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updated: 12/21/2013 8:22 AM

Art from Bali is wonderful to contemplate

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  • (Newscom TagID: shnsphotos148273.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

    (Newscom TagID: shnsphotos148273.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

By Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Q. When I was 12 or 13 years old I walked into a store that sold "different" items. I saw a head figure made of wood and bought it. It is now 40 years later and I would like to find out something about this figure. Any information would be appreciated.

A. We suppose a discussion of this beautiful bust of a woman wearing a flower crested headpiece needs to start with the place of origin -- and that is Bali.

Bali is an island that is the smallest province of Indonesia. This place, which many consider to be a romantic paradise, is located between the islands of Java and Lombok and is at the end of the Lesser Sunda Islands. Significantly, almost 85 percent of the population of around 4 and a quarter million are Balinese Hindus and this has greatly influenced the island's art.

Bali is known for its dance and music, its leather work, metal work and wood sculpture. In the United States, Balinese leather shadow puppets often turn up as do a variety of woodcarvings made from several types of wood.

In many cases, the sculptures represent various Hindu deities, and Balinese Hindus recognize several that are followed nowhere else in the Hindu world. Hinduism reportedly came to Indonesia from India during the 5th century of the Common Era (formerly referred to as "AD").

In most of the places in Indonesia Hinduism was gradually replaced by Buddhism and then by Islam - but in Bali, their form of Hinduism survives to this day and is celebrated in much of their art. It is hard for Westerners to untangle all the beliefs of Hinduism and to understand the mythology -- and we are not even going to try because the pieces in today's question is not a depiction of a religious figure but a portrait of a beautiful woman who may have actually lived.

However, as we look at sales records for Balinese carvings we see many depictions of traditional mythological figures such as lion/birds, quasi-human figures with tusks, and a figure riding a winged creature with elaborate tail feathers. This later piece is often associated with Visnu.

These are all very strange (to Western eyes) and wonderful to contemplate, but we have no idea what legend or deity they may represent and we could find no illuminating descriptions in the catalogs we discovered. In any event, the figure in today's question is not mythological, but very real.

We found a tradition of carving representations of beautiful women, some men, and some fierce heads of stylized warriors. Usually the figures are wearing some sort of headdress or hat that can vary greatly but the high arching piece seen in today's question is typical.

We were sent some very good pictures and in one of them we see that the piece has been cracked. This is not all that unusual because the carvers working for the tourist trade do not allow their wood to season and these cracks occur frequently. This one is not terribly unsightly but to a collector it would be worrisome.

The value on piece such as this one differs from day to day. At one auction this head could sell for $200, but at another it might bring only $50. In our opinion, this sculpture was essentially new when it was purchased in the '60s, and has an insurance replacement value in the $150 to $250 range.

• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.

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