Q: My brother was in the Merchant Marine around the end of World War II. He picked this up in Bali and brought it home to give to me. It has been sitting in a corner for about 50 years and I have begun to wonder if it has any value. The wood carving is quite good. Also, I do not know what type of wood it is. Thank you for your help.
A: Bali is an island province of Indonesia, located between Java to the west and Lombak to the east. Balinese art has its origins in Hindu-Javanese culture and grew from the work of artisans of the Majapahit Kingdom, which ranged from Sumatra to New Guinea and included such places as Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand. Balinese art is known for its paintings (including painted masks), woodcarving, stone carving and gold and silver metalsmithing.
The inscription on the bottom of this piece tells the story, to a certain degree. M. D. Panti is the artist, but while we found a number of examples of his work, we found no biographical information. The notation “Denpasar, Bali,” indicates that the artist worked in the Balinese capital of Denpasar. But this is not the place where the best Balinese art was made. For woodcarving, that was Mas, which is a village located in the Ubud district.
Since the piece was made in Denpasar, which has the international airport and the port, we feel it was strictly carved for tourists and sailors and is of a very standard quality. Such pieces are sometimes called “airport art,” which suggest they were made to be picked up by tourists as they entered or left the country.
The image of a bare-breasted woman might have appealed to a sailor in the Merchant Marine, but it is often found paired with a male counterpart. Unfortunately, since this is a single figure rather than a pair of figures, its retail value is greatly reduced.
As for the wood this piece is made from, there are two choices. Teak is probably the leading candidate, but Balinese carvers also used “Suar” or “Rainwood.” This is a brown wood with a crisscrossed, interlocking grain that resisted cracking when the item was moved from the wet tropics to drier climates somewhere else in the world.
The variety of Balinese wood sculptures is staggering. Standard images of Legong dancers, Buddha, a variety of animals such as piglets and sows, Garuda and such often turn up in Western markets. If you search the Web, some of these will have very high prices attached to them, but when auction records are perused, it become apparent that these astronomical figures are mainly wishful thinking.
If the piece in today’s question is not of an unusual size, its insurance replacement value is probably in the $200 to $300 range.
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