|52, rue Mazarine:
from the School System to the Flea Market
by Patrice-Flora Praxo (2003)
I have been invited, to Jean-Pierre Laprugne 's home in order to learn two or three thousand things that I
do not know about him. Collector and dealer, he is the creative force behind the Mazarine 52 gallery in Paris.
|It is 5:00pm and Renaud Vanuxem meets me in front of the building. He will be the second character in a
highly-anticipated conversation that I have organized between two players in the primary arts scene — one
an “old-hand” and the other a relative newcomer. The latter is also a gallery owner and collector who has
answered a calling heard at a very young age. And he is to take over the helm of the infamous space
located at number 52, rue Mazarine.
Once Angela, Jean-Pierre Laprugne's wife, has come to open the door and usher us into the inner sanctum,
I perceive our host, sitting comfortably in an armchair with a serene look on his face and a steady voice. I
dare not look at the fabulous objects of the “primordia arts” (as Andre Malraux used to say) that dot the walls
and shelves in the living room. The autumn light that fills the apartment offers an ideal setting for the Lobi
masks and Bakota pieces. The only other time that I felt this powerful yet strange feeling was during my very
first visit to the Dapper Museum on the avenue Victor Hugo in Paris. As soon as I left the museum's first
floor, the words “heritage”, “creativity” and — I do not choose my words lightly — “works of art” overran my
thoughts and I then knew that my loneliness would never be quite the same.
Patrice-Flora Praxo: Could you tell us about the birth of your passion for “primitive arts”?
Jean-Pierre Laprugne: My two first objects are the grey horned mask and the small one that you see over
there; I found them as a pair: two Lobi masks form Burkina Faso. They were presented in Piet Meyer's book
L'Art des Lobi. I found them in 1957 in a small second-hand store [brocante] in the neighborhood were I
lived at the time near the Porte de Saint-Cloud. I was out doing my daily shopping and the shopkeeper
called out to me: “Monsieur Laprugne, do I have some objects for you!” and she proceeded to show me four
masks. At that time I was collecting arms but she was so convincing that I spent my entire monthly teacher's
salary on them! It just so happened that two of the objects were fakes. But the other two were indeed quite
old and very beautiful. Meeting Alain Schoffel was also a decisive moment for me. I was twenty-two years old
and he was fifteen. Upon meeting him I understood the notion “work of art” as an object of definite beauty,
hailing from a rare tribe, and that was more than just a piece of ethnographic evidence. At the time, Alain
was leaving for Portugal on his motorbike in order to buy more pieces and he was next on his way to London
to find more. He was the one who stirred up Parisian interest in Oceanic objects.
Renaud Vamixern: At which point did you decide to leave teaching in order to open your own brocante and,
ultimately, invest in your own gallery?
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: I had in fact already started trading objects and occasionally selling them. I
realized at one point that I could make a better living in this field, all the while doing something that I
absolutely adored. R\: So you went from the school system to the flea market?! Or should I say you enrolled
in the “flea market school” in order to pursue your passion? It does seem to me the best way to get to know
the objects in question. JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: Indeed, I enrolled in a doctoral program at the Graduate
School of Arts and Good Finds!
RENAUD VAMIXERN: I really like that expression because you were indeed a player in the hey-day of what
Americans refer to as “picking”, or haunting estate sales, brocantes, antique stores and other such
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: Indeed, I knew everybody then: everyone who now has their own Parisian street
corner, their own shop or their own gallery. I knew them all from our “picking” days: Pierre Robin, Jean-
Michel Huguenin, Robert Duperrier, Daniel Hourde. I also think of Marie-Ange Ciolkowska who was a very
important figure in the “old-school” impassioned circle. I opened a booth at the Porte de Clingancourt flea
market in 1971 and the resold it in 1974. That same year I opened a crepe restaurant in the Halles
neighbourhood and sold that in 1977 in order to buy my own gallery. I was tired of doing dishes (laughs)
RENAUD VAMIXERN: When you started off “picking” and bargain hunting, you frequented the principal large-
scale bazaars. Are they still the same as they were then?
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: Oh, there was La Villette, the Pare Citroen for a little while, Richard-Lenoir, too...
It was in such places that I bumped into folks such as Emile Bouchard, a perfectly charming, picturesque and
astounding character. I found many objects frequenting such places. Next follows, of course, familiarity with
the auction houses and collectors, once you have made a name for yourself. These last two are always
ready to sell an object that they regret having purchased.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: Regarding the other means of purchasing objects, would you say that you experienced
the “golden age” of “picking”?
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: It was already the end of the “golden age”, as you call it. Back then, we did not
have all the standardization, precision and specialization that we have today in the field.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: With regards to the varying ways in which we work, haunting the second-hand shops
will become less and less feasible for young dealers and collectors. Nowadays one must travel far and wide
in order to see objects. In order for collections to grow to be attractive, collectors must now be mobile.
Additionally, as dealers, the major auction houses have become our direct competition.
