"I’m at the pathological end of openness."
If you look at the donor list of a major art museum or peruse the provenance of a historical work of African art, you’re likely to see the names ‘Drs Jean and Noble Endicott’ somewhere on either of those lists. And it’s a place rightfully earned.
The Endicotts have become central characters in the African art scene, having amassed thousands of African artworks during their almost-50 years of collecting.
To learn more about who exactly the collectors are behind their titles, we spent an afternoon with Jean and Noble at their New York apartment. In this ‘Collector Spotlight’, we share edited excerpts from our conversation.
Strap in, we were there for ten hours (and could have kept going)! We start with a ‘brief’ overview into longevity and Noble’s research into the brain and the mind…
"There’s a phenomenon in psychology called the ‘five-factor personality theory’. It is the most commonly accepted personality theory and the five factors are neuroticism, extraversion/introversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness. I’m like at the pathological end of openness."—Noble Endicott
[NOBLE] I was 26 and Jean was eighteen when I met her. I met her in August, and we got married in June the next year—within eleven months of meeting each other. Once, I took a residency at a state hospital… only the dredges of society do that. But I did it because I wanted to get into psychoanalysis and I wanted to send Jean to university.
I borrowed eight hundred dollars to get through medical school because back then, at the University of Texas, you could live and pay your bills on one hundred bucks a month. I bought a car with it so that I could drive back and forth to Austin to court Jean, which I did. But then I had to work to make the money needed to live on.
Medical students could take a weekend course and then work as nurses because we knew about the medications—they had to teach us how to change bedpans and make beds though! So anyhow, they put me on the tuberculosis (TB) ward from eleven at night to seven in the morning—the worst ward with the worst shifts.
When we entered medical school, they tested all of us for TB, we were all middle-class types. No one tested positive. They tested us again after we left medical school and everyone was positive but nobody actually got TB. It’s a disease that’s class related just as longevity is class related—middle-class people live ten years longer than lower class people and upper-class people live three years longer than middle-class people. Same goes for education too, the more educated you are, the longer you’re predicted to live. The woman that discovered this was studying property deeds and she found that people that had one additional year of schooling, when mandatory schooling was for six years instead of four in the United States, lived longer those with the standard six years of schooling. People with seven years of education lived longer than people with six, people with eight lived longer than those with seven, and so on… Some studies have found however that post-graduate education doesn’t add anything where others have found that it adds a little.
Other things that are favourable to longevity are only having one anomalous brain condition, remaining intellectually active, being in a good marriage, having a strong circle of friends, good medical care, wealth, diet, blah, blah, blah. But these only account for about thirty percent of predicted longevity. Another item, I don’t know how much, is genetics.
I measured brain organisation to determine the effect of anomalous brain conditions on longevity. I’m studying 450 women that I treated more than twenty years ago. One of them was a patient of mine over fifty years ago and almost thirty women were patients of mine almost forty years ago. Nineteen of the 450 women studied had no anomalous brain conditions—eight of them are now deceased. The youngest age of death was eighty, the average age at death was 86 and the oldest age was 93.
On the other end, I have 69 patients who had seven or more anomalous brain conditions. The oldest age at death was 73 and the average age was 59. There’s no overlap in age between the two groups suggesting that your brain organisation plays a role in longevity.
They’re doing a thing now called the Human Connectome Project (HCP), which is like a roadmap of the brain, and when they get that done, we may be able to answer the question, 'why is this person a collector?'.
[NOBLE] We got this mask fragment when we first started collecting. We used to visit Park Bennett—it’s Sotheby’s now—and right there on Madison was a hotel, you know the ones that have offices on the ground floor. The mask was sitting in the window of a gallery that didn’t deal in African art.
I looked at it, looked at it, and looked at it. I went there to look at it often. Then one day, when the gallery owner wasn’t there, I went in to ask the assistant how much it was. It was $12,000... and this was in 1976! It was a lot of money.
