Collector Spotlight

Marc Franklin, United States

September 01, 2019 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Before Marc Franklin moved to Stanford Law School where he ultimately became the Frederick I. Richman Professor of Law, he and his late wife, the former curator and journalist Ruth K. Franklin, were based on the opposite end of the country. The pair worked at Columbia University in New York where Marc taught law and Ruth worked for the dean of Columbia’s School of Journalism until 1962.

Marc met Ruth on a blind date in 1958, and the two were engaged a week later. What Marc recalls to be “one of those incredible love at first sight stories,” he says, had affected the pair’s love for African art, which they first learned about serendipitously on an outing with a tour group from Harvard, Ruth’s alma mater. In the same way, they had eyes only for one another, Marc said the same applied to their taste in objects. “We could see a gallery and within seconds both glom onto the same object,” Marc says.

With Ruth’s untimely death in 2000, the idea of collecting without Ruth was “appalling,” but Marc managed to continue. ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA had the opportunity to sit down with Marc to discuss what first interested him in African art, how the field has changed within his 57 years of collecting and how he has gone about building his collection after Ruth’s passing.

Chokwe Figure, Angola
Wood, Pigments. H: 51 cm
Provenance: Marc Felix || Marc Franklin Collection
"Chokwe! Art and Initiation Among Chokwe and Related People"
Birmingham Museum of Art, 1 November 1998 - 3 January 1999
Baltimore Museum of Art, 13 June - 5 September 1999
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 24 October 1999 - 16 January 2000

You and Ruth first encountered African art on an art tour with the Harvard-Radcliffe group that got them into the modern art collector, Ben Heller’s apartment. Will you describe what that was like?

We go over to his place—this was in April of 1960 or 1961—and in the living room, in the corner where two of his locally famous Jackson Pollocks didn’t quite meet was a tall vertical statue. We had no idea what the hell the statue was. None of the docents knew—all they knew was Jackson Pollock. When we called the next day and found out that what we had seen was a Vanuatu fern figure from the New Hebrides, we were stunned—and hooked.

Your interest in African art clearly didn’t begin and end in Ben Heller’s apartment. What did you do to learn more?

Columbia at that time was the only school we knew of that offered instruction in both African or Oceanic art, what they then called "primitive art." They also had the school of general studies that offered evening classes, so twice a week, after dinner, we went over to watch the slides that Douglas Fraser presented at night (Frank Wingert taught the subject during the day). Ruth took incredibly copious notes and copied the essence of the slides. Meanwhile, I was falling asleep—either because I had just had a large dinner or because I was teaching a full load daily.

After about a year or two of watching slides, Ruth said "this stuff is three-dimensional. I'd love to see it in its three dimensions." One Saturday we went to Madison Avenue, we walked into a couple of shops and they didn't throw us out. They treated us nicely. By the time we left New York we had bought three or four objects.

Songye Nkisi Power FIgure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Provenance: Purchased from Mathias Komor in 1962 || Marc Franklin Collection

You moved to California in 1962 to teach at Stanford. Did the move impact your collecting at all?

At that point, in Palo Alto, there was nothing of course. Perhaps more surprisingly, in San Francisco, there was also nothing. But I was committed to giving a lecture at Christmas time 1962 in L.A.—the first time we had ever been in L.A. We knew no-one there and so we looked in the Yellow Pages under 'art dealers'. We found a guy named Harry Franklin doing what he called "primitive art".

Oh, really? And he’s a Franklin!

And he was a Franklin! And his wife was named Ruth and we all loved Northern Chinese food.

In what ways did your relationship with Harry shape your collection at the time?

Harry was a dealer, and there was no competition really in L.A., but he was very secretive. If there had been anybody in Palo Alto, or in Portola Valley, where we were living at the time, or San Francisco, who also collected this kind of art, he would not have said a word.

We bought African and some New Guinea art from Harry. In 1965 I started giving four evening lectures every June in L.A. Every afternoon we spent at Harry's gallery on Rodeo Drive with an Ace hardware store next door and a soda fountain on the corner. Every evening, while I was lecturing, Ruth would spend time with them. She learned an enormous amount about African art.

Every June, we bought a few things from Harry that he would let us pay off monthly because it was the lectures that were providing the money for the payments—and he enjoyed the notes that Ruth wrote with each check.

Then, in 1973 we moved to San Francisco.

Yoruba Iroke Ifa Divination Tapper, Nigeria
Provenance: Robert Ohashi, Seattle || Marc Franklin Collection

What did the move do for you and Ruth in terms of art collecting?

