‘Hidden’, ‘undiscovered’, ‘new treasures’—these words, the thrill of the unknown and unseen, sends many collectors of classic African art into a frenzy. ‘If I can only see it in person before it goes back, potentially for a very long time, into private hands’.
The upcoming Sotheby’s Paris sale of The Marceau Rivière Collection promises “the most exceptional collection of African art still preserved”, as described by Alexis Maggiar, Senior Director of the auction house’s African and Oceanic Art department. A similar claim was made of the Vérité collection, which first came to market during the 17 – 18 June 2006 Rive Gauche ‘Collection Vérité’ Paris auction of more than 500 objects, for which specialist Pierre Amrouche said that the collection was the “the last of its kind”. Eleven years later, a further 198 artworks from the same collection, were revealed to the market.
June 2019 sees Sotheby’s present a portion, 250 lots of historical African artworks, from the collection of Marceau Rivière.
At 82, Marceau Rivière has spent his life enchanted by the customs, peoples, and artwork from the African continent. At eight years of age, he vividly remembers a slide show of the Republic of the Congo presented by missionaries visiting his village. At eleven he bought his first classic African art piece, a Dan mask which he paid for in instalments. In 1957, as a soldier, he toured the Neolithic sites of Algeria with the French camel cavalry after which he worked as an airline engineer for TAI, Air Afrique, and UTA, touring the villages of Chad—home of the Sao peoples—and Ivory Coast. For over twenty years Rivière travelled much of sub-Saharan Africa visiting villages, researching the customs and art of the cultures he encountered.
Rivière’s collecting started in earnest in the early sixties. During his various trips, he acquired pieces from African and European dealers. In 1975, he published his first book ‘L’Art Africain dans Les Collections Privées Françaises’ (African Art in French Private Collections), released to mixed reviews—what African art scholar Herbert M. Cole described at the time as “[a publication used] primarily to help sell pieces like the many listed vaguely here as ‘private collection’… it is too bad that most pieces illustrated fall well short of the masterpiece range and that there is so little accurate information given about them”.
In 1980, Rivière opened a gallery at 1 rue Saint-Benoît in Paris, which he called Galerie Sao after his first encounter with the culture in Chad.
A half-century after his collecting began, Rivière has built a collection of over 900 masks, figures, spoons, heddle pulleys, gold weights, musical instruments, stools and jewellery. The collection brings together various styles, forms and pieces largely from Ivory Coast–Baule, Dan and Guro. ‘Masterpiece‘–there’s that word again–is used 25 times in the auction’s catalogue and a number of masterpieces are indeed included in the sale. The Baule anglo ba moon mask of which only three are known to exist in private collections (estimate upon request), the Dan deangle mask (€700,000 – €1 million) alluring for its classic beauty, the Guro vali gu mask (€600,000 – €800,000) used by its owner to promote well-being, and the Baulé / Yauré ndoma portrait mask (€1 million – €1.5 million) published everywhere!
Many will only have had the pleasure of seeing these pieces in person during the preview days before the auction, as the estimates… are high. But we asked Alexis and dealer Charles-Wesley Hourdé to share their selection of lots, from the sale, that they are most excited about. Below, we share these works.
Dealer of Arts from Africa, Oceania and America
"The dispersal of the Rivière collection is very special to me. I've known Marceau since I was a child, he was one of my mentors when I first started working in this field. I am familiar with many of the wonderful artworks that will be sold this week. Among them are some of my favourite African sculptures.
"Rare are the occasions of being able to discover the intimate universe of such a passionate collector."
"A little underestimated jewel is a wonderful classic Guro pulley. A piece I used to own and that I deeply enjoyed."
Senior Director, Head of African and Oceanic Art, Europe, Sotheby’s
"The name 'Marceau Rivière' has accompanied me since my first steps in this specialist field. Most of his major works had always been in my 'imaginary museum' and discovering them met all expectations—they were astonishing!
"With the sale of this collection on June 18th and 19th, in Paris, we will have the honour to celebrate an outstanding collector guided throughout his life by his passion, knowledge and pursuit of beauty."
"My little gem of this collection is the Baule musical instrument. The surrealism of the composition is a knockout!"