I brought Alfie Scheinberg, who was a dealer, over to the gallery with me to have a look at the mask. He told me that yeah, it was a masterpiece but that it was overpriced. So anyhow, I kept going back to the gallery over the next three to four years but the price stayed the same and the dealer didn’t sell it, he didn’t sell it, he didn’t sell it.
Eventually, I took $10,500 out of the bank in cash and put it in my pocket. I went over to the gallery and told the dealer that it was a wonderful piece but the reason he wasn’t selling it was because it was overpriced. I mean twelve thousand for a fragment in America… you’ll never sell it! He agreed and said that it was probably true that he' paid too much for it. I asked if he would take nine thousand in cash for it. He said, well make it ten thousand…[Noble smacks his lips in delight]!
[NOBLE] I got into making jewellery out of old, mostly African, beads. I opened a store on Madison Avenue to sell the stuff. We did that before we started collecting African art. This is the biggest mistake of my life because I hired an ex-patient to run the store and Jean’s laughing now because she’s smart and I’m stupid—she warned me not to hire this person.
[NOBLE] So I made ethnographic jewellery. Back then, I didn’t know this but ethnographic jewellery was sort of in, I just happened upon it. I made an ivory bid once and put it in the store window. We didn’t sell it, we didn’t sell it, we didn’t sell it. I was bitching to a friend, asking: "how come we can't sell the thing, look at it it’s gorgeous, it’s unique, blah, blah blah. He asked, "what are you asking for it?” I said five hundred dollars and he said "that’s why you can’t sell it, you have to ask for ten thousand dollars! You’re on Madison Avenue now, you won't sell it at five hundred dollars, it’s too cheap!" So I moved it up. I couldn’t go to ten so I moved it to five and [Noble claps], we sold it!
We really did start collecting African art seriously in 1972 when a patient died and left me twenty-five thousand dollars in her will. Every nickel we got after that was spent on African art, I don’t have a dime currently! I have this, our collection, but this is not very liquid. It’s easier to buy than to sell.
[JEAN] The only thing I disagree with would be times when Noble’s wanted to spend more money than I think we can afford.
[NOBLE] There was a little squatting Benaluluwa that Merton Simpon had. It was bare, it'd been stripped clean but it was still wonderful. He wanted like five thousand dollars for it and I said that I was going to buy it. Jean raised hell! And so I didn’t buy it but of course, I still think about it. It went to Irwin Hersey and then I believe Udo Horstmann bought it from him [see page 109 of Close Up: Lessons in the Art of Seeing African Sculpture to see the squatting Beneluluwa].
[JEAN] But in terms of whether we want it or not, whether we like a piece or not, we connect and have very similar likes and tastes. We can go to shows or visit collections and we will almost always lust after the same two or three works. Neither of us had families that collected art, we weren’t exposed to art as kids but somehow we have the same taste. I may not be happy about how much money we’re paying for a piece but generally, if Noble thinks something is awesome, I think it’s awesome even if it's something we've seen independently.
[NOBLE] We can go into a collection, of abstract art say, and agree on pieces. In African art, we agree even more! I’ll have you do something. There are 168 pieces there on that wall. I'll have you pick out your favourite twenty. I don't want you to pick out what you think are the most expensive pieces, just the ones you like the most.
[We're told that this is a 'test' that Noble had every visitor to his home take. We were reassured that this isn’t a test in the traditional sense… there is no pass or fail, the point was to identify if being a collector of African art sways the pieces you select because, in this field of collecting, they are 'known' and 'classic'.]
[NOBLE] Jean liked thirteen of my twenty. Sometimes, as time passes, my top twenty changes and I only agree with myself fifteen or sixteen times. People who are collectors usually bat seven, eight or more with me. Non-collectors, like the wives or husbands of collectors; zero, one, two...
"If you stop looking, if you find that you walk in a room and never look at that piece, if it doesn't hold your interest then it's time to trade it."
[JEAN] I’m interested in faces, in expression. The face can't be dull or dead. But I’m also very fond of shapes and forms—the flutes and the dancing Lobi figure really hold my interest but if I had to pick, faces are what I look for, more so than figures and movement.
