Out of Africa: Hélène Leloup's Influence on a Generation of Curators, Dealers & Collectors

Out of Africa: Hélène Leloup's Influence on a Generation of Curators, Dealers & Collectors

T he exceptional personality and career of Hélène Leloup, for many years the only woman in the male-dominated world of art dealers, had a profound impact on the history of art and the African art market.

Not only did Hélène follow in the footsteps of great art collectors such as Helena Rubinstein and Peggy Guggenheim, she also stood out as an antique dealer and expert in African art, with which her name is closely associated today. Hélène Leloup, or the diary of a pioneer and the genius of a passionate collector. We askeda number of collectors, experts, art historians, curators and dealers inspired by the example of Hélène Leloup, what they owe to this visionary woman.

Hélène Kamer in the Palm Beach gallery, circa 1966. Archives Leloup.

Adenike Cosgrove, Founder, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA

When I visited Nigeria in 2010, I knew nothing about African art. But, during a trip to an art village in Abuja, I bought what I thought were antique Benin bronze leopard aquamaniles. They turned out to be fakes, but this experience sparked my personal and soon-to-be very public interest in African art, and those fakes were the genesis of what is now my lifelong passion.

Adenike Cosgrove

As a Nigerian, born in Tokyo and raised in Hong Kong and Lagos, I’ve always been drawn back to Nigeria. I’ve always wanted to know more about my history and the Yoruba culture of my parents. Pursuing my passion for African art has allowed me to do just that. Since that initial experience, I have continued to follow this passion, honing my skills as a collector and learning from experiences and other collectors. But it’s not just about acquiring pieces. I wanted to share my knowledge with others, and that’s why I created ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA.

It’s an online database of classic African artworks that’s accessible to everyone, whether you’re an established collector or just starting out. I wanted to create a platform that would help people learn about what it means to collect African art. That’s why we also started interviewing collectors at different stages of the collecting journey. We want to nurture enthusiasm and get people excited about the wealth of art available across all price ranges. African art has had a profound impact on me, and I want others to experience that same joy and fulfillment.

Collecting art is about passion and hard work. It’s about pursuing something you love and constantly learning and exploring. Yes, there may be disappointments and setbacks along the way, but they only make the journey more rewarding. I am proof that pursuing your passions brings great joy, whether born out of love, curiosity, obsession, or simply to chase the fleeting thrill of something new. Hélène Leloup was a pioneer in the field of African art.

Hélène Kamer in front of the great wall, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) 1962.

Her extensive knowledge of the subject and passion for collecting rare and unique pieces had a profound impact on the art world… and on me too! Helene understood the importance of preserving these works. She saw them as portals to a distant past, a way to keep the culture alive for future generations.

I credit Hélène Leloup for inspiring part of my collecting journey. Hélène's dedication to collecting and preserving African art helped me understand the cultural significance of these works and sparked my own passion for sharing this important part of history.

Susan Mullin Vogel, Curator and African art expert

My first connection to African art was as a collector. Straight out of college, and living in Abidjan in 1964-5, the period when waves of major sculptures arrived on the market every few weeks. Collecting was endless discovery because I knew absolutely nothing about African art when I arrived (not unusual among Americans at the time). I found the sculpture irresistibly attractive and quickly formed an attachment to African art that has lasted ever since.

Susan Vogel in1985 during the creation Center for African Art, New York © Max Kozloff.

My admiration of the place and the people and my commitment also began as early and has lasted as long. I think a strong sense of the singular individuals who created, and used, and cared for each object is the foundation of my understanding of African art and has informed my work as a curator and scholar. Though we only had a few books that first year, learning about it began immediately, and within a couple of years I was studying for a doctorate in art history with a concentration in African art at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, and working at the Museum of Primitive Art, Nelson Rockefeller’s private museum.

