Mad Collectors #4
I was introduced to the late collector Bernard Lecourt by the actor Roland Deronzier in 1978. He spoke excellent English and German so we never spoke French together. It gave Bernard great pleasure to indulge in the rich English language and, as I had been a qualified TEFL teacher in the 70s, he wanted to take advantage.
Bernard collected, of all things, vintage diabolos preferably in their Victorian or Edwardian boxes. Actually I phoned him up to view his collection at home in the rue Felix Ziem in the 18em district, one evening using Roland's name to introduce myself. I was immediately invited that very evening to his large cluttered flat where there was only one uncomfortable chair to put my derrière.
It was early evening around 18.00. He sat behind a huge desk which housed boxes of diabolos piled high. He then demonstrated the art of the diabolo. I was fascinated. This collection overlapped with the world of the circus feats and clowns. Yes, he collected circus memorabilia too. His other passion was brass band music which included music scores and decorative music sheets. He had travelled to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and even Malta where there annual Brass Band festivals. He was also into the hurdy gurdy, barrel organ music and the fair ground limonaire. This in turn overlapped into the world of bagpipes and fairgrounds and so it went on. I was quite fascinated and eventually back in London joined the Ephemera Society, the Barrel Organ/Music Box Society and the Magic Lantern Society where I would meet even more collectors not only England but America too which would lead the way to New York, a city full of crazy monied collectors. I was on my way but my real love was conjuring which was to change my life forever!
I had a lot to learn from my new prospective hard up client but we eventually became bi-weekly colleagues. I needed him as much as he needed me. He was into ephemera, prints and books and knew all the 6em book dealers on the Left Bank, the only place to be! He was my Mentor. To my horror I discovered the day of my visit was his birthday and he was all alone without friends. He excused himself in the end to go into his kitchen and fry up a miserable looking piece of meat, his birthday dinner - Mon Dieu!
Bernard had inherited half of his fathers important military collection which included books, photographs and medals from World War 1. He was also an erudite historian. His brother, who he had fallen out with, had the other half of the collection and sold items by mail order catalogue. His moody brother lived at home with his doting mother painfully in the middle of the drama of both brothers hating each other. The 3 of them would sit down to lunch or dinner and Bernard would ask his mother to ask his brother to pass the salt! It was so stressful that in the end he moved out to his depressing flat but then, when his collection became so large that it spread into the bedroom and bathroom, he had to return home to mum and her good cooking despite the dreadful atmosphere and silence at the table.
I got introduced via Bernard to almost all the old book dealers in Paris who were difficult complicated eccentric individuals who, in general, spoke no English. The French loved their country and their language. Bernard was an exception. I think he had lived in England when he was a young man. He was about 50 when we teamed up. We used to exchange ephemera mainly. I would swop circus programmes and he would give me Judaica, black memorabilia, precinema or aerostation.
Eventually, when I became passionate about the history of conjuring after having met clever Georges Proust, the magician and magic dealer, Bernard introduced me to all the print dealers for the 'passer les muscade' (cups and balls) prints, magic lantern prints, barrel organ prints, the tooth drawer prints, the rat catcher prints and the quack tooth drawer dental prints. My list of themes went on and on as I was gaining so many clients who wanted the printed image of what they collected when they could not or no longer afford the original object or, like Bernard Lauze, who I called Monsieur Coq, who wanted British Punch political prints of the French Coq representing La belle France prior to World War1 that were impossible to find in France.
This was at a time before the tunnel had been built between our countries, when British antique or brocante dealers had not invaded the fabulous French brocante fairs, such as La Villette or Chatou, searching for decorative antiques and accessories, nor could they speak French and the older generation of French dealers certainly had no knowledge of English. I had no competition for at least 15 years. There was no Ebay, mobile phones, computers and the technical revolution that would change all our lives forever. Life was less stressful in our world of collectors far far away from the harsh reality of real life. We were dealers of dreams.
One print dealer called Martinez asked me to supply him with feeders. What the hell were they? I was often invited to see private collections and then commissioned to fill in the gaps. A bit like a jigsaw. I was a specialist vintage games and puzzle dealer so it came as no surprise to be asked to supply something unusual like Grotesques, cork screws, Polichinelle, Pierrot, Mr Punch, tops and Bilboquets.
In the case of Martinez, I was invited to stay the night outside Paris and meet his charming wife who was a pharmacist. In their wooden beamed lounge was a large collection of hanging porcelain feeders from Germany and England. The French only had one design, that of a white duck, hence the word for a feeder in French, le canard. They each had a spout with which to feed the sick person in bed hence the name feeders. There were two empty long beams which would be my job to fill when I went back to London in time. The deal, partly prints in exchange and partly cheque Blanche. Martinez was not declaring all his profitable sales to the taxman! And one of my clients, Roger Malafosse, was France's number one and probably the only top collector, the tax inspector for Versailles no less who always paid me in cash! No, the French did not like paying taxes!
But back to my poor colleague Bernard. The years went by and he lived alone after his doting mother had died. He never married and I never asked why. He was a good and honest man but so unhappy. Somehow his life just didn't work and of course he suffered from depression refusing to see a doctor. He got fatter with a swollen belly eating cheap pasta dishes at night.
The last I heard was that he had got a part time job in my friend Georges Proust's Museum of Magic in St Paul showing visitors around and speaking English explaining about the world of magic and illusion. I lost touch with him in the late 80s when, after my marriage to the magician Martin Breese, I came less and less to Paris to buy and sell because by 1986 I had set up the Retrograph Archive in London selling reproduction rights rather than original material, working mainly with British book publishers. This way I had my cake and ate it too!
Written in the Casa de los Bates, Motril, Spain 10/2/17.