[NOBLE] I collect a lot of forms. See up there, they’re all non-figurative forms. The flute, the Zulu milk pale, the headrests.
[NOBLE] Made and used in the culture, not made and used by us or for us. If the collector has enhanced an object’s surface in any way, then I don't consider that to be authentic either. It’s a fake.
The Anglo-American system of justice holds that you are innocent until proven guilty. The French system is guilty until proven innocent. You should adopt a French system when collecting African art, but I’ve never been able to do that. I still buy fakes once in a while. I even bought some this year —I bought thirty-something pieces and two of them are fakes.
I didn’t return them to the dealer, I’ve almost never done that. Usually, I just hate them but I don’t return them. You really have to learn for yourself how to spot fakes.
[JEAN] I think early on, our enthusiasm was beyond our knowledge. Sometimes we'd get something home and it wasn't that we thought it was a fake but it just didn’t hold up.
[NOBLE] OK let me tell you. The first year of serious collecting, I bought three pieces, the second year I bought twenty-something pieces, the third year seventy-some. The third year was 1974! And between 1974 and forty years later, in 2014, we averaged over one hundred pieces each year. That's over a hundred pieces a year for forty years! Some years I bought two hundred pieces. New York was very different then, the African art scene was vibrant and you could find pieces.
[NOBLE] No, I wish I’d bought more because then I’d have more. I don't think about 'elevating' my collection by 'buying less but of higher quality'. I don’t try to elevate the collection, I just buy what I like.
Someone once asked me, "is your collecting an obsession or a compulsion?" I said well, if you want to throw it into a psychopathological framework, which apparently you do, then I'd say that it’s more like an addiction. I bought over a hundred pieces every year for forty years—this is not a flash in the pan! One African dealer, Suloman Dealy said: "every night, every African dealer in New York prays that Doctor Endicott wins the lottery!"
[NOBLE] It’s up to you baby! You can try to take it back but I don’t always have the balls to do that. I never sell fakes, we don’t sell the ones we think are fake because it’s dishonest. Am I the most honest person in the world, no but…
[NOBLE] I do struggle to let go but I sell to buy other African art.
[JEAN] But we’ve known collectors that would never sell!
[NOBLE] There was one collector we knew that had a huge collection. He’d brag that he never sold anything and I thought well, your collection shows that!
[NOBLE] We've sold a lot of masterpieces. Why? Well, you think I haven’t asked myself that? Hundreds of times, hundreds of times! Not once in a while but hundreds of times.
[JEAN] At the moment, there's always something that we want more. There’s one little Igbo ikenga I sold, it’s an absolute masterpiece, it’s in the Igbo book. Every time I see it I think, "oh my God what did you sell that for?”.
There’s also a Boki mask that I wish we had not sold. We wanted something else and we needed some money. It’s one of those tradeoffs you have to make and it's only later that you realise, oh no.
[NOBLE] No but if Jean’s married to it then I won’t sell it.
[JEAN] There’re things that he would have sold but I said NO!
[NOBLE] One time I gave a Dan mask to Bill Wright to sell and she didn’t tell me that she was married to the damn thing. She opens the door to the bedroom one night and shouts, "where’s the Dan mask?"
[JEAN] I knew instantly that it was gone. It was one of those that I look at every time I walk through the door.
[NOBLE] "Call him up, get it back right now! Call him up and get it back." So I did.
[JEAN] From then, I made sure to create a 'no-no' list. We went around and I said, "this, this, this, this, and this are on the 'no-no' list."
[NOBLE] The little nomoli, the Makonde lady over there that was in the Museum of African Art exhibition and in the 'African Art in American Collections' book—although she’s wearing a dress in the book.
The Yaka slit gong is also on the no-fly list. That’s actually in my top ten I’d say, in the whole collection.
I bought a Makonde mask, which you’ll see in the bedroom. It’s hard not to brag but it’s one of the best Makonde masks in the world. And Jean, to her credit, when we left the dealer Michael Oliver, she said, "We have to buy that mask". It was very expensive—tens of thousands and this was in the early '80s. I said to Michael, "I’ll buy it if you let me pay it off in monthly instalments of one thousand dollars.", and he said fine. Almost all the dealers will let you pay over time if they trust you.
