Your father, Venetian catering king and Sorbonne graduate Giancarlo Ligabue, who passed away in January, amassed an important collection that reflected his archaeological, naturalistic and anthropological interests. How did it all begin?
When a fellow businessman gave him a Palaeolithic arrowhead. That ancient, simple object inspired him because of the story it told about man’s struggle to survive. It was an illumination, and it led him to take up the study of archaeology.
For many collectors, that gift would have been the start of a passion, but for your father it launched an academic career that ran parallel to his business interests. How did he manage to juggle both?
He made good use of the time he had. Asked to write an introduction to a book of my father’s writings, the Italian journalist Gian Antonio Stella gave it the title: The Aim of His Life? To Have Two.
What were some of the highlights of his career as a palaeontologist, archaeologist and ethnographer?
In Niger, in 1973, with Philippe Taquet, he discovered a complete Ouranosaurus Nigeriensis dinosaur skeleton, a cast of which he later donated to Venice’s Museo di Storia Naturale. In the Philippines, he took part in a 1979 expedition that discovered the Tau’t Bato tribe. He was one of the first to study Bactrian Bronze Age antiquities, from Central Asia; he wrote the first book on the subject in 1980. He took part in more than 130 digs and expeditions, and published 32 books in as many years.
What did he collect?
He collected what he studied. Via auctions and specialist dealers, obviously — not from the digs and expeditions themselves. But although his interests were eclectic and wide-ranging, you can’t really talk about it as a random cabinet of curiosities: every object can be traced back to his interest in the study of mankind. He was interested in giving a voice to ‘lost’ cultures through the objects he collected.
The owner of an object becomes its poet, its narrator. Its history, its use, all these things are yours for the telling
How did your own interest in collecting begin?
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to accompany my father on some of his many expeditions, one of the last of which was to the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. And while I was playing around on the ground, I found a quartzite hand axe, which was promptly photographed, catalogued and studied. I’ve always been thrilled and intrigued by the thought that 95 per cent of the history of man is recounted by stone artefacts.
Would it be right to describe your own collection as a continuation of your father’s?
He never forced me to follow the same route he did as a collector. It was more roundabout than that: by studying his collection, I got to know him better. I was always asking him why he chose that particular object, why he was interested in certain cultures. My first pieces of Pre-Columbian art were acquired with my father’s help and guidance. For me it was a question of rounding out certain parts of his existing collection. I was more motivated than he was by the aesthetic value of a piece. His interest was always primarily scientific.
What was your first solo acquisition?
A beautiful Punu mask from Gabon, which I bought in Paris from an important tribal art dealer. Like my father, I’ve always preferred collecting from real people I can talk to and negotiate a price with.
What quality in an artefact makes you want to add it to your collection?
Beauty and rarity are factors, but so is provenance. The owner of an object becomes its poet, its narrator. Its history, its use, all these things are yours for the telling. The collection started by my father and continued by me has important tribal art pieces that once belonged to Carlo Monzino or Stéphen Chauvet, and antiquities from Elie Borowski’s collection. So the responsibility of bearing witness has been passed to you. I also love making connections between cultures through what I collect: seeing, for example, in a Pre-Columbian mother goddess statuette, the same prayer posture that you find in a piece of tribal art from 200 years ago.
Which piece from your family collection are you most attached to, and why?
That’s a tricky one. Perhaps a 5,000-year-old Bactrian goddess figurine? It’s a fascinating piece, a kind of prehistoric Mona Lisa with a hypnotic expression; but it’s also an incredibly rare artefact. It gives voice to a culture that exists today only in the form of these ‘Bactrian princesses’.
Is there another piece that tells an interesting story?
My latest purchase: a large Ewa statue from New Guinea that I bought at a Christie’s auction last year. The story here is not so much the object itself as the fact that I discovered subsequently, looking through the annotated catalogues that my father kept, that he’d tried to buy it himself in the 1990s!
Is there any object of desire you would love to find?
There are plenty. But often the problem is not so much finding the object, as being able to afford it.
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