Charlotte Guichard, Bénédicte Savoy, Acquiring Cultures: Histories of World Art on on Western Markets (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2019). Review by Eleni Vassilika.
Bénédicte Savoy is also known to us from her report written together with the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr on sub-Saharan cultural material in Europe. Their report was so persuasive, it led to President Emmanuel Macron’s grand gesture of restitution of some 5000 objects to Benin together with a loan of €20 million for a national museum. Savoy resigned in July 2017 from the board of Germany’s ‘universalist Humboldt Forum over its lack of provenance research of the ethnographic collections.
This edited volume of essays treats the reader to a history of trade, collecting and seizure of non western material from Asia, the Pacific, the Indian subcontinent, Africa, Australia and the Americas, and the subsequent establishment of public collections. Material was gathered also as trophies by proselytising missionaries. By 1860 there were some 300 shops in Paris and London of exotic goods (free from the Industrial Revolution) and 150 in New York, often installed as romantic jumbles in dusty disorder. Pre-Columbian material was collected in Paris with such ferocity starting in the 1830s that by 1882 it comprised one third of the collections of the new Trocadero Ethnographic museum.
‘Exoticisation’ of the material was also due its exposure at international world fairs and exhibitions such as at Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall from the 1820s onwards, with dioramas and later with performances by indigenous people brought to Europe. This was followed by a more serious desire to establish taxonomy and provenance documentation for the material gathered, and ethnological societies were soon founded (London 1843). However, in some places such as the Bamoon Kingdom in the Cameroon grassfields, Europeans and Americans projected their own fantasies ordering copies of objects from the remote past, long after the locals had converted to Islam and changed their arts into different forms.
Some papers pay tribute to the collectors and dealers for their connoisseurship and for the fact that they became tastemakers of collectors and museum curators often by juxtaposing African works with those by Rousseau, Picasso and Brancusi. Some collectors offered their collections to their country but were turned down. Thus, Christophe-Augustin Lamare-Picquot whose artefacts came from India, Burma, S. Africa, Madagascar and the Pacific made several attempts to donate his collection to France, but was turned down in 1841. He sold his ethnographic collection to King Ludwig I Bavaria (now in the Five Continents Museum), whereas his natural history material went to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia (Berlin). Emile Guimet built his collections with heroic speed. He acquired 300 religious paintings, 600 statues and about 100 books and manuscripts in nine weeks in Japan (the Chinese were less accommodating towards him). When he offered his collection to France in 1885 the response was ‘We have better things to do than to devote a million [francs] to build a museum of superstitions. Religions and their fetishes should long have been buried; there would be less folly and fewer wars.’ But it was often through wars and punitive expeditions by the colonial aggressors that the collections were created in the first place.