[JEAN] Most of my favourite pieces are in the bedroom. If they’re a favourite piece they go in the bedroom or the study. My favourite piece is the little Makonde lady. Then there’s the crazy Senufo that I also like. I also really like the dancing Lobi, that's one with movement.
[NOBLE] The Kongo is one of the most valuable works in the collection. I was going to sell it so that I had some money to buy more and Amyas Naegele hit the fucking roof! I’ve never seen him so agitated. “Don’t sell that, that’s one of your masterpieces!” And when the dealer, Marc Felix came to visit, the only thing he said about the entire collection was to “never sell this piece.” For a long time, it was the most expensive piece in the collection. We got it from Merton Simpson in 1982. That’s thirty-five years ago, we’ve had it a long time.
[NOBLE] Yes of course it does. Now I don’t always care about provenance and I rarely research the provenance of a piece before I buy it. I could care less about if something is published or exhibited but when you’re trying to resell things, it makes a big difference.
If you're selling something, if it's been published it'll sell for more. It gives an unsure buyer the confidence they need. Also, it's not just that, you know Jackie Onassis's pearls, they were fake pearls that cost about two dollars from a dime store. There's a famous picture of John-John pulling on them so they sold for thousands of dollars! So why was it worth that much? It's worth that much cause it's worth that much. It's worth whatever you can sell it for.
If famous people owned a piece, particularly in African art, that has a way of elevating the sale price. Like there was a woman named Helena Rubenstein who was a cosmetics queen. If she owned a piece, even if it was a piece of shit, it'll sell for a fortune! If it's a piece that was with Charles Ratton, the first major African art dealer in Paris, it'll sell for a lot of money. Philippe Guimiot is another name. Famous dealers and collectors sell for more that's all. And if it's been published it'll sell for a little more. And if it's come from a famous collection it'll sell for even more.
"We started collecting African art probably because of its expressive power."
[JEAN] There are a couple of pieces at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and well, I like it! I enjoy that we are in the provenance. But it’s funny when you see a piece that you had in someone else’s collection, you think, "What! Why did we get rid of it?"
[JEAN] I think there were more people involved. Dealers would introduce you to other collectors and you'd get invited over to see their collections. When we started collecting, there were at least half a dozen full-time dealers in New York. There are very few open galleries these days. Bruce Frank is pretty much it and most are by appointment only. You only find out about them from other dealers and collectors. Dealers often don't advertise and there aren't as many shows either. There was much more action when we started.
[NOBLE] Michael Oliver told me that when he went into business forty-something years ago, New York was the centre of African art, more than Paris or Brussels. I find it very hard to believe. London, there were a few dealers but it was never a centre. Christie's and Sotheby's had their auctions there in the summer but there were only two or three galleries.
[JEAN] I think for me, it’s if you love something immediately that’s a good sign but depending on cost and who’s got it, you need to think twice. But if you’re afraid you’re going to lose it, then go for it. With African art, it’s an emotional reaction.
[NOBLE] Learn to tell real from fake. That’s my number one concern. So many collectors have spent a lot of money building collections with hundreds of fakes! I read your Collector Spotlight on Deb Glasser in which you asked her what she would tell new collectors. I've pretty much violated all seven rules that she gave but I agree in general with her recommendations.
And to close, here’s a little joke that Noble told us to bring a smile to our faces before we left:
The Timbuktu Joke
There’s a national contest of poetry. The two finalists are a Harvard English Lit major and an Aggie from Texas A&M. Their task, the masters of ceremonies says, is to develop a poem of four lines ending in the word ‘Timbuktu’.
They flip a coin and the Harvard English Lit major goes first. He says:
Across the burning desert sand,
Comes a lonely caravan.
Men on camels, two by two,
Their destination, Timbuktu.
Then the Aggie gets up and he says:
Tim and me a-hunting went,
Came across three whores in an old army tent.
They were three, we were two, what could we do?
I bucked one and Timbuktu!