‘Oh my God, what is that’ The weird and wonderful world of Peter Petrou

‘Oh my God, what is that?’ The weird and wonderful world of Peter Petrou

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 Alaskaan 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).

Peter Petrou Tales of the Unexpected  is on view at King Street, London, until 29 January

Peter Petrou: Tales of the Unexpected  is on view at King Street, London, until 29 January

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.’

Peter Petrou in conversation with jewellery designer Jessica McCormack at Christie’s Lates At Home in London, 14 January 2019

Peter Petrou in conversation with jewellery designer Jessica McCormack at Christie’s Lates: At Home in London, 14 January 2019

Here, Petrou shares his thoughts on five of his favourite works in the sale.

1. A royal ivory-inlaid Indian cabinet from 17th-century Goa

A royal Indo-Portuguese ivory-inlaid Indian rosewood and padouk cabinet-on-stand (contador), late 17th century, Goa. 56½  in (143.5  cm) high; 35½  in (90  cm) wide; 36¼  in (92  cm) deep. Estimate £70,000-100,000. Offered in Peter Petrou Tales of the Unexpected on 30 January 2019 at Christie’s in London

A royal Indo-Portuguese ivory-inlaid Indian rosewood and padouk cabinet-on-stand (contador), late 17th century, Goa. 56½ in (143.5 cm) high; 35½ in (90 cm) wide; 36¼ in (92 cm) deep. Estimate: £70,000-100,000. Offered in Peter Petrou: Tales of the Unexpected on 30 January 2019 at Christie’s in London

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.’

2. An early 19th-century trophy made from the sabres of Coldstream Guards who fell at Waterloo

A decorative trophy from the Coldstream Guards officers’ mess, circa 1815. 91¾  in (233  cm) high; 64¼  in (163  cm) wide. Estimate £30,000-50,000. Offered in Peter Petrou Tales of the Unexpected on 30 January 2019 at Christie’s in London

A decorative trophy from the Coldstream Guards officers’ mess, circa 1815. 91¾ in (233 cm) high; 64¼ in (163 cm) wide. Estimate: £30,000-50,000. Offered in Peter Petrou: Tales of the Unexpected on 30 January 2019 at Christie’s in London

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.’

3. A rare, surviving lead ingot from the Roman occupation of Britain

A Roman lead ‘pig’ or ingot, 1st century AD. The pig — 3½  in (9  cm) high; 27  in (68.5  cm) wide; 6  in (15.2  cm) deep. Estimate £2,000-3,000. Offered in Peter Petrou Tales of the Unexpected on 30 January 2019 at Christie’s in London

A Roman lead ‘pig’ or ingot, 1st century AD. The pig — 3½ in (9 cm) high; 27 in (68.5 cm) wide; 6 in (15.2 cm) deep. Estimate: £2,000-3,000. Offered in Peter Petrou: Tales of the Unexpected on 30 January 2019 at Christie’s in London

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.’

4. A silver South American incense burner in the form of Simón Bolívar

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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5. A commemorative Fijian ‘tapa’ with abstract patterning

A Fijian ‘tapa’ large barkcloth, late 19thearly 20th century. 64 x 81¼  in (162 x 206  cm). Estimate £500-800. Offered in Peter Petrou Tales of the Unexpected on 30 January 2019 at Christie’s in London

A Fijian ‘tapa’ large barkcloth, late 19th/early 20th century. 64 x 81¼ in (162 x 206 cm). Estimate: £500-800. Offered in Peter Petrou: Tales of the Unexpected on 30 January 2019 at Christie’s in London

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.’