Akan Gold Weight

HCK 0619-8

Akan Gold Weight – figuring two Birds (Ducks), Ivory Coast.

One of the most popular pieces of Akan art are the Akan gold weights. The gold weights are made of either bronze, copper and brass. They were cast using a method of casting known as lost-wax technique* (“cire perdue” in French*). Gold weights were created for economic transactions involving gold. Although it is not clear when the convention of weights was first introduced, scholars suggest that the Akan first traded Muslim merchants from the West African interior, long before European contact. Their weight system corresponds to the Islamic weight system of North Africa and appear to be part of early sub-Saharan trade.

The gold weights served a vast number of roles in their culture and everyday life. Akan gold weights are used as counterbalances on the scales used in gold trade, visual representations of oral tradition, representations of proverbs, as pictographic script in social and political system, and in the knowledge system of the Akan people. Gold weights were used in everyday trade and commerce, as well as in accounting, as a type of fraction or counter. According to the Akan scholar Nitecki, Akan gold weights were “created and used like spoken language to commemorate social or historical events or entities, to express philosophical or religious views, aspirations, and dreams, or simply to ask questions, or to express displeasure”. The Akan pyramids were concrete testimonials to how the artist felt about themselves and major life events and dilemmas such as marriage, children, injustice, and personal and statewide conflicts.

There are four major categories of gold weights, based on what was depicted. The first kind of gold weights depict people. The second consist of the local animals, birds, flora and fauna. The third category are likened to man-made objects. The final category is abstract and open for interpretation by individual. The motif with two birds is a very classic theme and often seen in museum collections.

*) The lost wax process (cire perdue) involves first the creating of the item in very hard wax. Very fine clay substance is carefully placed in all of the figure’s “cavities” to eventually form a “shell” of the clay packed around figure. When the clay is dry and hard, several small holes will be drilled in the clay shell, which will then be placed in an oven or on a fire, after which all wax flows out. Then, the cavity is filled out with a liquid bronze (copper, tin and led together with arsenic). The lead is to make the metal more fluid and arsenic to make the shape more durable. Finally, when the figure is dry and hard, the clay shell breaks and hopefully a beautiful and complete casting will show. If everything is successful you stand with this small ‘miracle’ of a gold weight. Thus, multiple copies cannot be made without restarting the entire process.

Age: 18th–19th century

Condition: This beautiful Gold Weight figure appears in a beautiful and flawless bronze casting.

Measure: H: 47 mm, W: 57 mm, D: 20 mm – Weight: 25 grams

Provenience: From a Belgium private collection and acquired through an art dealer in Bruxelles.

Literature: G. Hiangoran-Bouah;”The Akan World of Gold Weights”-“The Weights and Society”,
Book III 1987
Albert Ott; Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, Vol. 9 (1968), pp. 17-42

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