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More than just a collector's item

published: 2013, February 13
Udo Petry has a hands on, living history of collecting, for the Nerlich collecting pair it is an attitude to life.
At the age of fourteen Petry wanted to join the Foreign Legion. The Nerlichs make their first contact with African art by reading books.
Their collecting experiences couldn't be any different.


Udo Petry (*1940)

At the age of fourteen he wants to join the foreign legion as this is the only way he can get to Algiers, a city that has always fascinated him. Three years later he is able to visit the city in 1957. He is not as soldier but at just seventeen he hitchhikes alone through war torn Algeria (1954-1962) and then further on into Morocco.

Since then Udo Petry has travelled throughout the African continent, the whole of Middle East, Australia, South America and many other countries for many weeks and even months. He lived in Aborigine communities and also has a blood brother from his time spent with the Bedouins. These experiences had a profound influence on him “I learnt to differentiate between different types of water as others do with types of beer and wine”.

His intensive collecting of African art first started in 1986 after returning from a seven-month expedition to, among others, the Dogon in Mali. There he had the good fortune to meet a scientific team with whom he was able to accompany for the entire period. In the team are a French ethnologist, a Museum director from the Netherlands as well as four further companions from Sorbonne. For their field research they are allowed to set up camp with the Dogon from Sanga and with this have access to a largely untouched culture.

Petry acquired significant Bamana and Dogon sculptures from the private Swiss collection of Dr. Carlo von Castelberg in Zurich (from lots 204 to 210 as well as 218 and 219), that were auctioned at Zemanek-Münster in 1994, among them is a very old figure from the Dogon (from around 1850 or even earlier). Its thick, oily patina and a heavy coat of sacrificial offerings are further proof of its remarkable age. Older, stylistically similar objects can only be found from the seventeenth century N’duleri region and makes this work one of the most important pices of Dogon art.

To this day some of his favourite types of sculpture are from the Yoruba. Two of the most significant sculptures are without doubt the maternity figure (lot 243) and an old and very finely carved stool (lot 244). Its stylistic form points to the Ketu region, a region in the border area between Benin and Nigeria, whose sculptor was influenced by the art of the Oyo.

Completely in the canon of the classical Bangwa style is a relief frieze that was owned by the Mann family from Leipzig (known in the past as the “Mann Family Collection”) as well as belonging to the early colonial collection of Walter Vorwerk (lot 245). Documents show evidence that Vorwerk, who was a medical surgeon in the German “Schutztruppen”
in Cameroon till 1911, bought several objects from General Lothar von Trotha that later landed through him in the Mann‘sche collection.


Dr. Vera Nerlich (*1930)
Dr. Wolfgang Nerlich (1928-2012)
Photo: private

Only a select few got to see them, the 130 small sculptures and miniatures that Wolfgang Nerlich kept in a safe until his passing away in July 2012. They were generally kept separate from the main part of his large collection. The small figures were the best loved section of his assembly and he wanted to have them around him till the end of his life. "Only at the end do you part with your treasures" he said during one of our last meetings.

For forty years he shared his passion for African art with his wife and the art played a significant role in their lives. For him it was more "a collectors addiction" as he wrote to an old school friend in a letter from 1997.

When they first began to collect African art, the married couple were crossing into new territory that led to an intensive occupation with the artistically outstanding regions of west and central Africa. Experts from leading European galleries and auction houses supported them on an advisory capacity and also private collectors were always available to provide advice.

Their first purchases go back to the 1960’s and with their focus and diversity they provided the foundation of an impressive collection of museum quality. Amongst these they had a special affection for the small sculptures and miniatures that with their beauty and intensity were equal to other larger objects, whether it be the balance in their overall harmony, or the finely modelled and patiently carved small details. They all possess their own charm and have a remarkable presence.