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Yup'ik Native Masks Set to Fetch Millions

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Two masks from the Yup’ik tribe of western Alaska could fetch up to $2 million each for a Canadian art dealer and his clients at the 57th annual Winters Antiques Show in New York City.

If the pieces do sell at those prices, it will be a record for North American aboriginal artwork, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported Jan. 20. The show runs from Jan. 21 through 30.

They were formerly owned by Enrico Donati, the Italian-American surrealist painter, who bought them in the 1940s for $325 and $160, the Globe and Mail said. Donati died in 2008 at age 99, and his heirs are now putting the masks on the market.

The Canadian dealer Donald Ellis, based in Dundas, Ontario, is the longtime “go-to dealer for fine antique North American aboriginal art,” the newspaper said.

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One of the masks resided above the fireplace in Donati’s studio on Central Park South and is called the Studio Mask, according to the Globe and Mail. The second, the Fifth Avenue Mask, was in his apartment bedroom.

The Studio Mask is 34 inches tall, made of wood, sinew, vegetal fiber and feathers and represents the Yup’ik “rain spirit that brings warm weather,” the Globe and Mail said. This is its first time in public. The Fifth Avenue Mask is 35 inches tall and is a shaman’s mask.

The masks’ historical and cultural significance is grabbing media attention not only in its own right but also for the influence it had on a genre of modern art. Donati and his fellow surrealists were captivated with the pieces, and that was reflected in their own work.

“The influence of this mask and others ... on the group of Surrealists living in New York in the 1940s is immeasurable but undeniable,” John Molloy, a dealer who also advises Christie’s on Native American art, told the Wall Street Journal of the Studio Mask. “It’s a great piece and deserves to be the record-holder.”