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Exotic marble & bronze bust of opera queen performs well at Bonhams
This marble and bronze bust of an African Queen who marries a Portuguese explorer to save her lover’s life, was created by an Italian sculptor. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- A stunning bust with an extraordinary story that moves between the worlds of early African exploration, opera, art and romance sold for £97,250 at Bonhams sale of Fine European Furniture, Sculpture and Works of Art on July 5th in London.

In a packed sale room, bidders competed for the magnificent sculpture, which depicts the African Queen, Selika, a principal character in the Opera L’Africaine. Selika’s story is a dramatic tale of love and loss as she takes desperate measures to save her lover’s life, by marrying a Portuguese explorer.

The striking figure was created by an Italian sculptor, Luigi Pagani (1837 – 1904) in white marble and patinated bronze and stands at an imposing 33-inches tall (85cm). The story of this tragic and intriguing character is set to music by a German composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer and was first performed in Paris on the 25th April in 1865 to rapturous applause.

François Le Brun, Head of European Furniture at Bonhams comments: “This striking and unusual figure is a stunning example of 19th century sculpture, which deserves a great deal of admiration. It has been exciting to see so much interest in this fascinating piece, which goes hand in hand with a dramatic story.”

A fine example of French Grand Opera, very popular toward the latter 19th century, L'Africaine stages impressive scenes with elaborate costume and spectacular finales. It tells a mythical story set around the Portuguese Explorer Vasco de Gama based on the 'discoveries of the new world'. Nelusko and Selika both King and Queen of their native East-India are found and captured by the Portuguese explorer and returned to Lisbon as proof of his discovery of new and uncharted territory. The jealous Nelusko loves Selika, but she decides to marry Vasco de Gama in a bid to secure Nelusko's life.

Later, Vasco is reunited with his former love Inez who believed him dead. The opera ends with Inez and Nelusko in despair over the marriage, taking their own lives by inhaling the scent of a deadly blossom from the Machineel tree. It is an opera rich with tales of romance, intrigue and despair.

Further top selling lots in the sale included exquisite French late 19th century furniture. A fine bureau, ornately decorated, ormolu-mounted satiné, oeil de vermeil and kingwood parquetry, by Millet sold for £49,250, an ormolu-mounted maple, mahogany, citronnier and fruitwood marquetry breakfront commode sold for £43,250 and a rare ebony and ebonised Japanese lacquer bureau sold for £39,650.

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