Two Books that Inspired an Art Mystery

Art reporter and mystery writer

An art reporter and trained gem specialist, Anne-Laure Thiéblemont is known for her investigations into stolen art and gem trafficking. Her art world mystery novel, The Collector, just came out in English. Here, she talks about some of the places that have inspired her writing.

Two books inspired the character of the collector Edward Magni in this Marion Spicer art thriller.  The first was Werner Muensterberger’s Collecting: An Unruly Passion (Princeton University Press, 1994). The was a psychoanalyst, whose couch saw the likes of James Dean, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. I learned recently that he also had a PhD in anthropology, and another in art history, and that he was a great collector of African art. Now I understand better why his book struck me and helped me to build the character of Edward Magni. Muensterberger portrays several collectors, including French author Honoré de Balzac and the English bibliophile Thomas Philipps, who wanted to procure “a copy of all the books published in the whole world.” Muensterberger’s portraits of these collectors are not those of a cold, distant entomologist, but of someone with empathy. His analysis of the irrepressible urge to collect is full of emotion. This book moved me a lot, perhaps because it is so easy for anyone to slip into addiction (a “longing for substitution”) and prefer things to people to protect them from earlier traumas.

A second book, L’Etrange Docteur Barnes by the French writer Alain Boublil, helped me to understand how an obsession to possess and accumulate objects goes beyond ethics, morality, and common values, how a collection can give a person a feeling of being all-powerful. The book is a biography of an American billionaire born in Philadelphia. But more than that, it follows how a butcher’s son develops a dangerous and eccentric love for modern art. Albert C. Barnes was an industrialist, a chemist and a millionaire by the time he turned 36 thanks to an antiseptic he developed. He went on to take revenge the conformist conservative Philadelphia society that had humiliated him. He collected works by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Seurat, choices judged to be those of a “parvenu.” In Paris, he was considered a king, with gallery owners Ambroise Vollard, Kahnweiler and Leo and Gertrude Stein who found him to be intelligent, energetic and insatiable. But Philadelphia establishment rejected him. And Barnes sought revenge. He built a foundation, showed his collection there, allowed blacks in along with the working class and the poor, and refused to host the rich. He refused to see people who requested to see him, or to give meetings to art historians, but only if there was a full moon. In this biography, revenge went hand in hand with pettiness and childish behavior. Perhaps it is a way for the man to set aside his exceptional nature and return to being an ordinary person like the others.