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Rheims, Maurice [Prosper Gilles]

Date born: January 4, 1910

Place Born: Versailles, France

Date died: March 6, 2003

Place died: Paris, France

Auctioneer, art collector and writer on art.  Rheims hailed from an Alsatian Jewish family. His father Léon Rheims, was a general in the French army, a close friend of Marshal Philippe Pétain, and a hero who suffered a gassing at Douaumont and was wounded at the battle of Verdun. His son, Maurice, rebelled against this accomplishment, failing to obtain a bachot (baccalauréat degree) at the lycée Janson de Sailly in six tries. He subsequently received degrees at the École du Louvre et de l'École des hautes etudes (Sorbonne). He began collecting at age 14 when he he bought a sculptured 15th-century oak pulpit canopy. He worked for several auction houses as an appraiser and auctioneer, joining the firm Hôtel Drouot in 1932. He met the art collector Nubar Gulbenkian who helped Rheims in his career. He was placed in charge of the 1941 dispersal of the important Gentilo de Giuseppe collection. Rheims, a Jew, had a particular aversion to the Nazis; an insult to an SS officer landed him in the camp in Drancy headed for the extermination camp at Belsen. Marshall Pétain, an old army friend of his father's, released him. Unable to work at Drouot because he was a Jew, Rheims joined the Resistance smuggling Jews and Communists from France to Switzerland. He joined the Free French commando regiment of paratroopers commanding a parachutists group in Algeria. After the War, he married Lili Krahmer (1930-1996) in 1951. He returned to the Hôtel Drouot where one of his first assignments was to dispose of the estate of the Nazi Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring (1893-1946). He published La Vie Etrange des Objets, his first book, in 1960. In 1964 Rheims wrote one of the most synthetic books on fin-de-siecle art and the Art Nouveau, which he called L'art 1900, ou le style Jules Verne. It was quickly translated into English. The product of his fascination with the decorative arts, it remains a popular survey of the eccentricities of the style in all its numerous manifestations, decorative arts, fine arts and architecture.  It was the only comprehensive book on the art style for twenty years. He founded the art magazine Connaissance des Arts in 1965.The following year Rheims, together with Giulio Bolaffi, launched a yearbook of modern art, Catalogue Bolaffi d'art moderne which lasted for only one issue. He retired from Drouot in 1972 and was elected to the Académie française in 1976. He divorced in 1980. In 1985 he returned to his tour de force topic of the art nouveau with a similar book, this time on the art nouveau architect of the métro stations in Paris, Hector Guimard (1867-1942). He also wrote a number of novels and a dictionary of coarse language, Les mots sauvages. In 1995 he surprised his countrymen and fellow French auctioneers by using Sotheby's in New York to sell his Toulouse-Lautrec. His published memoirs appeared in 1997.

Rheims' work often focuses on the sensational issues of art.  His Flowering of the the Art Nouveau, while superficial, remained the most comprehensive volume on this style of art for decades. As an auctioneer he was respected but had enemies and made blunders. The critic Renaud Matignon called him a "second-hand junk dealer in the ephemeral!" (Kirkup); his mis-identifying Poussin's "Olympios and Marsias" as a work of the 'School of Carache' to the Louvre became a scandal, litagated for more than 30 years. Rheims, who spoke no English, lost a deal to buy the New York salesroom of Parke-Bernet because of that reason. In his lifetime he amassed a larger personal collection of art.

Home Country: France

Sources: Une mémoire vagabonde: la préhistoire que nous vivons. Paris: Gallimard, 1997; [obituary] Kirkup, James. "Maurice Rheims: Voltairean Writer and Auctioneer." The Independent (London) March 10, 2003.

Bibliography: La Vie Etrange des Objets, Paris: Plon, 1959, English, The Strange Life of Objects: 35 Centuries of Art Collecting & Collectors.  New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1961 (British title) Art on the Market: Thirty-five Centuries of Collecting and Collectors from Midas to Paul Getty.  London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1961; L'Objet 1900. Paris: Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1964; L'art 1900, ou le style Jules Verne. Paris: Arts et metiers graphiques, 1965, English, The Flowering of Art Nouveau. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1966 (British title:) Age of Art Nouveau. London: Thames & Hudson, 1966; [edited magazine] Catalogue Bolaffi d'art moderne. Paris: F. Hazan, 1966; La sculpture au XIXe siècle. Paris: Arts et métiers graphiques, 1972. English, 19th Century Sculpture.  New York: H. N. Abrams, 1977; The Glorious Obsession.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980; Hector Guimard, archte. Paris: Bibliothèque des arts, 1985, revised English, Hector Guimard. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1988; Greniers de Sienne: roman. Paris: Gallimard, 1987; and Barbarant, Olivier; and Mével, Jean-Pierre. Les mots sauvages: dictionnaire des mots inconnus des dictionnaires: écrivains des 19e et 20e siècles. Paris: Larousse, 1989.

Subject's name: Maurice Rheims