I t's with a distinct admiration and emotion that Marie-Victoire Leloup shares memories of her mother Hélène Leloup's brilliant career. Now aged 96, Hélène is regarded as France's most important and passionate dealer of sub-Saharan and Oceanic art, an adventurer and explorer, ground-breaking gallerist and collector, and eminent specialist in Mbembe and Dogon art, ever since her first foray to Dakar in 1952.
She was ‘more researcher than dealer’, according to her daughter. Responsible for a proliferation of exhibitions and scientific publications, Hélène never failed to share her travel experiences, and she loved giving advice to experienced collectors and young art historians alike. Moreover, through her generous donations to Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, this woman of conviction expressed her deep love for the French Republic.
In the Collection Hélène Leloup, Le Journal d'une Pionnière, Vol. I sale in Paris in June 2023, Sotheby’s will offer some 100 exceptional works from Leloup’s personal collection, shining a light on her voyage of discovery over seven decades, and offering collectors the opportunity to acquire some of the most important works of their kind in private hands. Highlights of the collection will also be on show at Sotheby's New York between 6–16 May, London between 31 May–11 June and Brussels, May 30–June 2, 2023. Here, Sotheby's speaks to Marie-Victoire about her mother and her exceptional legacy.
Your mother’s passion for Africa is well-known. What were the circumstances in which she discovered that continent and its art?
My mother travelled to West Africa for the first time in 1952, on a trip with the National Union of Students of France (UNEF). The very next year, she began to write short economic articles in a newspaper called Pharos. She dreamed of becoming a journalist or even going into politics.
Her second voyage took place in December 1957, in the company of my father, Henri Kamer, whom she had met and married three years earlier. That was when they brought back their first objects. The following year, they went to Mali and Burkina Faso. In fact, my mother kept all the invoices of the works that they purchased there, constituting a particularly precious source of documentation for researchers. Moreover, she continually emphasised the fact that she always purchased objects directly from the local people.
How did your parents come to open a gallery?
My father’s paternal uncles – the Kalebdjian brothers – had been running an Egyptian art gallery since 1905, at 12 Rue de la Paix, and he expressed a desire to become an art dealer very early on. At the age of 17, he began to frequent the Jean Roudillon gallery, which likely helped him hone his eye. He was a people person, and he spoke a number of languages fluently and with remarkable ease. My mother did not have the same relational skills as my father, but she had a particularly strong character! However, she tirelessly documented objects, took an interest in their provenance, and sought to understand their meanings and contexts. United by their passion for travels and African art, they opened their first gallery – Remac, a name that is one letter away from spelling Kamer backwards – in 1955, at Château Scott in Cannes. They immediately began to socialise with the important artistic and cultural figures of the time, including Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, and Pablo Picasso. For their very first African art exhibition, they invited the chiefs of various indigenous tribes - which made the headlines! One year later, they inaugurated their first gallery in Paris, on 90 Boulevard Raspail.
What motivated your parents to open a second gallery in New York City?
After the traumas of war, my father yearned to become American. My mother identified more with the French, and spoke English with an accent thick as a baguette! Their artist friends – including Picasso – urged them to go [to New York], and they also sensed that it would be pertinent to broaden their clientèle, and bring tribal art to the United States. There were already significant collectors there, such as Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics queen. As a matter of fact, my parents drafted the sales catalogue for the Rubinstein collection much later, in 1966. My mother was the one who wrote most of the descriptions. And she was furious to not have been mentioned in the credits! But at the time, women were rarely brought into the spotlight. I am still struggling to get certain statues on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum to carry not only the name Henri Kamer, but also my mother’s name.
My parents' gallery in New York City opened in 1960, right in the middle of Madison Avenue, just near the Met and the Museum of Primitive Art, which was very convenient! They opened a third gallery in 1967, on 245 Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.
They shared their time between the United States and France, where they had just opened their new Parisian gallery on 9 Quai Malaquais. My father devoted himself more to the American clientèle, while my mother remained in Paris to cater specifically to her European clients, who included the Swiss collector Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller. Meanwhile, they continued to travel very regularly to Africa, Oceania and South America. My parents travelled absolutely everywhere!
How would you describe the very personal connection that your mother has maintained with Africa throughout her life?
Of all African art, it was unquestionably Dogon art that she preferred, for its elegance and understatement. She said that she loved Mali most of all, for the stark beauty of its landscapes and the kindness of its people. She especially appreciated their respect for women. When she used her personal resources to open a school in Kori Maoundé – in the middle of Dogon country – in 2004, she insisted that classes be open to girls. She was also very proud to see that a well had been dug for the people in the village. In a way, she wanted to give back to Africa some of what it had given her.
Beyond African art, what relationship did she have with other forms of artistic expression?
I remember that my mother came to the assistance of many artists, and she regularly accommodated them at the family property in Cannes. As early as 1956, she exhibited the work of the Japanese painter Kumi Sugai at her Cannes-based gallery. The following year, she devoted an exhibition to the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser at her gallery on Boulevard Raspail. She gave advice to Yves Klein, at the very beginning of his career, and she also went on to display his work. Later, she became great friends with the sculptor Arman, who was also a great African art aficionado. She loved to make recommendations to her clients, who included John Davison Rockefeller, the film-maker John Huston, and the collector and patron of the arts Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière. Moreover, she purchased and kept works by the greatest artists of her time. Some of her favourite works were Head of the Woman (1960) by Francis Bacon (1960) and Paysage Surréaliste (1933 - 1934) by Salvador Dalí, which she purchased in 2004, because it reminded her of the dunes in Africa.
What relations did she have with Musée du Quai Branly?
My mother was thrilled that a museum like Quai Branly had opened in Paris, and considered it a fitting successor to the Musée de l’Homme. That is why, for many years, she sat on the museum’s acquisition committee as an expert and brought exceptional works into its collections, including the large Djennenke statue purchased in 2004 through the sponsorship of AXA. To this day, she is still particularly proud that her famous Dogon 'Maternity' statuette - today kept at the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre - entered the French patrimony, as a donation through the mediation of Yves Lefur, the former heritage and collections director of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, who shared her taste for exceptional objects.
“My collection owes her a lot. It would not have been of this quality without Hélène's help, advice and extreme kindness. Many of the works in the gallery that bears my name at the musée du Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac are marked by her indelible imprint.”
When your mother met the architect Philippe Leloup and married him in 1976, a new era began. How would you describe their relationship?
They went very well together. He was more of a dealer than she was, which left her more time to conduct her research. To tell you the truth, my mother was a hard worker. She could spend whole days at the Bibliothèque Nationale, preparing for a book or an exhibition, such as the one dedicated to Dogon art, that was held at the Musée du Quai Branly in 2011. When she travelled, she took many notes and photos and made recordings that she listened to again when she came back. Today, we enjoy an exceptional quantity of documentation because she always demonstrated a high level of scientific discipline. In fact, she was the first person in Europe to have her objects dated using carbon-14. In a way, she was a researcher above all, and she became an art dealer almost by accident!