|The Puss in Boots Complex
by Bernard Dulon
Having been fascinated by so-called «primitive » aesthetics from a very early age, I very promptly understood
that I would never have the means to realize my dream: to become a collector, like my father. Five years of
social science studies with a major in ethnology did not help me any further in my attempt to experience more
fully the body of art that was nonetheless still at the crux of my thoughts. It was, without exaggeration, a
tremendous disappointment. The only possibility left to me was to become a dealer-an extremely sulfurous
word to describe the crowd that I was frequenting at the time.
The photographs that accompany this article present the interior of the dealer and collector Antony Innocent
Moris (1866-1951) who was commonly known as « pere Moris ».
|The differences between dealers and collectors are, however, rather subtle, since both are only temporary
depositories of works that, one day or another, will have to be given up-as soon as possible for the former
and as late as possible for the latter. Whereas a dealer must have a swift and complete understanding of
the work in question, a collector can take a whole lifetime-but only one-to strive for such insight. When
compared to these two particular players of the art world scene, museums appear to be institutions endowed
with a certain immortality: the notion of time that passes is eradicated since their acquisitions are eternal.
Museums act as out-and-out black holes that draw and absorb works and never give them up; it is for this
reason that every work of art's eventual future will assuredly be museological in nature.
Swiftness, then, is essential to a dealer, and this notion of speed has always made me regard the dealer's
role as an avant-garde artistic acrobat, a type of Puss in Boots who runs a long way ahead of his master's
coach and assures its good fortune. Only this time, the fairytale "master" is the collector and the « coach » is
To my knowledge, an art dealer is pursued by no particular predator. In light of his training-or should I say
lack thereof, as we will later see-, and compared to any other type of business manager, he is only slightly
more vulnerable to attacks that are, in his case, masterminded by fiscal and customs authorities. Hi survival,
like that of any other species, will depend solely on his capacity to overcome the upheaval that the entire
society is currently experiencing. Historically speaking, in the past twenty years, the art world has witnessed
the virtual extinction of art collectors who hail from the middle classes. Professional people such as doctors,
lawyers, or architects can no longer hope to attain the status of « important collector » relying exclusively on
their salaries. Yet again the social and economic history of our times is to blame; in this day and age, wealth
sits and remains in the hands of only a very limited number of individuals. Moreover, being a collector
necessitates much sacrifice and today's society offers scores of temptations. The collectors that I knew in my
youth who cut spending and saved money however they were able in order to finalize the purchase of that
one special piece form at present an image of a bygone past.
In today's art world, professionals uniformly agree that two types of pieces are sure-fire sellers, notably
masterpieces and very low-priced objects. Once the buyers of the great collections have gone through a
selection with their proverbial fine-tooth comb, a piece that does not find a purchaser becomes very difficult
to sell. It is believed to have been « seen too much » but the reality is that the piece in question is too costly
for some and not exceptional enough in the eyes of others. There just may not be enough, people anymore
inclined to acquire it.
As for globalization, as fashionable a subject as they come nowadays, it has given rise to veritable monsters,
in whose ranks it would behoove us to class the major auction houses. Between these firms and the art-
dealer community, a certain unspoken harmony and understanding have always held sway. First, the
auctions are often widely promoted through the media and this creates a reassuring repute for the pieces
involved. Secondly, the sheer volume of objects up for sale sometimes allows the art world professional to
make excellent purchases. Finally, concerning particularly lucrative pieces, auctioneers by nature aim for the
highest purchase price whereas antique dealers are more used to clients who negotiate in order to reduce
it. Consequently, it can be tempting for a large number of colleagues to use such pieces as high-
performance work tools.
Today, these auction houses are quoted on the stock market. They are pure unadulterated products of our
modern economy and are thus condemned to perpetual growth. In this sense, it is relatively easy to wager
that they will one day try to swallow up the art dealer community. I recently had dinner with high-ranked
managers of one such auction house and any transaction that eluded them was systematically qualified as «
black market », apparently in keeping with company-wide jargon... Future art dealers are going to have to
prepare against just such an offensive, and their resistance will necessarily have to be based on notions of
competence, deontology, and, once again, speedy execution of transactions.
The inner enemy
The antique dealer is his own worst enemy. And I am not referring to the watchful hatred that sometimes
governs the rapports between two dealers sharing the same market lot or neighbourhood block. But, it must
be said, the profession of antique dealer is poorly guarded. If, for example, you aspire to become a baker,
cobbler or painter, you will need first to obtain a professional license. And let us not forget the long and
fastidious studies that need to be undertaken before being able to exercise other professions. In sum, one
has only to decide to become an antique dealer and voila! consider it done. But to become an antique
dealer's secretary, one first must have a secretarial degree...
