Charles Ratton Charles Ratton By Philippe Peltier Charles Ratton, 1930s, photo by Studio Harcourt Paris, courtesy Archives Charles Ratton-Guy Ladrière, Paris. Anyone with an interest in the history of “Art Nègre” (to use the term that was in vogue between the wars) has likely heard the name of Charles Ratton. And yet, while it frequently appears mentioned as that of the consultant and expert in sale catalogs, or cited as the author of multiple publications, and often listed as part of an object’s provenance, the man himself remains little-known. He was extremely discreet, or even downright secretive, about his life and activities. He was associated with many events (far too many to mention here), and the name of the gallery he directed appeared for decades in art-magazine advertisements, some of which are associated with avant-garde movements such as the Surrealists. But he is clearly central as a key figure in the promotion of “Art Nègre.” In its discovery, others preceded him, such as Joseph Brummer or Paul Guillaume in France, or in the United States, Marius de Zayas and Alfred Stieglitz, but in its promotion he is legendary. Yet Ratton preferred to remain in the shadows and to operate quietly. And those were two attributes that he always advised his young colleagues to cultivate. Charles Ratton was born in 1895 in the Mâcon region of France, an area best known for its wines and Romanesque churches. He was part of the generation of men who were in their twenties during the First World War. He was drafted in 1915, and thus had to wait until the end of the war to complete his studies. After his discharge, he entered the École du Louvre, a prestigious institution that offers comprehensive training in art history. He graduated in 1923 with a degree in “Haute Époque,” a term that encompassed the period spanning from the Middle Ages to the 17th century. He quickly opened a gallery, first on the Left Bank where the bohemian spirit still prevailed, but soon after, in 1927, he moved to 39 rue Lafitte on the Right Bank, into the neighborhood that was the hub of the art and antiques trade in Paris. “Art Nègre” (at the time, the term was used to refer to objects from both Africa and Oceania) was in fashion, and several contemporary art dealers, including Paul Guillaume and Paul Rosenberg had been buying and selling for several years. A group of artists and enthusiasts collected these pieces. According to one of Ratton’s rare private statements, his interest in exotic objects originally sprang from a request made of him by Mexican painter Angel Zárraga, then living in Paris, who asked him to “find” objects for his collection. Ratton purchased a sculpture of a horned serpent holding a man’s head in its mouth. The object is undoubtedly African although it remains impossible to attribute a more precise origin. Formally it has a strongly medieval feeling—it is reminiscent of a chimera. A passion was born of this first purchase, and Charles Ratton kept it for his entire life, and it became a kind of protective fetish. At around that time, it appears that Ratton became acquainted with the Parisian intellectual and artistic milieu, which was passionate about exotic objects. His future wife, Divonne de Saint Villemer, probably played a role in his becoming introduced into this circle. Ratton became a central figure very quickly. He unquestionably owed the recognition he received in part to his business acumen, and he could certainly be affable and charming, but it was largely earned through his comprehensive knowledge. Ratton was a tireless worker. He gathered facts, and established contact with many people, including former colonials, who were able to provide him with detailed information about objects and their origins. He read widely and created extensive documentation by accumulating notes and cards on which he sometimes also drew sketches of pieces. His curiosity and this thirst for understanding were the exception in an environment in which knowledge was neither widespread nor greatly sought-after. His interests were varied and many. They ranged from the Haute Époque (in which Ratton remained a specialist for his entire life) to Egyptian, Chinese, and Japanese art, and also included Scythian and Luristan archaeology. African and Oceanic art would however become the primary focus of his endeavors. Although the art of Oceania probably did not constitute the largest part of his sales, the formal inventiveness these objects displayed undoubtedly fascinated him greatly. At that time however—this was the 1930s—apart from pieces from New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and to a lesser extent the Marquesas Islands, works from this region were rarely seen on the French market. This rarity probably gave rise to the excitement of discovering new areas and a fascination for these previously unknown objects. Ratton frequently traveled in pursuit of these unique pieces and moved all over Europe—but without telling his relatives where he was going, in keeping with his secretive nature, and in order to keep his sources private. He visited collections and museums. He attended symposiums. He often went to Germany where, on some unknown date, he met Arthur Speyer II and acquired many remarkable works that in some instances had been in the great collections of the German ethnography museums. He also enlisted the assistance of his Surrealist friends, like poet Paul Éluard, who was all too happy to go to Holland or Germany in search of objects of interest and to have the opportunity to earn some money doing so. Perhaps most importantly, Ratton did everything possible to organize events that contributed to the promotion of tribal art, whose merit was still far from unanimously accepted by art critics. Toward this end, he was willing and eager to associate with his colleagues. Thus in 1930, working in collaboration with dealer Pierre Loeb and former Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara, he organized an exhibition at Théâtre Pigalle, a brand-new venue for the avant-garde at the time. This exhibition would prove to be a milestone event for the quality of the pieces exhibited. Some of them would subsequently acquire truly iconic status. For example, that is certainly true of a Solomon Islands canoe-prow ornament that was in the Tual collection and is now in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and of a New Caledonian roof spire from the Charles Vignier collection that is