Marceau Rivière and Desmond Morris: two ace art collectors sell up

Some intriguing art is appearing on the market for the first time, says Chris Carter.

Two fascinating collections have been in the news recently. The first belonged to Marceau Rivière, a French “traveller-collector” and writer of several books. His collection went up for sale at Sotheby’s in Paris last week, but it “was never intended to be a collection of masterpieces”, says Susan Moore in the Financial Times. Rather, its “integrity and its particular charm lie in being a record of a life spent beguiled by the peoples and material culture of Africa”.

Rivière was just eight years old when a missionary arrived in his village in Normandy bearing slides of the Congo. He was “mesmerised”, says Moore. Then, aged 11, he kicked off his collection with a Dan/Guere mask, bought from a rag-and-bone man and paid for in instalments from his pocket money. But his collection really got going when he joined the French camel corps in 1957 in Algeria, which was engaged in the collecting of samples for museums in Algiers and Tunis. Later, he worked as an engineer in Chad for an airline. For more than 20 years, he travelled around Africa, forging links with village chiefs and conducting research into indigenous art. In 1981 he opened a small gallery in Paris to house his collection from which 250 items appeared at the Sotheby’s sale. Most of the lots had been acquired decades ago and most had never been on the market before.

The stand-out piece was a moon mask made by the Baule people of the Ivory Coast (pictured above). It sold for €4.7m last week, fetching the third-highest price ever for an African mask. In total, the auction raised €11.5m. Rivière, now 82, referred to the sale as a “remarkable adventure”.

The second collection making headlines will appear at Bonhams in London on Wednesday. It belongs to Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape. Following the death of his wife, Ramona, last year, Morris decided to downsize and move to Ireland, and no longer has room for his 11,000 books, artworks and artefacts. In the decades spent since publishing his seminal book on human behaviour – published in 1967, the same year in which he began collecting – Morris has amassed a world-renowned collection of early Cypriot art, along with Canaanite figurines, Persian pottery (see below) and Iranian Amlash female figures displaying what Morris refers to as steatopygia – the pronounced hips and buttocks that may now be better known as “Kardashian syndrome”, as Morris told David Sanderson says in The Times. The 91-year-old is selling up as he wants to start a new life. “I have new projects I want to undertake. New areas of study.”

But he’s hanging on to “a few oddities”, including the cowrie shell he bought on Christmas Island and a Cypriot terracotta sculpture he acquired in 1967. “I bought it just before The Naked Ape, which took up the little money I had in those days,” he tells Sanderson. “I can’t let it go.”


Two striking lots

A Dan statue of a walking spoon, from the Rivière collection (see above), is “pure joy”, says Susan Moore in the Financial Times. It looks like something Walt Disney would have come up with for his 1940 animated film Fantasia, but the concept of a spoon/ladle with legs, known as “megalumia”, is far older. Its purpose was ceremonial. Women would compete against one another to be the most generous in distributing food to the community, according to the auction catalogue note. The winner of the contest would be given the spoon and the title of wakede, meaning “queen of the feast” in the Dan language of the Ivory Coast, for her largesse at the table. It fetched €972,500, far surpassing its €600,000 upper estimate.

From the Morris collection, a large Persian pottery bowl (above) from the second to third centuries BC is one of the most striking lots. It is painted on three sides and shows a line of bearded goats and a hunter with a bow and arrow, and what looks like a dog on a leash. “I think this is the earliest depiction of the domestication of the dog,” Morris tells Lucinda Bredin in Bonhams magazine. The dog is shown with a lead and collar and he is in competition with a shaggy-coated wolf, which is bristling on the other side of the vase. “It gives us an insight into how these people went hunting – with a herding dog and a hunting dog… Isn’t it astonishing that 6,000 years ago the domestication of the dog was being recorded on this pot?” It is expected to sell for £20,000-£30,000.


Auctions

Going…

A signed first-edition copy of The Ascent of Everest is to be sold by Philip Serrell Auctioneers in Malvern, Worcestershire, next month. The book charts the first ascent of the world’s highest mountain, which was achieved by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, the year the book was published. The copy for sale bears their signatures, as well as those of Charles Wylie and Wilfred Noyce, who were also on the expedition, which was led by the book’s author, John Hunt. “Tenzing Norgay rarely signed books,” Serrell, the auctioneer, tells BBC News. “Sometimes you hold things in this business and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.” It has been valued at up to £1,100.

Gone…

Luca Pacioli’s Summa de Arithmetica sold for $1.215m at Christie’s in New York earlier this month. The Franciscan friar published the book in Venice in November 1494. It was one of the first on algebra to be published in the West in the vernacular – Italian in this case. Summa de Arithmetica also contains a chapter explaining to European merchants the advantages of keeping their books in the new two-column Venetian style, a method that is today known as double-entry book-keeping. The book, one of 2,000 from the first print run, would have cost 119 soldi when hot off the press – not cheap, but not beyond the means of a wealthy Italian merchant.