Almost every photograph of Hélène Leloup in Africa catches her with her camera in hand or standing behind a Bell & Howell cine camera. From her first visits in the 1950s, this pioneering and most respected of tribal art dealers — she is now 96 — felt compelled to record everything and question everybody in order to document, learn and understand. “The only way to find out more about a sculpture is to go to where the people are and ask them” was her line. She returned from every trip laden with films, cassettes, diaries, photographs and annotated maps.

The thoroughness of her research, coupled with an open mind and exacting eye, were the basis of an extraordinary career that led to remarkable discoveries, galleries in Paris, New York and Palm Beach, 87 catalogues and sales to more than 50 museums.

Black and white photo of a woman with a cine camera among people by a thatched hut
Hélène Leloup’s first trip to west Africa was in the 1950s

A selection of the works that she kept for herself goes on sale at Sotheby’s Paris on June 21, with a further tranche consigned to New York early next year. The dispersal is being hailed by the auction house as one of the most important offerings of African art to come to the block.

When Leloup and her first husband, Henri Kamer, opened their gallery in Paris in 1956, there were few colleagues in the field either in Europe or the US — and even fewer who ever set foot on the African continent. Most relied on local traders who made their way to Paris or Brussels. To source material, the duo set out from cities in west Africa in an old American army truck, travelling with local guides particularly to regions where Islam was predominant and older rituals discarded or outlawed. That led to their first exhibition, astounding in its scale and ambition.

A carved wooden head with a schematic body - slight trunk and legs extended and joined at the feet
Reliquary from Gabon
Figure with small head, long back and big legs
Terracotta statue from Djenné

Presented in 1957 in the gatehouse of the Kamer grandparental home, the Palais Miramar in Cannes, the show’s 466 exhibits included loans from the likes of Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Tristan Tzara. Among the list of distinguished guests invited for the opening were several African chiefs, often the elders responsible for regulating the trade in objects in Africa. They caused quite a stir on the Croisette sitting in their finery in the back of Kamer’s Cadillac.

“My parents were a fantastic team,” says their daughter Marie-Victoire Leloup when we meet in Hélène’s apartment in Paris. (Leloup herself no longer gives interviews.) The charismatic Kamer proved a consummate salesman; Leloup was responsible for research and cataloguing. Her first great coup followed that inaugural show, during a trip to Senegal and Guinea. She had been intrigued by a child’s drawing representing impressive Baga snake figures, strikingly tall and sinuous wooden serpents painted with bold geometries, published in an ethnographical study, sculptures otherwise completely unknown in the west. She tracked them down and, after lengthy negotiations with a village chief, returned with eight.

“I think my mother came to have the better eye,” says Marie-Victoire. “My father would choose objects that were classical and saleable. My mother would often be drawn to a strange object, something anticlassical. It was also important to her that they were old, which was why she was the first tribal art dealer systematically to date objects by carbon-14 testing.”

A black wooden head, looking serious, on a staff
Fang reliquary head from Gabon, estimated at €4mn at Sotheby’s © Florian Perlot for Art Digital Studio
Many African sculptures on plinths
Hélène Leloup’s Paris apartment © Damien Perronnet

That divergence of taste and approach became even more apparent after the couple divorced in 1968, with Henri running the New York gallery and Hélène her own one in Paris, renamed Galerie Leloup after she remarried.

It was in Paris in 1972 that her receptive eye singled out something decidedly strange and old. This was in the aftermath of the Biafran war when no foreigners were travelling to Nigeria and more African dealers were bringing their wares to Europe and travelling further afield to source them. One was a Malian dealer based in Togo, Oumar Traoré, who showed her a monumental, rough-hewn and dramatically weathered fragmentary wooden statue which moved her profoundly. She asked him to locate more pieces and also find out about the people for whom they were made. Eleven more figures followed. These were the last remaining works of the Mbembe peoples whose bold sculptural tradition was completely unknown outside the region. Her resulting show was a revelation, and repeated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painting of a woman with a swirling face behind a tall thin wood statue
‘Head of a Woman’ (1960) by Francis Bacon carries a €6mn-€8mn estimate © Damien Perronnet

Leloup, you could argue, broadened the vision of what African art was by championing a tougher, rawer aesthetic, which also embraced the fragmentary and abraded. It is perhaps no surprise that among the western works of art in her apartment were pieces by Francis Bacon (“Head of a Woman” (1960), estimated in the Sotheby’s sale at €6mn-€8mn), Basquiat and Louise Bourgeois. Her home — and the two sales — reflect a breadth of interest unusual at the time: Polynesian and pre-Columbian as well as African art, jewellery, metalwork and textiles.

Dominating the sitting room, however, was the group of her beloved Dogon sculptures from Mali, where she and her second husband, Philippe, founded a school. These she prized for their severity and grandeur. But Leloup did not totally eschew the classical. One of the sale’s top lots is a prized Fang reliquary head from Gabon formerly in the collection of Helena Rubinstein (estimate €4mn-€6mn).

A mentor to leading curators and collectors, Leloup was generous with her time and knowledge. This sale is a tribute to both her and the little-known African art dealers with whom she worked.

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