What makes an art collection great? Is it the person behind the collection, the value of the collection as a whole, or is it great if each individual piece stands on its own? Is it greater still, if it’s been hidden from public view for many years?
23 June will see Christie’s Paris present the collection of the Parisian jeweller, antique dealer, and collector Michel Périnet. Thirty-two works of classic African art from the collection will be auctioned in “a fitting tribute to a discreet man and a distinguished collector,” as described by Christie’s.
The words ‘legendary’, ‘discerning’, and ‘passionate’ have been used to describe the collector Michel Périnet. He was said to be well-known for his high standards. Are these descriptors the measure of a great collector?
Prior to his death in 2020, Michel Périnet spent his years building one of the finest art nouveau collections centred around the creations of René Lalique. A 1967 trip to London to purchase jewellery led to a chance encounter with a Kota sculpture. “I didn’t choose the object, it chose me,” he described. That was the day African art entered his life.
The same passion he had for fine jewellery was also evident in his collecting of African art. He was said to often overpay for a piece that struck him, never hesitating to acquire works he’d set his sights on. A competitive streak drove him. An urge to build the best collection of African art meant that he was ready to sacrifice for a new acquisition.
He consumed literature on African art and he consulted with specialists including Alain de Monbrison, Lance Entwistle, Bernard Dulon and François de Ricqlès, who were all entrusted by Michel to oversee the sale of his collection.
“Always purchase an object at the price it will cost in two years.” — Michel Périnet
After many months of lockdown, collectors are desperate to acquire. This auction is set to be the highlight of the classic African art calendar. But will the prices prove too dear?
To understand why the auction is expected to be a resounding success, we asked Lance Entwistle, Bernard Dulon, Alain de Monbrison — who were all instrumental in helping Michel build his collection — and the Christie’s team, Victor Teodorescu and Alexis Maggiar to share one African art piece in the collection they are most excited about. So, what can we expect from the sale? We review their choices below.
"Michel Périnet was one of those rare collectors whose unfailing eye and rigorous insistence on quality were matched by equal amounts of courage and determination. This resulted in a panoply of sculptures of consistently superb quality, so it is no easy matter to select a single object as emblematic of the whole collection.
"On reflection, I have chosen the great Luba helmet mask, which Dr Julien Volper has characterised as “homme-fauve” or “man-beast”, although there is little secure information about such masks. Many of the works in the Périnet collection are supreme examples of iconic types — the Nicaud Baga nimba for example — but the Luba mask is a work whose rarity is such that it may be considered sui generis. Only a handful of such masks exist, each one distinctive, but none in private hands that can stand in comparison to this one.
"Once the jewel in the crown of the Odette and René Delenne collection in Brussels I was fortunate enough, after a campaign lasting more than a decade, to secure the mask for sale. I immediately took it to Michel in Paris and remember well the surreal experience of opening the crate with him on a priceless Art Deco carpet in the beautifully appointed salon of his hôtel particulier in the Rue des Saints-Pères.
"It was a measure of Michel’s extraordinary eye that he recognised the mask as a masterpiece even before we removed it from its packing. This was a mask the likes of which he had never seen — how could he have, there were no others quite like it known. And yet he understood it perfectly, without any need of explanation from myself. He saw and immediately appreciated its mystery and brooding power, enshrined as they are in its monumental dimensions."
"The Fang head of the Michel Périnet Collection is the perfect match between ancient art from Africa and European modern art. It belonged in the 1920s to the Maurice de Vlaminck collection who probably perceived in it that extreme sensitivity shown by a master of Fang statuary. Another piece from the same hand belonged to the Helena Rubinstein collection but in my opinion, this one is more accomplished.
"This is the last Fang head of this quality that exists in private hand and certainly one of the most beautiful. It is a must-have!"
"The Fang head previously in the Vlaminck collection particularly touches me.
"It's superb, and in my opinion, it is sculpted by the same artist as the one that belonged to the Rubinstein collection — which I sold 40 years ago. I remember with emotion the trip we made to Switzerland to pick it up from the great collector Morris Pinto.
"It doesn't require long descriptions to see the sheer beauty and to understated the emotion that emanates from this sculpture."
"I am a collector who would like to have everything and keep nothing. Just from time to time an object, (...) the one that, in its kind, would sum up for me a collection." — Michel Périnet in Être antiquaire, Ardin et Pimenta, 1983
"The Baga nimba shoulder mask is certainly my favourite African work from the Périnet ensemble.
"Within a relatively limited corpus, of which most are now in public collections, this is without a doubt one of the best if not the best still left in private hands. I admire the way the artist has been able to reunite here, in one single work and without any (formal) contradiction — monumentality, elegance, power and hieratic presence.
"It is foremost the overall quality of the sculpture that I find remarkable. And this is something one realises while analysing it in all its details. The large head is so strikingly elegant and beautiful! Furthermore, the subtle delineation of the features, the geometrical patterns on the face and chest are rigorously designed and meticulously carved in high relief. The volumes of the head and chest are perfectly carved out and balanced against each other. From a purely formal point of view, I see in this nimba a true tour de force of sculpture, a classical masterpiece."
"At the time he was not yet an African art collector, Michel Périnet discovered this Kota helmet mask during the landmark auction of the fashion designer Jacques Doucet Collection in 1972. Love at first sight and the beginning of a unique journey in this area.
"I experienced the same emotion in front of this magnificent work which combines a tremendous quality, an exquisite sensibility, and an amazing history. In a word, an icon of African Art."
The sale of the Périnet collection will be held on Wednesday 23 June in Paris, 9 Avenue Matignon. The lots will be on view for the first time in fifty years during the auction preview from 19 – 23 June.
The full auction catalogue is available to view HERE.