That year, Erle Loran had a show called African and Ancient Mexican Art: The Loran Collection at the De Young Museum of African and Pre-Columbian art. Ruth says "look at that." We see it on a Saturday, and Ruth immediately sits down and writes one of her super notes to Erle Loran. She gives it to the curator at the museum who sends it on to Erle.

Tuesday Erle picks up the phone and calls: “I got your note. Come on over.” He was the first collector of tribal art we ever met. He told us about the giant network of dealers and collectors of tribal art. Erle really played a great role in our lives.

Up to this point, 1973, how many artworks were you purchasing a year?

Oh, two or three. Then it explodes. In the ’70s, we started to meet all these people and they started to toss things at us! Every time a 'runner' came to the Berkeley Plaza Motel, Erle called and we dutifully went.

Bangwa Figure, Grasslands Cameroon
Marc Franklin Collection

So it sounds like moving to San Francisco not only expanded your network but also made you think more critically about art collecting. Who else did you meet that was especially influential?

We met John Haley at the outset.

The real breakthrough came in 1975. Erle asks us, “Do you know Herb Baker?” Who? Nope. Herb Baker comes over to the house. He walks in and says, “Hey, you guys are collectors!” First time we’d ever heard that word applied to us. We looked at each other and asked aloud as I recall: “Is this a collection?” We thought we just had a mishmash of stuff we liked. From that point on, however, we knew we were collectors.

What he meant by the word “collector”, I believe, was that we had a significant amount of work. It could all have all been rubbish but because of the quantity, we were still collectors. But the thing is, back then—in the mid-70s—the prices were so low that it didn't pay to fake things, so we actually managed to build a collection that wasn’t rubbish… somehow. Boy, it’s a very different world now—in those days why would anybody fake something? Because it was what, $8,000 by the time the object passed through six or eight on its way to New York or L.A.

In 1976, we arranged a house swap with Harvey Menist—an American dealer who had settled in Amsterdam—which gave us access to Amsterdam and Brussels, the centre, back then, of African art. From that point, we started to buy occasionally up to between forty and fifty objects in a year. It was just incredible! It exploded! We went to the BRUNEAF fairs in Brussels, to Parcours des Mondes in Paris, and to the San Francisco Tribal and Textile show in Fort Mason every year.

But eventually, we had to prune. We started swapping things. I admire the people who have only eight or ten objects and every time they buy something new, they get rid of something in their collection... because they only have ten or twelve. Or those who collect from only one country—say Cote d’Ivoire.

Kongo Staff, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Marc Franklin Collection

You and Ruth made all of your purchases together. How did her passing affect your collecting habits?

For 38 years, whatever Ruth and I did, we did together. I remember that Herb Baker was once asked in an interview about couples collecting and if two pairs of eyes can work together (he collected with his wife Nancy) and Herb replied, “no, no, no, it’s not possible. I'm the one with the eyes. Nancy buys things because I say they're great”, insinuating that it can’t be done equally because one has the better eye or the money. In our case, that's just not what happened. What happened with us was quite the opposite. Ruth and I could walk into a gallery and within seconds both glom onto the same object.

I recall that once at an opening of Reginald Groux’s gallery on Rue Visconti in Paris, the mob entered as the clock struck whatever it was. Ruth took the small main floor in with one long look and headed up the narrow staircase. I followed. On the way up she paused and grabbed something. That indeed was the only thing we bought that night. The excitement surrounding every major Paris opening is one of the most exciting things I recall about our collecting abroad.

Ruth died, and my attitude toward collecting was not at all clear. We didn't do anything separately in art, or otherwise, while she was living. I remember going to a dinner with fellow collectors about two or three weeks after she died, where one of them says “Well, of course, you're going to keep collecting aren't you?” I hadn't even thought about it. It was an appalling thought. I ultimately did continue, but it's a very different kind of collecting because now it's all me.

Do you see it as two distinct collections? The Marc and Ruth collection and now the Marc collection?

I've never thought about it that way. From 1973, after we came out from Harry Franklin’s influence, we were exposed to so many different dealers that a specific influence is very hard to identify. For the rest of the 1970s, Marc Felix was central, but 1980 to 2000 was a melange. Now it's mine. It's my aesthetic, it doesn't come home if I don't like it.