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: Even though Guy Loudmer (appraiser and auctioneer), who struck it rich in the
domain of primitive arts, was a formidable rival, he nonetheless helped to put order into the field, notably
through frequent sales that were well orchestrated and documented.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: But the sales that he organized were geared towards true connoisseurs and
specialists. On the other hand, some recent sales have been the objects of marketing frenzies and have
opened the “primitive arts” market to collectors specialized more in modern art. They are the ones who
provoked the unbelievable inflation we have witnessed. Raoul Lehuard calls that particular public “the
others”. They are people who “heard about” art called “primitive” and who absolutely wanted to own at least
one piece. For people such as Jean-Pierre and myself, the passion for these objects runs very deep. The
money invested is less important than the actual objects; it represents only one way to acquire them. The
finality of the affair resides in the objects themselves because they enclose whole universes, poetry...
JPL and RV (in unison): ...and dreams.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: We are not in this line of work in order to get rich in a monetary way but rather to
experience the richness of the objects' symbolic value, their signification and their aesthetic beauty. That is
the real wealth of this job. If indeed in your lifetime you build up an exquisite private collection, it's all the
better since that is one of the goals. But the most important factor is ...
JPL and RV (in unison): The passion.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: Why did you wake up every morning at 5:00am for thirty years, Jean-Pierre?
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE (laughing): Well, not every morning...
RENAUD VAMIXERN: But Jean-Pierre, you were and I think you will always remain a fearsome “picker”. You
were their king, their spiritual leader!
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: I indeed found some great things that way, but I also bought many as well. I
indeed kept everything for myself!
RENAUD VAMIXERN: Is it the proverbial “find” that motivates “pickers”? Do you one day hope to find that
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: It is true that that happens every now and again, but it is indeed rare. I suppose,
then, that it is a small miracle —?
RENAUD VAMIXERN: Some say that the finder of such a treasure invents it himself. I like that idea; just
imagine it, a treasure-inventor! In the sphere of “primitive” arts, this is very true. You “invent” a treasure and
it is indeed one because you know what it is, where it comes from, where it was made and why. You rein-
corporate it into its own history and meaning.
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: You essentially give it back its original dimension.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: And save it from oblivion.
PATRICE-FLORA PRAXO: Do you think you had a part in the creation of the excitement around “primitive”
arts that has been developed in the Mazarine — Jacques Callot - Guenegaud — rue de Beaux-Arts sector of
the Left Bank?
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: Yes, of course.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: I think I can reply to that one; my first memories as a collector were in your store, Jean-
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: You and your brother where what, 7 or 8 years old at the time?
RENAUD VAMIXERN: That was twenty-five years ago!
PATRICE-FLORA PRAXO: What happened?
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: They came in, Renaud and his brother, wound-up like tops, saying: “Oh Dad,
look at that! Dad, what's that?” It seemed they already understood...
RENAUD VAMIXERN: By then our family had already caught a serious case of “collectionitis”.
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: We eventually became friends and Renaud traded some objects and sold
others. I think he even bought some...
RENAUD VAMIXERN: I later opened my own gallery right next door, at number 54 rue Mazarine...
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: And we went beyond the insipid neighborly courtesies and became true friends.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: I would also like to add that, for thirty years, there was always something going on in
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: People started arriving around 2:00pm; five or six people who came to see my
most recent finds. I would hit the flea markets every Saturday morning. I bet that I inspired and nurtured
more than one collector! You never had to a ring a bell to enter my store — you just came in and sat down.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: It was a convivial space where information was spread in the neighborhood: a type of
nerve center for sharing news and meeting new people. The personal element of a shop is extremely
important. That is what I am going to try to perpetuate.
PATRICE-FLORA PRAXO: Monsieur Laprugne, what do you expect from Renaud when the gallery reopens?
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: First and foremost, I am thrilled that he is taking over what I created. Beyond
that, the gallery will carry on, with his style. People will still come in off the street and sit down... And I plan on
spending some afternoons there myself!
RENAUD VAMIXERN: Don't worry, you'll have your own chair with your initials embroidered (laughing).
Seriously, though, I will not work like Jean-Pierre: that was his talent, his way of doing things. It was also his
history, just like the vast network of people that he has established over the years, when times were
different. I am going to try to sponsor thematic exhibits at least once a year. I also plan to retain the spirit of
Jean-Pierre's bargain hunting, meaning that I hope to buy things and the morning and resell them in the
afternoon without necessarily making “objets d'art” of them with display stands and spotlights. These two
ways of working are complimentary, in my opinion. I do indeed travel to “pick”, myself...
JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE: I witnessed the end of a golden age and I fear that you, Renaud, will witness the
effective end of such bargain-hunting. In fifteen or twenty years, everyone will know the difference between
bateke, a bembe or a baoule masks.
RENAUD VAMIXERN: Indeed, that this art is becoming fashionable worries me with regards to what the
market will be like in the future. Those like you who really know these objects, like Emile Bouchard knew
them, are few and far between nowadays.
PATRICE-FLORA PRAXO: When will the gallery reopen?
RENAUD VAMIXERN: I am currently preparing an exhibit with a catalogue for the inauguration which will
happen in March 12th, 2004. I am very dedicated to the idea that this first exhibit in “your gallery” be a
|Click on any image to see full size version
|Jean-Pierre Laprugne. Greece, 1968.
Photo Angela Laprugne.
|Jean-Pierre Laprugne. Octobre 2003.
Photo P.-F. Praxo.
|Renaud Vanuxem. Octobre 2003.
|GALERIE JEAN-PIERRE LAPRUGNE
52 RUE MAZARINE