Lance Entwistle reminisces about his close relationship over the years with Daniel and Marian Malcolm in consideration of Sotheby's New York recent sales of a selection of works from their superlative collection of African art...
“Don’t forget to call the Malcolms when you’re in New York“, my business partner and ex-wife, Bobbie, enjoined me as I set off on a trip to the U.S. in April 1982. And so I did. A lunch was duly convened at the restaurant in my hotel. A lively spot at night, the Café Pierre at lunch could hardly have been duller- as I recall we were the only guests and the only accompaniment to our rather circumspect conversation was the sound of cutlery on plates and of crockery on the glass table tops. They were vetting me as a possible purveyor- the earring I wore in my left ear at the time evidently causing some confusion- while, for my part, I was evaluating where in the hierarchy of prospects they should be positioned. It was only many years later that I realised they were as intimidated by the meeting as I was: that Daniel (or Dr Malcolm, as I then styled him) was wearing a jacket was a greater honour than I could have known: Dan was one of the most informal people I have ever met and, while I know he owned a jacket or two, I cannot be sure he owned a suit!
We had in fact already done business together. Soon after we purchased the extraordinary collection of Count Jean-Jacques de Launoit, Bobbie went to New York on a sales trip in 1981. Among the treasures in her suitcase was the “Coray Master” Yombe maternity (Heinrich C. Schweizer, Visions of Grace, Milan, 2014, no. 66). Directed to Daniel and Marian by Susan Vogel, then curator for African art at the Met, she went to New Jersey with the maternity in a shopping bag. She returned to New York sans shopping bag and contents.
I was perhaps too nervous at our lunch to detect a note of mocking irony in Marian’s voice when she said: “You know, Lance, I worry about your business- Bobbie left that wonderful maternity with us and you never sent us an invoice or told us what to do with the money; we had to drag it out of you!“ Irony aside, if irony there was, I was to learn that Marian was one of the most scrupulous collectors I would ever meet when it came to paying her bills- and she really did worry about our welfare and solvency, which has always touched me greatly.
For reasons I can’t explain, we seem not to have followed up this meeting for a number of years. In 1988, on another sales trip to New York, we were again directed to the Malcolms by Susan Vogel, now Director of the Center for African Art, which she had founded in 1984. On the penultimate day of my visit, I showed Susan a magnificent seated ivory Kongo figure (first glimpsed atop a Boulle cabinet in the elegant Quai d’Orsay apartment of Morris Pinto; Visions of Grace, no. 69). When I told Susan that I was taking the sculpture home the next day, she responded: “This piece has to stay in New York.” She promised to call me later the same day and was as good as her word: “Can you go out to Daniel and Marian Malcolm's this evening? I think they’ll like your ivory.”
Later that evening, the Kongo having found a new home in New Jersey, I reflected as I returned to my hotel: “I guess I have been underestimating the Malcolms!” More importantly, meeting in the relaxed environment of their home, I realised we had been able to establish the beginnings of a personal rapport that was to extend far beyond the limits of a typical dealer-client relationship. As a dealer it also didn’t escape me that pieces coming from us, among them the Warua Master bowstand (Visions of Grace, no. 85) - which they had bought a short time before from Monica Wengraf to whom we had consigned it- were making their way into the Malcolm collection! A month later they were to buy an Afro-Portuguese ivory hunting horn- another piece that had come from us- from Alan Brandt, the most discriminating dealer in New York at the time and from whom they had bought and would buy many superb objects, among them their beautiful Mbole figure (Visions of Grace, no. 97) and what I believe to be one of the finest extant Sierra Leone stone effigies (Visions of Grace; no. 20).
I was to learn that Marian and Daniel had fallen hopelessly in love with African art and were determined to seek out the best works they could possibly afford and to identify the dealers who could supply it to them. I also discovered that although Dan was an irrepressible enthusiast, always ready to embark on a new love affair with a piece that took his fancy, Marian was the voice of reason: for a piece to be added to their collection they needed to speak with a single voice. And quite remarkably, while on the one hand ensuring the extraordinary consistent quality of the collection, this rarely if ever led to sins of omission.
The late 1980s were a period of irrational exuberance in the greater art market but towards the end of 1991 there was a dramatic slowdown. Whether or not Daniel and Marian noticed this I have no recollection- their passion for their chosen field of collection was such that at the least they seemed completely indifferent to it, only focusing on the opportunities that presented themselves. Paradoxically, it was in this difficult period of the early 90s that our dealings became more active and year-on-year we were able to add two or three fine pieces to their collection.
