The Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert Collection

Preview of the Upcoming Christie’s Auction

June 22, 2018 By: Adenike Cosgrove

27 June 2018 will see Christie’s Paris present the collection of Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert. Over 105 classic African artworks from the collection will be up for sale in what Bruno Claessens, European Head of African and Oceanic Art, says will be a “major event for the African art market, not only because of the intrinsic quality of the objects…but because of the uncommon personalities of the couple that put it together with an unrelentingly critical, analytical and original approach“.

Bruno explains who the couple is behind the collection and why this sale is not only unique but also important.

Who are Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert?

Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert are audacious cutting-edge gallery owners who were pioneers in their field, having shown the most radical 20th-century avant-garde art in their Parisian gallery.

In 1975, upon the opening of their gallery, they championed the work of then-unknown artists who would later become major figures of the post-war era: Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, and many Italian artists of the Arte Povera movement, such as Anselmo, Merz, Pistoletto and Pascali. It’s interesting to note that if you study the works of these artists a bit, you also better understand the artistic choices they made in their African art collection.

They started collecting more than three decades ago, in 1986. Two years before, they were blown away by the exhibition of the Ménil collection at the Grand Palais—indeed another collection made with vision. They visited the British Museum in 1985, and in the following year, visits to the Michael C. Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan Art Museum and the 'African Aesthetics: The Carlo Monzino Collection' exhibition at the Center for African Art, crystallised their nascent passion for African art. Then they made their first acquisitions.

The catalogue of the upcoming Christie's sale 'Future Perfect', features a very interesting article about the history of the Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert collection by Jean-Louis Paudrat.

Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert with the Albright-Knox Fon bust of a priestess

There is a lot of art from Nigerian ethnic groups in the sale. Were the Durand-Dessert's particularly interested in Nigerian art?

Liliane and Michel never limited themselves to consider only objects that belonged to the ‘classical’ canon of African art. I’m aware we have been using a lot of 'big' words in the promotion of this sale—visionary, avant-garde, cutting-edge—however, I do honestly feel that they are completely justified. Except from a few dealers who had ‘first access’ (Kerchache, Guimiot, Dufour), and a small group of collectors (such as Tishman in the U.S.), not many collectors focused so deeply on the art of Nigeria—which at that point was still very much under the radar.

Now, while they were not the first to understand the exceptional qualities of Mumuye statuary and Nigerian art in general, they quickly moved to collect Nigerian works intensely. More importantly, they also had an eye for quality. For many of the objects, you’ll have a hard time finding a better example of its kind. Paramount to all of this, of course, is that they also had the access to good material—living in Paris, the central hub for the trade in African art, certainly helped. Undiscriminating, they looked at everything in their constant pursuit of quality.

Nigerian artworks resonated the most with their very individualistic taste. In my opinion, this auction indeed presents an important momentum for the African art market. After the Goldet sale in 2001, ‘Future Perfect: The African Art Collection of Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert’ is certainly the single-owner sale with the most material from Nigeria and Cameroon to date (circa 44 objects, almost half of the sale) and our team is particularly proud to make this happen.

I’m convinced that this auction is one for the books and in 50 years’ time the importance of this collection and its sale will be clear.

The Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert collection in their home

The Durand-Desserts held an exhibition in Paris from 10 - 24 September 2008, 'Fragments of the Living. African Sculptures in the Durand-Dessert Collection'. Are any of the exhibited pieces up for auction?

Yes, in fact we’ll be offering most of them. For me this collection is a perfect example of the role collectors can play. Just like Marc and Denise Ginzburg, who with their acclaimed exhibition and catalogue ‘African Forms’ re-framed ethnographic objects as proper works of art and universal design, Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert tried to inform the art world about their new perspectives on African art.

We’ve talked about their strong preference for Nigerian art, but an even more important element is their celebration of the fragmentary. I can only speak for myself of course, but their 2008 exhibition Fragments du Vivant (‘Fragments of the Living’), in conjunction with Parcours des Mondes at La Monnaie in Paris, rocked my world. I vividly remember standing in front of the famous Fon head, which I knew so well from all its publications, and instantly getting goosebumps. A picture still can’t beat the real-life experience of standing in front of such a work of art.

Fon Bust of a Priestess, Benin
Height: 10 inches
17th - 18th century - TEST C14
Discovered in Abomey, 1928
Charles Ratton, Paris, 1930
Louis Carré, Paris, 1933 - 1937
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1937 - 2007
Collection Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert, Paris
Estimate: €500,000 - €800,000

"Time added a layer to it—it evolved further, it went one step beyond."

