Galerie Lemaire’s treasure trove

By Joan Veldkamp

Het Parool 21 May 2005

Photo archive Galerie Lemaire at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Over a period of eighty years, Louis Lemaire, his children Trees and Frits and granddaughter Finette collected around 14,000 photos, of every object of art that passed through the doors of their gallery in tribal art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently purchased the archive, which it considers to be of great value.

For many years, the thousands of photos of masks, spears, sculptures and jewellery from Asia, Africa and Oceania lay undiscovered, stored inconspicuously in Galerie Lemaire’s office on Amsterdam’s Reguliersgracht. Until, in summer last year, the gallery received a phone call from Virginia-Lee Webb, Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also known as the ‘Met’.
She was extremely interested in the archive and, a few weeks later, was standing on the gallery’s doorstep in person. On the phone from her office in New York, Webb recalls her excitement,  ‘The photos, taken by Frits Lemaire, are of a very high quality. The family also meticulously noted all the details about the purchase price, the origin of the object and the name of the discoverer: all very important information about the history of and trade in tribal art. The Lemaire archive is unique, forming a perfect addition to Met’s existing collection in the field of African, American and Oceanic art. This is now the largest collection in the Unites States, providing scientists and other interested parties the chance, for example, to study a whole series of shields or masks, as opposed to individual objects.’

Webb considers Galerie Lemaire, founded in 1920, as one of the leading traders in tribal art in the Netherlands. ‘In the middle of the last century, the trade in tribal art mainly took place in Europe. However, only a few people had good connections. Louis Lemaire, the gallery’s founder, was one of them.’

For Finette Lemaire, who has been running the gallery since 2000, the request from the Met came as a pleasant surprise. ‘I think the main thing is that the legacy of my family is now preserved forever,’ she remarks from the enchanting house on the Reguliersgracht in Amsterdam, where the gallery has been based since 1980. Every nook and cranny is filled with masks, shields, spears and other unusual objects.

History Galerie Lemaire

Louis Lemaire started collecting tribal art around 1920, and was one of the first people in Netherlands to do so. He initially ran his business from a little shop on the Leidsestraat (from 1933), where he also sold Oriental carpets. Back then, the Dutch art-loving public still turned their noses up at the primitive, rough objects made from wood, shell or stone that originated from tribes that still lived like in prehistoric times. It all completely swept away Louis Lemaire, not an explorer himself, but a man with a great interest in non-Western cultures. ‘My grandfather was involved with tribal art day and night,’ Finette Lemaire recalls. ‘He collected every book that existed on the topic.’ This extensive collection, estimated to comprise about 1500 items, has also been preserved. It now fills an entire wall in the office.
On the whole, it was the curators and directors of museums from the Netherlands and Germany that Louis Lemaire managed to interest in tribal art.
It was only after the Second World War that the trade in tribal art really took off. One of Lemaire’s biggest successes was the purchase of the so-called Sepik collection from Dr. Lautenbach. This German doctor had, in 1909, travelled through the former German New Guinea, where he received an impressive collection of masks, figures, chairs, shields and skulls coated in clay as a gift. Lemaire sold part of the collection to the Museum of Ethnology in Rotterdam, where some items can still be seen today. Another important supplier was F.K. Panzenbrock, a German crocodile hunter. Via this adventurer, Lemaire came to own items such as a seven-metre crocodile carved out of a single piece of wood: a very unusual object that he ultimately sold to the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg. These transactions not only brought him international renown, but also helped him out of financial problems.

Finette Lemaire present owner of the gallery

‘My grandfather was a huge fan of art and wanted to enable those without a lot of money to be able to share his passion,’ Finette explains. ‘In part through these repayment plans, he managed to attract a large number of clients.’ She has fond memories of her grandfather. ‘We went to my grandparents’ house for dinner every Saturday. They lived on the Prinsengracht. As of 1957, the gallery was based there, on the ground floor. The grown-ups would sit upstairs and we’d be downstairs, playing with drums, shields, masks and poison arrows. Funnily enough, my grandfather thought it was fine. As long as we were having fun. He was different from other grandfathers in many respects. He didn’t take you to the zoo, but to the ballet. Or for a stroll along the canals, together with his Siamese cats, which he walked on a lead.’
It was only in 1979, when Louis Lemaire died, that his daughter Trees, an honorary member of the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands at the time, and his son Frits, a photographer, took over the gallery. Both children had inherited their father’s passion for tribal art and complemented each other well. Trees, above all, was very rigorous when it came to collecting data. Frits, a specialist in photography for theatre companies and a well-known figure in Amsterdam’s art scene, attracted a very diverse audience.
Finette Lemaire, museologist, joined the family business in 1990, and now runs it on her own. Her aunt died and father Frits, now 84 years old, wanted to give his daughter complete freedom to manage and expand the gallery in her own way. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that the photo archive would have been regarded so highly by a world-famous American museum. It fills him with pride. ‘As for Louis? He would have been delighted!’

This article appeared in Het Parool in 2005. Since then, the Metropolitan Museum has developed a Finding Aid, in which the photo collection is documented. (

Unfortunately, Frits Lemaire died in December 2005. His daughter Finette Lemaire took over the gallery in 2000. She organises the Tribal Art Fair (TAF) in De Duif in Amsterdam each October, in which about twenty leading tribal art galleries from various countries take part. Each year in May, she puts together a walking art route through Amsterdam, combining tribal art with contemporary art.