Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert built their collection of African art over the course of 30 years, and the rich variety of objects and forms represented in the 105 pieces offered at Christie’s in Paris on 27 June represents a significant moment for the market. This is not only because of the analytical and original approach the couple applied in each acquisition, but also because of their visionary take on exhibiting the most radical 20th-century art in their gallery, which was the subject of a 2004 retrospective organised by the Museum of Grenoble.
‘It is certain that a collection is a portrait, and that the objects we buy are those in which we sometimes recognise ourselves, sometimes we project ourselves,’ commented Michel Durand-Dessert, who was inspired to open the couple’s first gallery by a visit to Documenta in 1968. ‘One way or another, acquiring them means adopting them, in every sense of the word.’
The most emblematic work in the collection is an extremely rare Mbembe drum figure. Mbembe statues from south-eastern Nigeria are among the oldest and most spectacular preserved wooden sculptures in sub-Saharan Africa; fewer than 20 sculptures are known of this group, which was first introduced to the market in 1974 by Hélène Leloup (formely Kamer).
The exceptional Fang statue shown above was once owned by the Parisian art dealer and tastemaker Paul Guillaume (1891-1934), and is among a group of works considered the epitome of African classicism. In the early 20th century, Fang statuary could be found in the homes of sophisticated European collectors and was widely admired by avant-garde art critics. It has remained one of the most sought-after types of African art ever since. Conceived by a master sculptor as a guardian and protector, statues such as this would sit on top of a bark box containing relics of a clan’s ancestors.
The Durand-Desserts’ passion for African art took hold in the mid-1980s with visits to the Ménil collections at the Grand Palais, the Museum of Mankind, 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. In December 1986, the Durand-Desserts took the plunge and purchased their first pieces.
The great collector Baudouin de Grunne, whom the couple met, proved to be a guiding influence in this new and unexpected world of forms and materials. De Grunne’s preference was for objects that had ‘suffered the ravages of time’ and possessed ‘great beauty as a result of the beginnings of the erosion process.
‘The only thing that matters,’ he insisted, ‘is the formal beauty of the object, and simultaneously the feeling it creates; something that is profoundly true, essential and vital.’ The Durand-Desserts developed their own interest in pieces altered by time in a collection that would eventually incorporate a range of masterpieces from the main artistic centres, from Africa’s west coast to Congo.
Ignoring convention, the Durand-Desserts used African art to explore the origins of contemporary art. In 1989, for example, at the first Salon de Mars exhibition in Paris, they showed a powerful female figure attributed to the Idoma people between works by Morellet, Alan Charlton and Gerhard Richter. In 2001 they exhibited traditional pieces from sub-Saharan Africa alongside Arte Povera works by Pino Pascale at their contemporary art gallery on the Rue de Lappe.
One of the best-known objects in the Durand-Dessert collection is the rare Bassa figure shown above. The art of Liberia’s Bassa people first appeared on the market in the late 1960s. They are mostly known for their masks, which this statue’s face strongly resembles.
Another sale highlight is the Fon head of a priestess (above), which was discovered in Abomey in southern Benin in 1928. First presented in the West by Parisian dealer Charles Ratton, the head was subsequently sold to the respected collector Louis Carré, who later loaned it to the game-changing exhibition African Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1935 (where it was photographed by Walker Evans). Before being acquired by the Durand-Desserts it was kept by Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery for 80 years.
In 2008, the the Durand-Desserts’ bold approach to collecting African art was acknowledged when pieces from their collection were presented in the acclaimed exhibition Fragments du Vivant (Fragments of the Living) at the Monnaie de Paris. The unique Bassa figure was among the stars of the show.
Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert built their collection through strong relationships with gallery owners and dealers, and by gaining access to the most important private collections. Throughout their journey in African art, their choices were informed by a strong streak of independence and a shared belief that the future cannot be interpreted without considering the past.