In the meantime, we’ve already done some exclusive previews of the highlights of the collection and it is very interesting to observe collectors of other types of art, encounter the bust for the first time. It is a ruin. Barely anything is left of it even. But then I tell them to look again. Does it feel incomplete? It is very eroded but it’s now even better. Time has added a layer to it—the bust evolved further, it went one step beyond. The grain of the wood imitates skin, the volumes flow organically into each other, and what’s missing is somehow filled in with your mind’s eye. For me it is much more than just an artwork, it is an experience.

But now, back to Fragments du Vivant. African ritual objects (figures and masks) were often the material outcome of the cooperation of different actors—a sculptor and a diviner (without whose activation a statue would remain useless, think of Kongo and Songye power figures), or the carver of a mask and its dancer. Both maker and user had an impact on the appearance of the object, but over time, the strongest role is played by time. Tough climatic conditions and harsh environments made survival tough for wooden sculptures. Surfaces were weathered, objects disintegrated, and pieces fell off. Time, also, was a sculptor.

Many collectors tend to focus on objects that are old yet in an ‘as new’ condition—but this is, in fact, a reality that is very rare. Many people forget that the objects that have made it into the art market have already passed several vetting stages—they are a selection of what is deemed desirable or commercial. Broken or eroded objects, fragments that were too far gone, have long been ignored and never made it into the market.

Mbembe figure, Ewayon River region, Cross River State, Nigeria
Height: 29.5 inches
Estimate: €2,000,000 - €3,000,000
Installation view of the 1974 exhibition, Ancêtres M’Bembe, at Hélène Kamer’s Paris gallery
O. Traore, Lome, Togo
Hélène Leloup, Paris
Kerbourc'h Collection, 1974 - 1993
Alain de Monbrison, Paris
Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert Collection, Paris

Perhaps somebody should write a PhD. on when this shift occurred, but surely the Parisian art scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s played a crucial role. Dealers like Hélène Kamer (now Leloup) played a pivotal part in taking the leap and exhibiting eroded objects. The famous Mbembe exhibition of 1974 is a perfect case—a prime example of such an eroded and fragmentary figure is on the front cover of our sale catalogue.

Leloup’s exhibition was recreated by Alisa Lagamma at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in 2014, to celebrate the acquisition, through Christie’s, of a statue from the 1974 group. This purchase for me represents a very important shift. The MET has always led the way but had previously exclusively focused on classical ‘old yet pristine’ objects. The Mbembe, along with the Batcham mask recently acquired from the Dartevelle collection, prove to me that the ‘eroded’ have now been accepted into the African ‘art’ corpus—Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert certainly played a role in this shift.

Kongo-Yombe Nkisi Nkondi Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Height: 37.5 inches
Pierre and Suzanne Vérité Collection, Paris, before 1955
Claude Vérité Collection, Paris
Rive Gauche Auction, Paris, 'Collection Vérité', 17 - 18 June 2006, lot 233
Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert Collection, Paris
Estimate: €600,000 - €1,000,000

Why is this auction special?

Art is a language, or better, art is many languages. In societies without writing, objects conveyed messages, very clear to their users and audience. One can read all the anthropological studies about a certain group, plus all the ethnographic studies about their ritual objects and a whole new world will be revealed. I can assure you that every single detail of an object has a particular meaning. Yet, I feel that people have less and less time to ‘read’—to read books and study objects—and this layer is lost to them, even if they can intuitively feel certain things. However, reading everything there is to read still leaves a layer of meaning inaccessible, either lost in translation or because the informants didn’t want to reveal the knowledge deemed too secret to share. It may also be because the information was never recorded or just forgotten.

'Les Arts Africains'; African Arts, Paris, 3 June - 7 July 1955
'La sculpture en Afrique Noire'; Sculpture in Black Africa, Sochaux, 23 May - 28 June 1970
'Fragments du Vivant'; Fragments of the Living, Paris, 10 - 24 September 2008
'Carambolages', Paris, 2 March - 4 July 2016

Many collectors, those that haven’t read all the books, have developed their own language (and we, as an auction house, formalise that language in our catalogues). This specific vocabulary judges objects by their quality, rarity and also by their history once they left the African continent. Function is irrelevant. Some objects, the important nkisi nkondi for example, must have been rather famous in their original contexts, yet all of that is forgotten. Once in Europe, they became important again but now for an entirely different set of reasons. It’s a different language, a different way of looking—visual and historical—rather than anthropological.

