Expedition to Alaska

Thursday, June 9th 2022

La Gazette Drouot, Sarah Hugounenq

A château in Touraine, a bowl carved with prophylactic animals, full of geraniums, the memory of a grandfather who left for Alaska during the time of the first explorers: all these are the ingredients of the Rouillac auction house’s new discovery.
Vibrant Memories of an Expedition to Alaska

Bowler hats, wing collars and spats contrast with a nonchalant pose straddling the boom of a sailboat moored to a pontoon in the middle of Alaska. In 1889, these four young aristocrats from Brittany and Touraine were among the first Westerners to set foot on the soil of British Columbia and Alaska. The "Great Land" had been bought by the United States from Russia 20 years earlier. The young, well-born, erudite Georges and Abel de Massol de Rebetz, accompanied by their cousin Xavier de Monteil and the photographer Georges de La Sablière, set out on an expedition to the Great American North. The adventure lasted a summer, then the two brothers returned to their lives as responsible family men, burying the memories of their glorious youth. Now in the Xavier Monteil collection at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, the sepia photograph was one of the scant witnesses of this private expedition carried out by the French aristocrats—until the Rouillac auction house discovered material proof of their adventure in a château in Touraine.

Family Memories

Called in to sort through the family heirlooms that had piled up in the attic over the generations, Philippe Rouillac shrewdly sensed something. "There were all sorts of things: shawl chests from the reign of Charles X, armchairs, family portraits, and on a rickety table a carved wooden bowl planted with geraniums. I thought it might be more than a mere jardinière. No one knew how this object came into the family. We decided to bring it back and start looking into it." The verdict of expert and dealer Anthony Meyer of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, an authority on ethnic art, was that the bowl was nothing less than a ceremonial vessel for fine food, such as salmon, used by the Haida or Tlingit peoples of the 18th century. In the light of this assertion, family memories resurfaced, including of this forebear who set out for Alaska at the age of 27. Further explorations of the attic unearthed a trunk in animal hide and documentation for the expedition, with historical maps and tourist proto-manuals. There was also a Tsimshian or Haida ceremonial paddle, complete with its decorative horsehair locks, a pair of small polychrome paddles, a box with a lid engraved with zoomorphic heads and a pair of suede boots sporting pendants. In this group, coming up for sale at Rouillac’s 34th Garden Party on June 20 at the Château d'Artigny, the ceremonial bowl will be the star item.

A Living Object

Its construction makes it one of the most elaborate examples known to date. Every detail illustrates the high degree of technical mastery achieved by these cultures. The monoxylous four-sided bowl was shaped from a single plank of wood, first softened and then curved using steam. The whole unit is pegged to the bottom and stitched together with beaten pine root. The engraving on the surface, worked in contrast, shows a mythological animal. According to expert Anthony Meyer, this totemic emblem is a sea bear, with its hatched nose and teeth on the front, arms and claws on the sides, and a whale’s tail rising up on the back. Much-needed restoration of the inlaid sea snail opercula and slivers of iridescent abalone will restore its singular luster to the object. Somewhere between myth and technical sophistication, the organic lines on the curved walls of the bowl seem to move in rhythm to the breath swelling the belly of this legendary creature.


Although European museums contain a few ceremonial bowls from the American North-west, none rival this high degree of technical skill. The Museum of Canadian History, in Gatineau, Quebec, is one of the few to own a similar example, representing a whale. “Few French people have visited or explored this region, so the public is less aware of this art than we could wish," says Anthony Meyer. “The quai Branly Museum has some beautiful Haida art objects, including a bird headdress. But it has very few sculptures, and these objects were acquired on the market, not from a French expedition. In addition to the pure lines and celebration of woodworking techniques, like these rhythmic lines inside the bowl evoking mat weaving, the discovery of this evidence in the same family 130 years after the objects were brought back is remarkable, as is the presence of photographs and archives of the expedition at the quai Branly Museum." Emphasizing the rarity of this discovery, the expert says he has seen only ten to fifteen similar bowls come on the European public market (including three or four in France) over the last half century. Offered at €40,000/60,000, will the discovery help to remedy France’s ignorance of this terra incognita?

Monday 20 June 2022 - 14:00 (CEST) - Live
Château d'Artigny, 92, rue de Monts - 37250 Montbazon

Tsimshian or Haida, late 18th/early 19th century. Ceremonial bowl with sea bear, alder (?), cedar, beaten cedar root cord, abalone (Haliotis), sea snail (Pomaulax gibberosus) opercula, patina arising from use, 3,208 g/7 lb, 22 x 55 x 41 cm/8.7 x 21.7 x 16.1 in.
Estimate: €40,000/60,000

Tlingit (?), Alaska, collected before 1889. Box with lid, wood and pigments, h. 8.0/3.1 in, l. 20 cm/7.9 in.Estimate: €1,000/1,500
Tlingit (?), Alaska, collected before 1889. Box with lid, wood and pigments, h. 8.0/3.1 in, l. 20 cm/7.9 in.
Estimate: €1,000/1,500

Tsimshian or Haida, collected before 1889. Ceremonial paddle, polychrome wood and horsehair, ancient patina arising from use, l. 210 cm/82
Tsimshian or Haida, collected before 1889. Ceremonial paddle, polychrome wood and horsehair, ancient patina arising from use, l. 210 cm/82.7 in.
Estimate: €1,000/1,500
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