In 1995, I received a call from Dr Murray Frum in Canada. He was considering selling some African works - only a sale would work for him, no consignment - and he wondered if I would be interested. While sceptical that he would want to part with some of his greatest treasures, I felt it was worth getting on the next available flight to Toronto. It transpired that he was indeed ready to sell a handful of his finest pieces, among them his Master of Kasadi Yombe phemba maternity (Visions of Grace, no. 67) and after a full day’s discussion we were able to agree to a deal. Shortly after, when Daniel and Marian came to visit me at my hotel, I had already offered the Yombe to another client but the piece was still with me and, rather sheepishly, I showed it to them with the caveat that it was already under offer. They immediately fell in love with it. “If your client doesn’t take it, it’s ours!” were their parting words, as they spurned my other offerings.
Dealers will be all too familiar with this situation. A client has a second option on a piece but as soon as it becomes available, their interest wanes - if the other buyer doesn’t want it, why should they? The first option did indeed expire and, contrary to my pessimistic expectations, Dan and Marian could not have been happier, embracing their new acquisition with undiminished enthusiasm, not in the least deterred by its less than virgin state. And this was something that I was to experience time and time again: the Malcolms were not interested in the story, they were interested in the piece.
Throughout the 90s, the pace of their collecting accelerated and although they remained selective, they were ready to joust in price with the most powerful competing collectors. During this period they added numerous masterpieces to the collection, among them the Lecorneur Lumbo maternity (Visions of Grace, no. 59) and the Goldet Djenné seated couple (see image left) – surely the most tender and touching of all Inland Niger Delta terracottas (Visions of Grace, no. 2).
Their greatest acquisition in this decade was unquestionably the Hemba ancestor figure attributed to the Master of Buli, one of the few works by this extraordinary artist to show extensive signs of ritual use (Visions of Grace, no. 92 and front cover). Believing it to be outside their budget, I showed them the piece without any conviction that they would pursue it. Their response was passionate but regretful: “We love it, but it is just too much money.” And indeed the price we were asking was a record for an African sculpture at the time. As I accompanied them from my hotel room to their car, their disappointment was palpable and, on a whim as Dan got behind the wheel, I suggested, also with little conviction as I knew how attached they were to the pieces in their collection: “Perhaps you should think of a part exchange.” I immediately sensed that this proposal had found little favour, so the next morning I was surprised to receive a call from Marian: “We’ve thought about your suggestion and would like to explore it. If we want to acquire a masterpiece like this, we will have to make some sacrifices. Why don’t you come out to the house? “ By the end of the day, the Buli had been added to their collection
By this time our relationship had already segued from a respectful professionalism to friendship. When we met, Marian would always open the conversation with a question, artfully flattering me: “Do tell us what’s happening- you know you are our only contact with African art these days.” But this was soon put behind us as clearly I had little to add to their evidently extensive knowledge of what was going on in my world. Conversation would turn to all the many other facets of culture with which Dan and Marian engaged so avidly: the theatre, cinema, dance, the modern novel as well as to that subject of enduring fascination and bewilderment for Europeans, American politics, about which they were both extraordinarily well informed.
For many collectors the acquisition of the Buli master effigy might have been a moment to retire but this seemed only to spur them on: major acquisitions followed regularly - the Rubinstein Bamana marionette (Visions of Grace, no. 8) in 1998; the Monzino Senufo deble bust in 1999 (Visions of Grace, no. 9). It was around the turn of the millennium that Marian called me to say: ”Lance, I’m afraid we’ve probably come to the end of our collecting- but we would like to add just one more great piece to the collection. So please think of us!” These calls became a regular feature and I had the pleasure and honour of adding the “last great piece” to the Malcolm collection once or twice a year until the end of the first decade of the 21st century!
Shortly after Dan passed away, Marian and I met for lunch in the Members’ dining room at the Met, a favoured venue of theirs for lunches in Manhattan. During lunch, Marian confided in me that she was determined to sell some of their prize pieces. When I expressed some surprise that she would consider this she replied: “You know, Dan was really the collector, not me.” It was not the moment to contest this surprising statement but I did reflect on it later; perhaps Dan was the driving force, but the adventure was a lifelong one of sharing that they both lived and experienced together, minute by minute, day by day, year by year.
This, in turn, brought me in mind of my most enduring and touching memory of them. In September 2002, we had arranged to meet in Paris when I would show them a piece stored at my warehouse. We were to meet on the corner of Rue Paul Valery and the Avenue Victor Hugo, where I would await them at 10 am. “Are you sure you want to meet that early”, I had asked them, knowing that their flight from New York was arriving in Paris early the same morning. Not a problem, they assured me. I watched as every occupied taxi came and went but none of them stopped on the corner of the rue Paul Valery. Then, looking up the avenue towards the Arc de Triomphe I spied in the distance what I took to be a pair of young lovers walking hand in hand towards me. As they came closer I realised that my young lovers were none other than Dan and Marian. Having arrived at Charles de Gaulle at dawn they had checked into their hotel, then traversed Paris on foot- and were now ready to look at African art!
London, March 2016