For my master’s thesis and for my dissertation (and continuing for a total of 25 years) I conducted field work in Baule villages, beginning relationships a few of which still survive today. Field work is immersive, intense and personal; you live your field experience unrelentingly, day after day and night after night and you emerge changed. That, at least, happened in my case. Observing people living with art and talking with them about it, pondering what it meant in their particular lives, where it fit in their vision of the world, profoundly and permanently shaped my practice of African-art history and my curatorial practice.

Hélène Kamer in the Ivory Coast, circa 1960.

Hélène Leloup followed a different path through some of the same formative experiences of rural Africa that I had, and I think she too emerged with an unusually strong, visceral connection to the place and a personal respect for the African people including the art dealers. She learned from them. Not only on the Continent, but in Paris, starting in the 1950s and continuing long after, she bought artworks directly from African dealers.

Where others felt it was “too complicated” to buy from them, she was confident in her own knowledge that she could make clear sighted choices, avoid the pitfalls and choose the best. “Enfin, bref,” I always admired her powerful energy, her confidence, and persistence, her unaggressive yet unyielding presence. A woman dealing as an equal among men - and of course her Missoni knits and fabulous personal style.

Ceil Pulitzer, Collector and artist

African civilization is very complex, hierarchical, ritualistic, and deeply beautiful. It represents the pinnacle within the scope of creation. I feel that the works in my collection each tell a story, a deeply important story. As a painter, I felt drawn to these artists’ ability to tell such stories and offer so much symbolic content visually. In the beginning for me, learning about African art was something I did all on my own. I love adventure, and discovering African art has been an adventure. It is timeless, and the most interesting art that has ever been created.

Ceil Pulitzer

Hélène Leloup is an amazing woman. I believe we are kindred spirits being from the same generation and sharing a love of Africa. We love everything about the continent – the art, the culture, the people, and she and I have both made commitments to organizations which create educational opportunities for children in different countries in Africa. Her school in Mali is very dear to her.

My Mbembe figure came from her. It was one of the legendary eleven that she exhibited in a revolutionary exhibition in the 1970s when no one had ever heard of these remarkable sculptures or culture. Mine has now been given to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I will always remember being with Hélène when Alisa LaGamma brought this group back together for an exhibition at The Met in 2015. It was December in New York, and it was freezing cold. I insisted that we take a taxi together, but she refused, and off she went against the wind on Fifth Avenue. Whether it’s the savannahs of Africa or the urban jungle of New York, she is forever intrepid.

Hélène Kamer on the road in Burkina Faso (then Republic of Upper Volta).

Jean Fritts, Specialist, African & Oceanic Art

My first introduction to African art was a superb class on African politics and literature in my undergraduate American university. The class led me to take an intense course in Swahili and apply to study in Kenya and Uganda. While in East Africa I had the great fortune to work in the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa, which educated me about the breadth and history, and the complexity of art and architecture in East Africa.

Jean Fritts.

A fortunate encounter with the scholar Skip Cole lead me towards work in museums, and later at The National Museum of African art at the Smithsonian with Philip Ravenhill. At the museum Philip and I worked closely looking at how African art had been displayed in museum contexts in the USA, and to ask what we could learn about how the objects had been display in the last 25 years. My curiosity to understand why the art might look the way is does led me to graduate school in Social Anthropolgy, and return trips to Africa. I realized I had so much to learn.

I was fortunate to meet Hélène a few years later when I moved to NY to lead the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby's. Philippe Leloup and Hélène at that time had a gallery in New York as well as the Quai Malaquai in Paris.

Hélène and Philippe Leloup, circa 1990. Photo A. Thierry Arditti.

My learning curve was pretty steep moving from a museum to an auction house, but it was not long at all before I realized that many of the exquisite objects in collections in New York at the time has come from Hélène and Philippe.

Their door was always open for an inquiry or a discussion on quality. They bought many of the most important pieces I uncovered in the early 1990s, and it was my greatest delight to discover Helene has kept many of these exceptional works in her own private collection.

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