I have owned, I confess, thousands of objects. Even if today most of them are nothing more than memories, I continue to seek, to find, to acquire. Acquisition being, for some mysterious reason, the most important act, like a gambler throwing dice. The idea of speculation has never crossed my mind, nor of “decoration.” Collecting is, for me, both essential and completely useless.
I can’t recall what the first thing was that I considered a collector’s item. All I can say is that, at the age when children love toys, toys interested me only if I found in them a certain beauty. So I can still see the gift presented to me when I, rather late, finally became toilet-trained: a sort of little carriage drawn by a white horse. What I found appealing was its beautiful black lacquer. I had no desire to play with what had already become a piece of my collection, a thing I wanted simply to contemplate.
Very early on, when I was around seven or eight years old, my father would take me to antique shops in Paris, where we lived, and even to the flea market. I can still hear the Asian art dealer talking to him: “Tell him to choose a print.” He had the same intonation as actors from the time of black-and-white films. I was in heaven. I could list all the shop names that would mean nothing to anyone because they all closed long ago.
My father used to give me secondhand objects: a slightly chipped East India Company cup, a fragment of a Chinese painting, an old volume of the Manga, the encyclopedia of sketches by Hokusai, whom I still consider to be the greatest Japanese artist and some of whose drawings I own today.
In the bedroom that I shared with my brother, I set up a miniature museum where each object was accompanied by a carefully handwritten label. Visitors—from Prince Buu Loc, an old friend of my father’s, to radiator repairmen—were allowed to write their impressions in a guest book.
At around 11 years of age, I became interested in weapons and armor from Japan. This infatuation stemmed from an old book of my father’s that listed extensive details about sabers, breastplates, and helmets. I tried to copy it. From then on, I began compiling a collection whose crowning element was a complete set of armor acquired when I was about 14 years old.
In the bedroom that I shared with my brother, I set up a miniature museum. Visitors—from Prince Buu Loc, an old friend of my father’s, to radiator repairmen—were allowed to write their impressions in a guest book.
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. A few objects then disappeared in order to subsidize other needs. But this was merely an interlude.
My tastes changed as well. Many long stays in London opened up new horizons for me. Through reading Virginia Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, I discovered the painters, Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Simon Bussy, an exquisite French artist friend of Matisse’s married to the sister of Lytton Strachey, an important writer in the group. This led to my learning about other aspects of English painting from this period.
It was also around the time that I encountered the irresistible attractions of Parisian auction-house salesrooms. I vaguely recall that the old Hôtel Drouot was under reconstruction. The auctioneers had taken over the former Gare d’Orsay before it became a museum.
I realized that, every day, copious amounts of ceaselessly replenished merchandise were put on offer to covetous amateurs and professionals. Later reinstalled on Rue Drouot, near where I lived at the time, this place of perdition became for me the equivalent of a casino for a gambler. Along with those of the auction houses in London and New York, the temptations were constant.
Toward the end of the 1970s, Christian Bérard, a remarkable figure of the interwar years, began to fascinate me. I don’t know how it started; perhaps I discovered an image in a book or a magazine. He was, and is still, known for the wrong reasons; he was referred to as a stage designer, a fashion illustrator (in fact, that was simply his livelihood), an arbiter of elegance—he who looked like a vagrant. “All women dress only for him,” it was said. But he was above all an exceptional painter, sometimes an equal of the greatest.
Through reading Virginia Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, I discovered the painters, Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Simon Bussy, an exquisite French artist friend of Matisse’s.
Francis Bacon, when we met, expressed his own interest in him, and some of Bacon’s paintings are reminiscent of early works by the figure nicknamed “Bébé.” Lucian Freud, today considered to be a giant, did a portrait—probably his finest drawing—of his French friend.
As for Balthus, he insisted on going to a Left Bank gallery for the opening of an exhibition of spellbinding portraits by Bérard. That was the same evening as the inauguration of Balthus’s great retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. This bearded figure, whose paintings no one or almost no one knows, mattered to these three great artists.
I became interested at the same time in other “neo-romantics,” as they were anointed by the critic Waldemar George; aside from Bérard, the main ones were the brothers Eugène and Leonid Berman, as well as Pavel Tchelitchew, all three of Russian origin. Correspondingly, photographers such as Cecil Beaton, George Hoyningen-Huene, and George Platt Lynes shared the same aesthetic, both melancholy and unreal.
I then assembled what I will pretentiously call an important collection of this entire movement. Having put together a very complete set, I decided to rid myself of it, consigning it all to a large English auction house. The simple catalogue, abundantly illustrated and annotated, favorably replaced the cumbersome ownership of these objects.
Since then, following a divorce that ended up relieving me of a large portion of what might otherwise have remained mine, I have continued to practice the only sport that suits me. Almost everything attracts me, from archaeology to Islam to Asia and drawings from all eras. Japan, which was so important to me when I was a child, has regained significance. The books have never stopped accumulating, but I don’t think of them as a collection. For me, they’re simply a reservoir of indispensable knowledge that a computer could never replace.
Time has passed. I occasionally experience a certain satisfaction in thinking about the things I loved even before the multitudes that have since become infatuated with them. I sold everything before it took on a value I could not have imagined. This is the lot of a poor collector who sells only to buy again.
Having put together a very complete set, I decided to rid myself of it.
Drawings by Jacopo Ligozzi, Guercino, Carmontelle, Alberto Giacometti, Domenico Gnoli, Balthus, Lucian Freud, Andy Warhol, Rex Whistler; sculptures from the Renaissance or by Calder; furniture and objects by Jean-Michel Frank, Line Vautrin, Jean Prouvé—all of these have passed through my hands. I miss nothing, especially not the profit I could have drawn. These old possessions are now nothing but extraneous commodities, and I find that they’ve become almost vulgar.
Vulgar, yes, like most new “collectors” of obscene wealth. In earlier times, the powerful were rewarded with titles of nobility that gave them glory and prestige. Nowadays, art and “patronage” have replaced these honors. A kind of halo now crowns dull, laborious men who have lived only for money and power. With art they acquire the so-called glamour they so lacked, while also realizing that it’s a considerable source of profit. Nonetheless, the delight an aesthete can derive from looking at artworks remains forever alien to them.
What becomes of collections? The largest, the most valuable, often the least significant, end up in museums or become the property of foundations. They are testament to one man’s fortune, vanity, or, at best, to an eye, a taste, an era. Some are exemplary, like that of Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon—eclecticism and perfection.
For my part, a mix of disenchantment and wisdom acquired with age has taught me that nothing belongs to us. The poor sovereigns who had themselves interred with their treasures have all been pillaged. For a long time to come, for my own amusement, I will continue giving in to the temptations of discovery and acquisition. New domains continue to intrigue me, or at least I hope they will. I know, however, that I can part company with it all.
I hope to leave behind only those little things, probably in a sorry state, but so precious, that were made or given to me by my children in the past: a figurine in modeling clay, a cutout, a broken seashell.
Pierre Le-Tan was an illustrator who came to prominence in 1970, when, at age 19, he produced one of what was to be many covers for The New Yorker. Le-Tan died in 2019