Congo the chimpanzee led a brief artistic career and enjoyed little critical success, despite the patronage of his contemporary and fellow abstract painter, Pablo Picasso. But nearly half a century after Congo's artistic career, some of his paintings are going on sale at a prestigious London auction house alongside works by Andy Warhol and Renoir.
Three tempera on paper works — brightly colored compositions of bold brushstrokes — will be featured as a single lot in the sale of Modern and Contemporary Art at Bonhams on June 20, the auctioneer said Wednesday. The lot estimate is between $1,130-$1,500.
Bonhams said it believed the auction is a first.
"I would sincerely doubt that chimpanzee art has ever been auctioned before," said Howard Rutkowski, the auction house's director of modern and contemporary art. "I don't think anybody else has been crazy enough to do this. I'm sure other auction houses think this is completely mad."
Congo, who was born in 1954, produced some 400 drawings and paintings between the ages of 2 and 4. It was not immediately known if he was still alive, a Bonhams spokeswoman said.
In 1957, animal behaviorist Desmond Morris organized an exhibition of chimpanzee art at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, including works by Congo. Critics reacted with a mixture of scorn and skepticism, but Picasso is recorded as having owned a painting by Congo, Bonhams said.
"Paintings by apes may be seen as humorous or as a derisive commentary on modern art," the auction house said in its lot description. "However, Morris' studies were a serious attempt to understand chimpanzees' ability to create order and symmetry as well as to explore, at a more primeval level, the impetus behind our own desires for artistic creativity."
Congo quickly learned how to handle a brush and pencils, instead of knocking them over or trying to eat them. He painted within the boundaries of the sheet of paper and never allowed the paint to spill over the edge. He also appeared to know when he had finished a painting: He refused to pick up his brush or pencil over the work.