Collector Spotlight

Richard Ulevitch, United States

June 02, 2017 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Tell us a little about yourself, why Africa?

I was born in Cleveland Ohio and growing up, spent many hours at The Cleveland Museum of Art. One painting that held a great fascination to me is the 1908 'Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo' by Henri Rousseau. It must be the power of Africa that Rousseau depicted here that spoke to me then, and still mesmerises me to this day.

After finishing Grad school, and once I got a job and the means to start collecting, I got very interested in non-Western art. I was always interested in collecting art that people made to personally use, not art made for commercial purposes. For a very long time, starting in the '70s I was a major collector of oriental textiles and rugs. I wasn’t interested in the Middle Eastern rugs commercially made to be sold in the West but instead, loved those made for personal use.

'Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo'
Henri Rousseau, 1908
The Cleveland Museum of Art

I was first properly exposed to classic African art in the ‘70s by the arts educator, painter and art dealer, Arnold Herstand. He was in Paris after WW2 and had aspirations to become a painter. While in Paris he became interested in African art. He moved back to the U.S. where he initially pursued his academic career. But ultimately opened the Arnold Herstand Gallery in New York, dealing in modern art still maintaining his lifelong interest in 'primitive' art.

Arnold was part of a family that were long-time friends of my grandparents and parents. He gave me my first real introduction to African Art when I was able to spend time with him during the period we were both in Minneapolis (1971-1972). He had some great, abstract pieces of African art that resonated with me. From that initial exposure, I started visiting more museums and looking at more pieces of African art to build my knowledge. 20 years later, I started to buy.

What motivated you to start collecting?

In the mid '90s I started going to Europe frequently, particularly Paris and Brussels, for work related activities. But always managed to find time to focus on my interest in art. Along the way I formed a relationship with the dealer Albert Loeb (his father and uncle were Edward Loeb and Pierre Loeb—they put on the first exhibitions of 'primitive' art and sold works of Picasso and tribal pieces in the 1930s). The atmosphere then was incredible. Every time I visited, I found myself in the middle of all the great African art galleries.

One day, I remember asking Albert about which dealers he recommended at the time. He mentioned three names; Philippe Ratton, Daniel Hourdé, and Hélène Leloup. The first I visited was Galerie Ratton-Hourdé and a relationship developed.

Guro Spoon, Ivory Coast
Serge Le Guennan, Paris

Illustrated in 'Des Cuillères et des Hommes'
Guro Spoon, Ivory Coast
Serge Le Guennan, Paris

Illustrated in 'Des Cuillères et des Hommes'

"I have a good eye and a good visual memory. I’m a scientist so I guess I’m a natural hunter of things."

What types of objects do you collect?

I met another dealer-collector who was retired and living in La Jolla, Jacque Hautelet. At that time I had limited financial resources to buy a lot of art and he focused me on collecting spoons and interesting African forms such as currency. Led by Jacque’s suggestion, I began a collection of non-Western, mostly African, spoons and iron currencies. By educating myself, I very quickly learned some of the classical forms of spoons. Musée Dapper in Paris had a great 1991 show called 'Cuillers Sculptures' (Spoons & Sculptures) and the Rietberg Museum in Zurich also had an exhibition dedicated to spoons, 'Spoons in African Art: Cooking - Serving - Eating - Emblems of Abundance'.

Then it was just a question of understanding quality.

I now have a large collection of very good examples of African spoons, some of which I believe to be quite rare and beautiful. I currently own more than 50 spoons and I continue to look for more. You can find great Zulu spoons in smaller UK auctions—for example I recently bought a large (24 inches) Zulu ladle at a small UK auction for no more than 100 GBP. You can also find spoons sold at more specialised auctions but often at much higher prices—this field provides a full spectrum for collectors.

Even now it’s not impossible to build a good collection of spoons. Most dealers will have a spoon or two in their stock or on display. Look at other things in their gallery to get a sense of the quality of objects they are selling. You can still find really interesting, beautifully carved, Southern African spoons for not a lot of money, but you have to find the right dealers. Young dealers with broad interests such as Bruce Frank, Jacaranda, Lucas Ratton, Renaud Vanuxem, Yann Ferrandin and Olivier Castellano will often have beautiful spoons for sale.

My collection has since evolved to include more than just spoons but I credit that early focus with the control I now have curating an interesting collection.

