African & Oceanic Art

Explorer and Collector Marceau Rivière, an African Saga

By Sotheby's
Ahead of the sale of his African Art collection in Paris on 18-19 June, explorer and collector Marceau Rivière discusses his love for the African continent, his most cherished finds and his decision to sell on.

M arceau Rivière traveled up and down central Africa mixing as much with village chiefs as with the European specialists of African dark wood: sculpture Henri Kramer, René Rasmusse, Merton Simpson and Jacques Kerchache. A collector and dealer familiar with the country, he brought together an erudite collection with patience and discretion.

For over fifty years, you were a fervent ambassador of African art. Where does this fascination with Africa come from?

It comes from my childhood, where wild animals, the jungle and the desert were the stuff of dreams. Like many young teenagers, I was prone to watching Tarzan and I lay in wait for all the films with Johnny Weissmuller. Because of the French colonies, Africa was the subject of much discussion in the 1950s, and the missionaries were familiar figures in our villages. The account of a white priest on his return from Congo-Brazzaville particularly enthralled me. He used photographic plates to describe to us certain aspects of native life and customs that we did not know. Meanwhile, I was content with a small mask found at a trader of rabbit skins and that I have always kept. I was eleven years old and this purchase cost me dearly.

Marceau Rivière, Algeria, circa 1960

At this time, you did not see yourself living in Africa and becoming a collector…

As luck would have it, when I was drafted to Algeria in 1957, I was lucky to be a camel rider soldier, a post reserved for volunteers, and to meet the explorer Francis Mazière in order to help him as a radio transmitter. It was an incredible adventure. I then discovered archaeological digs. Between two patrols, we explored Neolithic sites and were responsible for sending our findings – arrow heads, silex and carved stones – to the Musée National of Bardo in Algeria. This first military experience gave me a liking for the African continent, and in particular the land. Subsequently, thanks to my job as an engineer for several airplane companies, I spent many years in central Africa, first of all in Chad. Thanks to a friend who managed the National Park of Zakouma, I discovered the rudimentals of local fauna and flora. This became a passion and I became an expert on bird species, before becoming an expert on artworks.

How did you approach African art and its rituals?

In the 1960s, I was used to the bush. It was therefore easy for me to know the circuits and to make contacts. Relationships were quite simple. Many items were still kept in families and were sold by the younger generation or through dealers who knew that these pieces interested Europeans. I was intrigued by the functions of these objects well before becoming interested in their aesthetic aspect. Use or function is the basis of African art. It is a rule that many are still not aware of.


Do you think it is necessary to have lived in Africa in order to become an expert on African art? The great collector Hubert Goldet never set foot there for example.

For an essentially non-specialized dealer I think it is important to have spent some time on the African continent and to have understood it “live” so to speak. The great village chiefs taught me a lot, as did the bushmen and natives, by sharing their way of life with its hierarchy and its traditions, but also its colours and smells. Moreover, I acquired a practical knowledge that has been very useful to me. Why can’t a mask from a certain ethnic group be sculpted in a certain kind of wood? The collector’s point of view is patently different. Hubert Goldet, who brought together a unique group of objects, was an aesthete above all else, more fascinated by the beauty of the objects than by their function. He had an exceptional gaze, financial means and a great sense of humility which led him to ask the advice of the most important experts. At the time of my first purchases in Europe in the 1970s, I also contacted a group of connoisseurs who owned several masterpieces – René Rasmussen, Henri Kamer – and most importantly I did not hesitate to sell pieces in order to improve the collection. This is the only way to build up a collection worthy of the name.

Marceau Rivière, Paris , circa 1988

In 1981, when you already owned several masterpieces, you opened the Galerie Sao, on rue Saint-Benoit. What were your reasons for opening a gallery in Paris?

I followed the advice of a friend of mine who told me: "If you have a gallery, a huge amount of objects will pass through your hands, and you will be able to collect better pieces.” He was right. The gallery did not make my fortune, but it allowed me to purchase two or three beautiful objects a year. This was all I wanted.

Can you talk about any missed opportunities or unexpected findings?

I prefer to talk about findings. At the end of the 1960s, I was still in Chad and I was already studying several books. In Meauze’s book, written a few years earlier, I found a Dan mask that brought together all the aesthetic canons as much in terms of the model as the patina. I was envious of its owner Henri Kamer, who I did not know but I never thought one day it would belong to me. When our shared tastes united us ten years later, I discovered his collection in his Normandy castle. At the bottom of one of his many trunks, I saw “my” Dan mask and Kamer agreed to sell it to me. At the time, the price was already high but I did not hesitate. It is one of the collection’s emblematic pieces.


The Ivory Coast objects hold an important place. Do you feel a particular affection for this country?

Like Chad, it is a country I know well. Moreover, I like the refinement of the Dan, Bété, Guro and Sénufo art. Not to mention the Baulé and Yauré art which has produced many highly aesthetic objects, unrivalled in traditional African art. These were reserved for the intimacy of the home and were only accessible to their owners or very young children. However, this interest in Ivorian art did not turn me away from objects from Zaire, Gabon or Chad. They all testify to my story. This is one of the reasons why I prefer to part with them during my lifetime. I will at least enjoy the pleasure of knowing what will happen to them.

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