What set Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert apart is that they created their own language, another layer. Immersed in the art world for their entire lives, they observed differently, from a more intellectual perspective. The 105 objects in this sale truly breathe their spirit. For me, one can judge if a collection indeed has a soul if one can run into an object somewhere and immediately identify it as being in the taste of that collector.

Willy Mestach had that, you can identify a ‘Mestach-piece’. The same can be said for Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert, once you understand what they are looking for it’s easy to spot objects in their taste. To their merit, they have been very communicative about their collecting. For our catalogue, we’ve recycled many quotes from their publications about their African art collection. They said it best themselves, and it has been hard for us to match their poetic notes. What I love as well is that they truly collect as a couple, just as they ran their gallery together for all those decades. Relationship goals for sure!

What are the stand out pieces from the upcoming auction?

Clearly the market is going through a major shift and this transition is not only limited to our field. Across the entire spectrum, prices for exceptional objects are exploding. Collectors are willing to pay what I call an ‘opportunity premium’ as they know very well that they may never have the opportunity again to acquire a certain work—think of the famous Bassa bust for example.

We are lucky to be in a field where many of the masterpieces remain in private hands—unlike, for example, the Old Masters market. Yet, at the same time, we notice that everything just below is raising much less interest than before. I believe the increased transparency and accessibility of information has a clear impact on this evolution. In my view, we are now in a period where we are defining the masterpieces. We can more or less assume we by now know most of them—the corpus is defined. And so for the connoisseur, it is the moment to evaluate and identify the top works within every category and then try to get them!

Luckily, many segments of African art remain very underappreciated, especially Nigerian art. The reality is that much has only been on the market for less than 50 years—it is still rather ‘fresh’, to use a term one normally reserves for fruit. Many of the objects in the Durand-Dessert collection only appear on the market for the second time. Of course, objects from the canon (Dan, Fang, Kota, Kongo) are expensive, as they have been for a while. But there are not many other categories of art where you can buy a masterpiece of its kind for less than €25,000.

But, that doesn’t answer your question. For me, each and every object in the sale stands out.

Zaramo Commemorative Post, Tanzania
Height: 22 inches
Estimate: €8,000 - €12,000
Ogoni Mask, Nigeria
Height: 7.5 inches
Estimate: €8,000 - €12,000
Dagaro Figure, Burkina Faso
Height: 22.5 inches
Estimate: €8,000 - €12,000

For newer or younger collectors of African art, which artworks do you recommend they keep an eye on during the auction and what advice would you give them?

A great line I once picked up is “buy with your eyes, not with your ears”, inspiring the name of one of my social media accounts at the time ‘listentoyoureyes’. But, your eyes can fool you—many of the best fakes were made to accommodate Western taste, they were made to please our aesthetic—be aware of that.

Key to getting a good ‘eye’ is to try to see as much as possible, to build a visual library in your head that serves as an instant comparison when you encounter a certain object. If you don’t have the time for this, make friends that do and look at an object through their eyes. The African art community is full of people who are willing to share their knowledge and insights (you are a perfect example of that!). Make friends and look together.

Also, don’t be a stranger. Auction specialists are there to help you. Especially for young or new collectors we gladly reserve time. We’ve made sure we’re offering works at all price levels, and many objects will start well under the €10,000 mark. I prefer not to single out any works here, as taste and budget vary so much.

“Like wine, good art is best enjoyed together.”

What one gem are you most excited about?

Only one? Impossible. I’ve always loved the ‘empty’ Ejagham headdress (lot 76), of which only the top layer of skin remains after the wooden structure underneath disintegrated. It’s the only one like this known and so mesmerising.

The Qua head (lot 70) with its 1,000 years is the oldest object in the auction and another personal favorite. It would have crowned a ritual vessel and the abstraction of its facial features immediately recalls the head of the famous Venus of Willendorf.

Both works radiate the spirit of the collection, timeless fragments of an archaic past. But my absolute favorite of which I’m the most excited about it is our cover lot, the Mbembe statue—it is the best of its kind to remain in private hands. Working in its presence has been a very special experience.

Ejagham Headdress, Nigeria
Height: 11 inches
Estimate: €10,000 - €15,000

Future Perfect: The African Art Collection of Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert’ will take place at Christie’s Paris on Wednesday 27 June at 4PM. The viewing days for the sale are from Friday 22 June (2PM – 6PM) until Wednesday 27 June (10AM – 12PM).

You can view the sale’s catalogue here.

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