now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York. Together with his colleague, dealer Louis Carré, Ratton also organized a major exhibition of Benin bronzes at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, which had just undergone extensive renovation. The years ahead seemed full of promise but the economic downturn of the Depression dampened those hopes. Ratton began looking for new markets to weather the crisis. He thought he would find them in the United States, and joined forces with art dealer Pierre Matisse, whose gallery was located on 57th Street in New York. Ratton and Matisse organized several exhibitions and sales of what was advertised as the “Ratton collection,” in November 1934, an exhibition devoted entirely to Oceanic art. It consisted of about sixty objects, and the emphasis was on Melanesia and specifically upon New Guinea. The public was given the opportunity to discover, among other things, a large series of painted tapa cloths that Jacques Viot, a poet associated for a time with the surrealist movement, had just brought back from Tobati, where one of the colonial ports of Dutch New Guinea was located. In a text published in the exhibition catalog, Georges Henri Rivière, director of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro at the time, noted that these works contain “a kind of code, of signs, very close to our modern arts,” which gives rise to “a magical realism from which the most representative painters of the century have been able to draw inspiration.” It was with these same Surrealist friends that Ratton hosted an exhibition in May 1936 in his gallery, which was then located on rue de Marignan, just off the Champs-Élysées. This exhibition was the brainchild of André Breton and was devoted entirely to Surrealist objects. Breton’s presentation text in the catalog was provocative: in it he questioned our classifications and our views of reality. Breton annexed the Oceanic pieces (as well as the Amerindian ones) and presented them alongside mathematical objects or curiosities, thus transforming them into Surrealist objects. A small, sculpted figure from the Sepik was displayed next to Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, and a Torres Strait tortoise shell mask was juxtaposed with Alberto Giacometti’s Suspended Ball. Traditional lines of demarcation were cast aside for the sake of pure poetry. In the 1930s, Charles Ratton became a major player on the tribal art scene. He was at the epicenter of the so-called primitive-art market, and he was remained at the center throughout the post-war period and into the 1970s. He reached this position not only through his knowledge and the networks he created, but also thanks to the three important sales he organized in 1931. They marked the beginning of a new phase in the recognition of tribal art in the antiques market, a recognition that was manifest in the care taken in the presentation of the catalogs and the writing of the text and descriptions in them. The first sale took place on May 7th. Here Ratton, in collaboration with Louis Carré, offered ten high-quality Oceanic objects from the legendary Georges de Miré collection in a sale made up primarily of African objects, although the provenance of other works sold were not specified. On July 2nd and 3rd, the two partners organized the sale of the collections of André Breton and Paul Éluard. Breton and Éluard had found themselves in financial difficulties due to the worldwide economic crisis, and these two champions of the Surrealist movement were forced to part with some of their treasures. It was mainly Oceanic objects that were sold. Ratton had thought that the prestige of the colonial exhibition seen in Paris at the time would bolster the sale’s success, but it appears that it did not achieve the hoped-for financial results. Finally, on December 16th, the Miré collection again came into the spotlight. The quality of the objects, especially African ones, made this auction a truly major event. It is now seen as a milestone that marked an important turning point in the market. With these three sales, Ratton definitively cemented his reputation as an expert and a great dealer. Charles Ratton with Fon Glele figure, Republic of Benin and Middle Sepik River spear thrower, circa 1980. After the war, except for the sale of the collection of art critic and dealer Félix Fénéon in 1947, there were no comparable events, and Ratton’s desire to organize the sale of Jacob Epstein’s collection in Paris never came to fruition. He nonetheless remained the leading expert and consultant at auctions organized at the Hôtel Drouot between the 1950s and 1970s, and his activities as a dealer were often complemented by his activities as an advisor. His continual correspondence with the most important figures in the tribal art world was impressive. For instance, he was in contact with Robert Goldwater, the director of the newly established Museum of Primitive Art in New York, and with the formidable Helena Rubinstein as well. He continued to publish articles—especially on African art—and appeared in the credits of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s film, Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die). When it was first released in 1953, the film was banned by the French government. Its message was a harsh and unequivocal condemnation of colonialism and a stinging rebuke for the damage it did to the African populations that endured it. The African objects that appear in the movie all came from the Ratton collection. Should we then believe that this made the dealer an anti-colonialist? That seems doubtful. It would be more accurate to perceive the continuation of a commercial strategy initiated before the war that consisted of systematically promoting certain objects in his collection by publishing them or lending them to exhibitions, in order that they might come to be perceived as best examples or as archetypes. With the implementation of this strategy, Ratton succeeded in establishing a taste. It is difficult to define that taste exactly, but it can certainly be described as a blend of classicism and inventiveness, and it did set standards of reference. The most important collectors of the last century would all find themselves, sooner or later, at his place on the rue de Marignan, in the gallery set up in an apartment at the back of the courtyard, trying to buy what were then considered to be “the most beautiful objects in the world” from a shrewd and smiling Charles Ratton.