Over 45 years, Peter Petrou has made his name as a dealer of fascinating, eclectic objects from an array of world cultures and historical periods. Alastair Smart spoke to him ahead of 150 of these objects being offered on 30 January in London
‘My priority is always that a piece is visually arresting,’ says Peter Petrou. ‘That it grabs the viewer’s attention and prompts an exclamation like, “Oh my god, what’s that?!” — but I also like pieces to have a great backstory to them and a tale to tell’.
Among the objects Petrou is bringing to auction in Peter Petrou: Tales of the Unexpected are a pair of 19th-century Inupiaq spruce snow snoggles from Alaska; an 18in high, papier mâché and bakelite model of a bumblebee; a silver-mounted, tortoiseshell casket from colonial Mexico; and an exuberant suit of Myochin armour from Edo-period Japan (complete with a yak-hair moustache on the face mask).
Petrou trained initially as a lawyer but soon found that the collecting bug was too much for him. In 1974, he opened a gallery in Paris, before returning home to London and opening a space in Notting Hill in the 1980s. ‘Where I differed from my peers’, he says, ‘is that most of them were specialists in a given field of art, antiquities or whatever, whereas I was a generalist, interested in anything and everything — and that has shaped my entire career.
‘I just did my own thing and bought objects that appealed to me. These were of little wider interest back then. However, over time, because of the nature of what we were offering, the gallery began to attract slightly out-of-the ordinary locals: from rock stars and Greek shipping magnates to [the painter] Lucian Freud.’
Nowadays, Petrou counts the world’s major museums among his clients and has become a fixture at leading international fairs. He also hosts two exhibitions a year at his gallery, and Tales of the Unexpected is conceived as a slightly larger version of one of those — with a 10-day, pre-sale public view beginning on January 14. Objects are being offered at a range of price points, from £300 to £100,000.
‘My hope for this sale is that it allows people to take home an unexpected piece of history with them’ — Peter Petrou
Does Petrou have an idea of how many works he has bought and sold in the past 45 years? ‘Not really,’ he replies. ‘Let’s just say mountains. Over the millennia, many weird and wonderful objects have been created, and my hope for this sale is that it allows people to take home an unexpected piece of history with them.’
Here, Petrou shares his thoughts on five of his favourite works in the sale.
Peter Petrou: ‘This remarkable, ivory-inlaid cabinet was made in 17th-century Goa for the then Queen of Portugal, Maria de Gloria II [Goa at that time was a Portuguese colony]. It’s so elaborately decorated one could pick out any number of features for comment, but what really intrigues me are the caryatid figures around the middle, whose faces were carved from extremely precious, solid ivory. It’s said this work was done by Chinese craftsmen working in Goa at the time. What we have in this cabinet, then, is a collision of cultures — European, Indian and Chinese, which is exactly the sort of rich heritage I like as a dealer.’
PP: ‘Although it looks like a huge palm leaf, this object is actually a decorative trophy made from 76 radiating sabre blades. They once belonged to British soldiers who fell at the Battle of Waterloo [in 1815] and were picked up in its aftermath, before being repurposed. It hung for many years in the officers’ mess of the Coldstream Guards in London, simultaneously a celebration of the victory over Napoleon and a memorial to the dead soldiers.’
PP: ‘During the Roman occupation of Britain, the mining of lead ore was common. After being smelted, it was turned into lead itself, which was put to widespread use across the empire — for water pipes, among other things. This is a rare, surviving lead ingot from that time. It presumably fell off the back of a donkey during transportation 2,000 years ago, and was only discovered in a river in the Peak District in 2009.’
PP: ‘In the early 19th century Simón Bolívar — aka ‘El Libertador’ — was the liberator of many South American countries from Spanish rule. He’s still considered a hero in those countries today. Here he can be seen on horseback, adorning a rare, silver incense burner — I say “rare” because, despite Bolívar’s fame, it was usually models of animals, not humans, which appeared on figural incense burners in South America. In fact, I’ve never seen another with Bolívar on it before.’
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PP: ‘This object is what’s known as a “tapa”, a type of cloth from the Pacific islands made by stripping, beating and then decorating the bark of trees. The tradition is an old one, and a tapa could serve a number of functions, such as clothing, although this example from the late-19th century seems chiefly to have been commemorative. Amidst the abstract patterning, two Union Jack flags can be seen in the middle, marking the annexation of Fiji as a British Colony in 1874.’