The Daily Heller: When Pierre Le-Tan Collected Collectors

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The French illustrator Pierre Le-Tan, who died in 2019 at 69, was an immoderate collector of eclectic objects d’art. He also compulsively collected other collectors, especially those who (often unwittingly) bought pieces of his own collections that he put up for sale in order to buy more paintings and bibelots. A posthumously published English edition of his 2013 book A Few Collectors (New Vessel Press), faithfully translated by Michael Z. Wise, is a short, splendidly written and engagingly illustrated memoir about his own and others’ beloved acquisitions, the eccentricity of those who acquire and a subjective pathology of collecting artful things.

“This incessant desire to accumulate abated a bit at the age when all of a sudden you start thinking of going out at night, preferably accompanied,” he writes. “A few objects then disappeared in order to subsidize other needs. But this was merely an interlude.”

This book has personal resonance for me. Not only is it an ode to the oddities of collectors, but on my very first visit to Paris in the early 1980s, Pierre, a Parisian whose father was Vietnamese, and Plum, his English-born (then) wife, generously invited me to stay at their home. I wished it could have lasted forever. I was in collector’s heaven. I had just separated from my second wife, and an invitation to judge European Illustration in London came at just the right time. Pierre, a soft-spoken witty “chap” with a rhythmic French/English accent, insisted I join his family in Paris after the judging. This magical city was everything I dreamed about; it was the tonic I needed. And Pierre’s flat was part of that dream. Located on the top or attic floor, replete with low ceilings and dormers that overlooked the emblematic rows of pitched roofs and iconic chimneypots that defined Paris, it was both museum and warehouse.

Most impressive was that strewn about this sprawling space were piles of vintage art books too numerous to count, paintings galore (with and without gilded frames), furniture and rugs that might have belonged to nobility. Yet they were all strewn with forethought.

Not all collections are equal to Pierre, but all have purpose. About some, he wrote: “Vulgar, yes, like most new ‘collectors’ of obscene wealth.” He added with pleasure: “In earlier times, the powerful were rewarded with nobility titles that gave them power and prestige. Nowadays, art and ‘patronage’ have replaced these honors, A kind of halo now crowns full, laborious men who have lived only for money and power. With art they acquire the so-called ‘glamour’ they so lacked, while also realizing it’s a comfortable source of profit. Nonetheless, the delight an aesthete can derive from looking at artworks remains forever alien to them.”

Pierre briefly profiles about 20 of the most original of his collectors’ circle. Included are the Princess of Brioni, who was descended from painter Leopold Kupelwieser, a close friend of Shubert. “[She] and her husband had been gradually disencumbering themselves of the paintings they owned, having virtually no other source of income.” Pierre spent as much time examining the rectangles on the wall where artwork had previously hung as he did looking at objects. “One lone work remained. Visiting this vanished collection was a lesson for me. The things that are coveted so, then acquired, always end up escaping our grasp again.”

Another collector of note is Alain Weill; he is among the world’s great poster historians who Pierre once took me to meet at Weill’s stiflingly cluttered, chaotic Paris apartment. Weill is the expert on A.M. Cassandre and founder of the Musee de l’Affiche. I’ve always envied his holdings.

Pierre focuses on attributes that make his chosen collectors act in such extreme ways. Such as Filippo G, who was involved with wax figures, notably a wall of wax model heads of dead criminals, with grafts of their own hair. “Death had not wiped the viciousness from their faces,” Pierre writes. “These works had been created in the 19th century, and came from I don’t know what institution. Their acquisition must have been the culmination of a clandestine transaction.” Filippo is rumored to sit motionless on his sofa, entranced by his collection of heads “every evening, as others might watch a football game on television.”

I had forgotten how much I missed my old friend’s voice and was delighted to read Pierre’s perfect diction—soothing and reassuring—come through on the page. I was also reminded of another book about a collection cum journey, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes, a memoir that follows a family saga through a collector’s eye. Were Pierre still with us, I’m sure he’d be collecting more collectors for another volume, and maybe write more about his own saga.