As we have seen, the contours of this particular profession remain steadfastly obscure, which is interesting
since it functions solely on the precarious balance of longing versus trust: a potential buyer's longing for an
object and the relative trust he instils in its depositary. The realm of so-called « primitive » arts is one art
world domain where the utmost confusion must reign since, for the layman, objects are generally neither
autographed nor objectively dated. Consequently, a paradoxical and, to my knowledge, unique situation
establishes itself: the rarefaction of merchandise leads to the proliferation of new dealers and specialists.
These minstrels of confusion have now set up shop on the very steps of the temple, both in the Saint-
Germain neighborhood in Paris and at the Hotel Drouot auction house, as well as in other major auction
houses throughout France. What's more, for the uninitiated yet eager public, nothing differentiates their sale
of imported artwork or copies from the albeit less extravagant efforts of a dedicated professional specialized
in the sale or appraisal of truly authentic pieces. Even if the all members of the vocation have yet to manifest
worry at such a situation, it seems safe to wager that, in a not too distant future, the damage caused will be
irreparable since generations of private collectors would suffer on account of it. Even if today's « primitive »
art dealer gets relatively bad press as a counterfeiting mercenary, would all the same like to conclude on an
optimistic note. To ask a former dealer to supervise one of the most ambitious projects in the history of
French museology* equates the admission that no one can easily learn to differentiate between a copy or a
decent object and a masterpiece. Now, for the good dealer just like the good appraiser, the few millimeters
of sculpture and spirit that save a work's assessment from oblivion are as reassuring and bedazzling as a
lighthouse on a foggy night; it jumps out at them immediately and, from then on, they are said to « have an
Whether one is a dealer or a collector, the relationship maintained with a work of art is always an intimate if
not carnal affair. The first encounter with an important piece in an auction house [translator's note: the
author makes a play on words with the French term for auction house, hotel de ventes, literally «sale hotel»,
finding the word hotel fittingly apt] or in the backroom of a gallery is always a moment of high emotion that is
difficult to share with others. This is precisely why it is impossible to think that any private or public institution
could ever « have an eye ». Having an eye is a one-on-one business; it's a love story.
* The author is referring to Jacques Kerchache and the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
The photographs that accompany this article present the interior of the dealer and collector Antony Innocent Moris (1866-
1951) who was commonly known as « pere Moris ».
After a military career spent throughout the Indian Ocean and the Tonkin Gulf, he joined the civil service and worked as a
secretary in a police station until 1914. In 1913, he had rented a storefront on the rue Victor-Masset in Paris for his friend
Marie who ran a secondhand store (brocante). Once he left his job at the police station, Moris lived with Marie in the apartment
adjacent to the store. After meeting some Persian merchants, he decided to sell that region's fabrics and rugs since they
were in vogue at the time. It was in 1913 that he bought his first African mask and met the ethnographic dealer Eymann, die
collector Rupalley (whose collection was sold off at the Hotel Drouut in 1930) and Joseph Muller.
Moris saw to his collection's dispersal during his lifetime and Charles Ration bought several pieces, yet the bulk of the
collection went to another dealer: Pierre Verite. In the home of this accumulator — the term has never been more appropriate
—, the walls are covered from floor to ceiling as these photographic records demonstrate. We can indeed make out several
arms, war clubs, an impressive suite of Apuema masks and New Caledonian sculptures that together provide an artistic
frame to a Vanuatu statue. Above his bed, covered by an Oceanic tapa cloth, a panoply of monstrance-hatchets is laid out,
capped by Senufo masks that are themselves crowned by Kota reliquary figures. The whole display is rounded off by a bird's-
beak club from New Caledonia. On another picture, Papua New Guinean and African masks surround the piece of furniture
that once belonged to Sarah Bernhardt. This piece is made up of sculpted Maori panels that the famous actress brought back
after her tour of New Zealand. It is laden widi Kongo statuettes, a Mundugumor flute stopper and a Massim figurine. In the
display case we recognize six Ivipo'o accompanied by two Marquesas Island stilt steps. The Kiribati Islands are also duly
represented by diverse arms and shark's teeth. Africa, finally, also finds its place in this collection as evidenced by these
photographs through Fang and Punu masks, a Kuyu marionette, ivory Mangbetu harps, sculpted wooden panels from
Madagascar and Jivaro shrunken heads.
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