The Piece That Started My Collection: Anne-Marie Springer

By Mariko Finch
Anne-Marie Springer has spent her collecting career acquiring intimate letters and documents from figures throughout history such as Émile Zola, Napoléon Bonaparte, Frida Khalo and Elvis Presley. She has edited four anthologies on the subject, bringing together some of the most compelling love stories and innermost thoughts of revered writers, artists and thinkers. We sat down to discuss the lives and legacies of these objects, and what drives her to collect.

When did your interest in historical letters first begin?

Upon the birth of my daughter, Zoé, in 1994, I began to observe the ever-scarcity of the hand-written letter — more and more people used faxes, e-mail or the telephone and then later social media to exchange conversations; letters of intimacy, love or friendship were no longer the prime medium of communication. This ignited a desire to leave Zoé some sort of a treasure chest, a time capsule encompassing the richness and abundance of not only the history of art, music and literature, but of intimacy and human emotion.

Anne-Marie Springer.

Do you remember a particular work that ignited your passion in the medium?

I saw a beautiful love letter of Napoléon to Joséphine in an auction catalogue that totally overwhelmed me. He had just married her and departed to conquer Italy shortly afterwards. I was mistaken in thinking that all of his letters were in museums, institutions or universities and had no idea that a private person could lay hands on such a treasure. Sadly, I hesitated and did not buy that letter. It took me ten years of research to finally find and acquire another one.

Letter from Napoléon Bonaparte to Joséphine.

Your collection has been exhibited at the Fondation Martin Bodmer, amongst other locations, and is unique in its kind. What do you hope will be the lasting legacy of your collection?

I believe what is at the core of my collection is a reverence to the hand-written word, to its importance and to its fleeting departure. Social media and the language used as a result of it, has greatly reduced the human condition to a mimicked mould of what people are expected to aspire to. The visceral component of expression has sadly been lost and so has, in many ways, its individuality. Another driving and ultimate goal behind this collection is to assemble the intricacies of human emotion regardless of the writer’s eminence or the disdain we, as witnesses of history, may have towards them.

It delicately bares a small window of subjectivity by offering a different, more intimate perspective on the lives not of icons, but actual living, breathing beings who, in some ways, are not so different to us as individuals. Thus, I believe, a unification of the human condition, a sense of empathy and compassion, is also at the heart of the lasting legacy of my collection, Lettres Intimes.

The inside cover of Anne-Marie Springer's anthology of letters, Lettres Intimes. Courtesy of Anne-Marie Springer.

It must be very difficult to have a favourite, but is there one story amongst these documents that particularly resonates with you?

My favorite letter is very often the last one I acquired. It is the case of the eleven letters I recently bought, from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; he addresses them to a young lady that he met on a train in Algeria a year before his death. The ensemble comprises five illustrated letters as well as four large drawings where the Petit Prince himself talks to this lady, asking her in pleading tones to answer his letters and telephone calls. These poignantly beautiful drawings of the Petit Prince outside of the ones that were used for the publishing of his book in 1943.

Illustration page from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince.

Have you learned any lessons from history through acquainting yourself with these iconic figures?

We all have access to information regarding history and these iconic figures, but what most cannot fathom is that these people were tangible beings with emotional complexities, as copious as you or me. We are granted access through a portal into a realm in which intimate desires, frustrations, affections and feelings of love and loss are not only illustrated in the language of the writer, but palpable through the caress of the paper, the dance of the ink and the impression of the words. What was once an item owned by a historical figure of such importance in the pages of our history books, has become an encyclopedia of human emotion to which any human may identity.

Detail of a letter from Edith Piaf. Courtesy Anne-Marie Springer.

What piece of advice would you give to a new collector that you wish you had been given?

Don’t let yourself be influenced by trends or whatever the market might dictate you. If something garners your love and attention, follow through with it, you won’t be sorry.

What is next for Anne-Marie Springer? Are there any projects you are currently working on that you can share with us?

One of my primary goals regarding my collection is to share it with a broader public. I feel it is an important duty to make sure that as many people as possible get acquainted with and enjoy these beautiful and unique letters. Hence the exhibition at the Bodmer Foundation in Geneva and the Pinacothèque in Paris. I lend letters to institutions and museums as often as I am asked; for instance, the correspondence of Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera is presently exhibited at the Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg after having been part of a major retrospective of both artists at the Manège in Moscow.

I also organise readings and conferences and have so far, published four books: Lettres Intimes, Amoureuses et Rebelles and Lettres d’Amants, which have been quite successful. My latest book Dis-moi que tu m’aimes was published last November. My next project is to publish a book in English so as to reach the Anglo-Saxon public and thus be able to share my passion more widely.

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