After her death, I had to set up trusts for the two children. Surprise!! there was no loose money. It had all gone into art. So what I did was to take all the art that we'd bought over the years, split them into two groups, and gave a group each to Jonathan and Alison, our kids. In a way, I could start afresh. There is some freedom in that. But by the same token, there was no longer a Ruth and Marc Franklin collection. A show in 1988 of 44 of our figures provides perhaps the only glimpse of what used to be [discussed below].

Bongo Head, Sudan
Marc Franklin Collection

Are you more interested in aesthetics or history when it comes to an object?

Somehow, I do tend to be focused for the most part on the aesthetic. I'm trying to figure out if I've ever gotten anything I thought was intrinsically ugly because it was authentic. I like to think that the answer to that is no (I suspect some dealers will laugh as they read this).

Ruth and I had a show in 1988. It was called Forms and Forces and in the catalogue, Ruth wrote an introduction about the focus we had on figures and the force that we believe comes out of the figure. Dramatic masks do exist but a mask had a costume and the whole masking experience, and when you hang it on a wall, most of that is lost. It’s not danced, there’s no costume beneath it. An ancestral figure, on the other hand, has not been as crudely ripped from its environment.

I bought a figure from Philippe Ratton a couple of years ago that I bought largely because the anonymous carver had a brilliant set of ideas for the figure's right arm—it goes horizontally out from the body, down, forward, across the body, up to the breast and forward as it grasps the breast. The left arm is partly missing, which is good or bad depending on how to you approach the object. Carving is so different from moulding with clay and I appreciate that. But somehow I guess I do tend to be focused for the most part on the aesthetic rather than the history of a piece... it's art.

Now, I still like figures. I guess I have not been able or willing to spend gigantic sums of money to buy great art, and unfortunately, it tends to be figures more than other things that are more expensive. For me, $50,000 is gigantic. I bought something at the first Allan Stone auction that quickly ran up, and I said to myself, “what the hell am I doing here at this auction?” The figure ran up because somebody in the back of the room didn't know that I was bidding for it and he was bidding on the phone for somebody in Europe. He came over after and said, “oh if I'd have known you were buying I wouldn't have done that.” That cost $30,000. But that's life, that's one of those things that happens. I think that's a big amount these days, and certainly for young collectors. When I look at a show these days I find that there are very few objects today that can be bought for even $8,000.

Luba-Shankadi Mboko Female Bowl-Bearing Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood, Glass Beads. H: 39.4 cm
Provenance: Collected by M.LeFebruary in the Belgian Congo, 1890s || Marc Felix || Marc Franklin Collection
"Forms and Forces: Dynamics of African Figurative Sculpture", Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1998, San Francisco, CA., USA

So do figures from a specific ethnic group appeal to you?

Remember when we first started collecting it was with Harry and that meant West Africa. If you live your life seeing only one dealer, you acquire that dealer's aesthetic to a certain point. It wasn't long thereafter when we started collecting with Marc Felix, did we begin moving into Congolese art. And I think that's where we've been probably ever since, aesthetically.

Now that Ruth is gone, the last twenty years have probably been a melange, they've been whatever aesthetic appeals to the people I'm with. Now it's mine. It's my aesthetic, it doesn't come home if I don't like it. On the other hand, it may all be that the prices of Congolese figures have gotten so high that I no longer seriously consider them. Or 'horror of horrors', it may be that at 87 I no longer think of collecting as seriously as I did in my youth. I still buy, but selling may be more at the forefront than buying.

What I don’t understand are collectors who limit their eyes to only one country. These people are so incredible with their eye, they know everything but still, they are missing that sense of wonderment as you walk down the street, “gee look at that, what is that? I don't know, is it African? I have no idea. But it is marvellous.” I can still say that—and I do act on it.

Moba Tchitchiri Sakab Figure, Togo
Marc Franklin Collection

What advice do you have for newcomers interested in starting or building their own collections?

You have to stick with the dealers who have reputations so that if you do buy something wrong they will refund the money. The way a collector—a new collector, particularly—protects himself is by going to the right sources. The prices are now higher. Assuming you find two comparable objects at two different sources—think of the price difference as insurance. Try to buy from people who are not precious. That's important because you're in this for big money, even if you're a beginner.

When I was new in this field of collecting, you could begin at a couple of hundred bucks for an important piece but now, you do have to spend big money. And if you’re spending money, you have to spend it with real people who have the ability to stand behind their objects.

Africa is the future; there’s no doubt. African art and its contemporary quality—its contemporary reliance on traditional aspects of aesthetics—is just too important to die. It can't.

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