Wooden Handle & Gourd Bowl Spoon, Gabon or West Africa
Sotheby's, Paris

Collected by de George Thomann, a French colonial administrator at the end of the 19th and early 20th century in West Africa (Ivory Coast)
Wooden Handle & Gourd Bowl Spoon, Gabon or West Africa
Sotheby's, Paris

Collected by de George Thomann, a French colonial administrator at the end of the 19th and early 20th century in West Africa (Ivory Coast)
Wooden Handle & Gourd Bowl Spoon, Gabon or West Africa
Sotheby's, Paris

Collected by de George Thomann, a French colonial administrator at the end of the 19th and early 20th century in West Africa (Ivory Coast)

What ethnic groups appeal the most?

I like all spoons—East Africa, South, West. To me every culture has its own artistic vision of a spoon. The creativity is so appealing given that all a spoon needs is a handle and a bowl to make it functional. But African spoons go beyond the functional, a lot of thought goes into carving the spoons. I think that’s part of my fascination with it, spoons are different from masks and figures where you expect a certain level of creativity. I love the aesthetics of the spoons in my collection.

What is your favourite piece in your collection?

I love the Herero bird spoon, I bought that early on from Daniel Hourdé. It was originally sold in the U.K. about 50 years ago. That is one of my favourites. I have a few spoons from DR Congo that I love—they are very rare and beautiful. There isn’t one spoon that stands out heads above the others. I enjoy owning all and recalling the 'where and when' of acquisition and in some cases, known provenance.

Herero Spoon, Namibia
Christie's London, June 29, 1994
Daniel Hourdé, Paris

Similar example in the Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
Ngombe Spoon, The Democratic Republic of the Congo
M. LePrugne, Paris

Similar example in the 1991 Musée Dapper 'Culliers Sculptures' exhibition catalogue, page 38

"I'm not really a collector. I’m an accumulator. I buy things because they strike an emotional bell, they appeal to my curiosity, to the thrill of discovery of the extraordinary in the ordinary."

—Lloyd Cotsen

What was your biggest mistake when you first started collecting?

The only mistake I think I’ve made was passing up things I couldn’t buy on the spot. I’ve since come to realise that dealers are happy for you to agree on a purchase and pay for it over time. It is a way to build a relationship based on mutual trust. There was a truly spectacularly carved large Dan spoon early on at Philippe Ratton and Daniel Hourdé that I passed on—I’m still looking for it. It’s somewhere out there and I’m hopeful someday it’ll turn up again. But it’s not the end of the world, there’s always one more object to buy.

To me, the most important question is understanding who you are buying from. I’ve been dealing with people in various aspects of art and antiques for more than 50 years. I always look for style and integrity in dealers and I never buy from someone that I don’t trust. I’ve never been taken advantage of by a dealer. A good dealer should always offer the ability for collectors to return a piece if it’s not what you thought it was in the picture or if it wasn’t represented properly. You should also be able to at least return as a credit for future purchase whatever the reason, period. Some dealers will not provide that choice so I’ve stopped going to their galleries.

I think that’s why experience is so important. Collectors have to educate themselves. We have to handle a lot of objects, look carefully at museum pieces, read books (actually read them because sometimes, looking at the pictures alone can be worthless), and visit private collections when possible.

Northern Congo Spoon, The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Serge Le Guennan, Paris

Collected by French colonial in early 20th century and then by descent through family.
Tsonga Spoon, South Africa

What steps do you take before a purchase?

I make very quick decisions. I can say 'no' in seconds, 99% of time. If I don’t like something I walk away. If it doesn’t look right (the patina, the material, the quality of the carving), then it probably isn’t right. I don’t spend any time agonising over things. Often I buy something from a photo and am rarely disappointed. But when I say 'yes' the price then becomes the issue mainly as it relates to being able to afford the purchase.

What star piece are you still looking for?

None! I’m not someone that needs to have a trophy. However more and more I’m looking for figurative spoons to add to my collection of more abstract designs. For me, my love for spoons are all about the aesthetics. If a spoon doesn’t duplicate what I have already then I get interested.

What advice would you have for collectors starting out in African art?

I’ve been collecting for 20 plus years now and I can’t reiterate this enough—visit as many dealers and museums as you can before you start spending money. Figure out what you have an emotional connection with. This is not an investment, it’s not about the auction price last week.

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