The French illustrator Pierre Le-Tan accumulated a lot of things, from childhood: a Prince Albert pewter tobacco box, a complete set of Japanese armor, neo-romantic and surrealist paintings, a fragment of Italian marble from the Fifteenth century.
Mr Le-Tan, who died in 2019 at the age of 69, was best known for his cross-hatched drawings and watercolors, which often appeared on the covers of The New Yorker and in advertising campaigns and children’s books. He spent a large part of his life in Paris.
He was also an inveterate collector of art and objects. “I have owned, I admit, thousands of objects,” he wrote. “Even though today most of them are just memories, I continue to seek, to find, to acquire.”
But Mr. Le-Tan was also, in his own way, a collector of other collectors and their collections; he was looking for insights from people who, like him, couldn’t help but acquire things. He turned vignettes of some of his meetings with collectors into an illustrated book, “A Few Collectors”, published in 2013 in France and which will be published in English by New Vessel Press in April. The book includes several of his drawings of collectibles, along with accounts of the people who owned them.
There is the Princess of Brioni, a former insolvent aristocrat who is selling off her collection of paintings. There’s the eccentric Roman collector who keeps a chilling array of wax models of dead criminals in his cellar. There is the man whose Paris apartment is filled with fashionable abstract paintings and trinkets, which would sell successfully, but which, to Mr Le-Tan, seemed “hopelessly tasteless”.
And then there’s the man who simply picks up crumpled paper. “Light and shadows,” the collector tells him, when Mr. Le-Tan wonders what interests him in the papers. The author is sad when, after the death of this collector, his nephews unfold the papers, undoing his life’s work.
Taken together, these slices of life illustrate something about the bizarre impulse toward relentless acquisition, even when it comes at a cost. (Mr. Le-Tan himself frequently sold items to pay bills and then bought more.)
“What I find really refreshing about this book is that it’s incredibly honest about the collection,” said Michael Z. Wise, co-founder of New Vessel Press, who read the book in French and decided to acquire it to translate it into English. “He also doesn’t hesitate to show the negative side of coercion. It’s very honest, but also for him and the people he represents, collecting is really one of the driving forces in their lives.
Mr. Le-Tan is able to convey this because it was such a driving force for him. Andrew Strauss, a dealer and art scholar who managed a 1994 sale of Mr. Le-Tan’s objects at Sotheby’s in Paris, described the approach of the collector as broad.
Mr Strauss described Mr Le-Tan’s taste as “timeless”. “It could be anything from Egypt in 1300 BC, to a 17th century Persian rug, to Chinese furniture, to a whole range of 20th century art, to first edition books.” Either way, he said, Mr Le-Tan had “a fantastic eye”.
This eye was, of course, often attuned to his illustrations. Whit Stillman, the director of films including “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco”, commissioned Mr. Le-Tan to create the posters for his films and the covers for his novels.
“He was this well-rounded personality where he was both brilliant as an artist, but broadly and deeply cultured,” Mr. Stillman said. “He brings a lot of humor to his work, as in the case of the collector’s book. It’s that wonderful sense of humor in his work and in his daily life. Being with him was like a constant comedy.
The book, too, is often funny and whimsical. There are wonderful asides that evoke her colorful social scene, like “I last saw [the painting’s] owner at a party in New York — where Andy Warhol was present — and he informed me that his price had been cut in half. It evokes the lost societies of Paris, New York and Rome and their characters. But it’s also poignant, especially when it turns to lost objects and his own possessions.
After Mr. Le-Tan’s death, much of his collection was auctioned off at Sotheby’s, dispersed, as he expected. He had documented other large collections that disintegrated after deaths.
But he writes movingly in ‘A Few Collectors’ of what he had hoped to leave behind – illustrating one of the marble sculptures he owned alongside his daughter’s troll doll. He also draws his son’s terracotta eggplant.
“I hope to leave behind me only these little things, he writes, probably in poor condition, but so precious, which were made to me or given to me by my children in the past: a plasticine figurine, a cutout, a broken seashell. Rosebud…”