“We’re like Batman and Robin. She's Batman. We have the same vision, but she'll usually steer me in the right direction when I've completely gone off on one.”
The London-based art dealer Peter Petrou is talking about his wife and business partner of four decades, Leonora. They met in the early 1970s when Leonora was 18, Peter 20, and have worked together ever since. Peter had been studying law but abandoned that career path in favour of an apprenticeship with a French antiques dealer called Charles Guillois.
Like many art and antiques dealers, Peter is dyslexic and found dealing suited his brain: “It’s to do with aesthetics, having a good visual memory.” He continues: “Some of the very best antiques dealers are very dyslexic. They rely on that sort of visual memory and brain.”
Now, as they downsize to a smaller home, the Petrous are having a 200-lot sale of their own collection and stock with Sotheby’s (online from 10-21 September). It started when Henry House, the head of English furniture at Sotheby’s, suggested having a sale and Peter says: "As we were moving house, we thought, why not—we've got a lot of our personal collection plus stock that we've bought during lockdown,” Peter says. The Petrous did hold a sale at Christie’s in 2019 but Peter says this one, put together with the help of Sotheby’s David MacDonald, is “more exciting—we’re mixing in some of our contemporary stuff.”
The Petrous have eclectic tastes, spanning contemporary art and design (by the likes of Hew Locke, Sasha Sykes and Studio Job), antiquities, natural history, ethnographic and Asian art, even a group of 50 Japanese spearhead coverings.
It is a mix that has evolved over Petrou’s four-decade career: “When I started, I read every book on English furniture. And then I went on to clocks. Then I started looking at all that gilt-mounted furniture, dripping in ormolu. If you've got an inquiring mind, you become interested in lots of different fields and the way cultures crossover.” Peter says he could never compete against the English furniture dealers, “because they had loads of money, and I didn't, so I started buying stuff that was off their radar.”
Leonora has a particular love of the designs of the British Modernist furniture maker, Gerald Summers, whose company, Makers of Simple Furniture, existed briefly in the 1930s before the outbreak of the Second World War. “We saw a pair of armchairs over 20 years ago at a fair, and were both blown away by the design,” Leonora says. “I thought, I've got to find out more about this person, because nobody seemed to know anything. Eventually I found an American woman, Martha Deese, who worked at the Met who had written a thesis on him in 1989.” They met when the Petrous were doing a fair at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, became friends and Leonora has helped Deese with her forthcoming book on Summers. The Sotheby’s sale includes a group of Summer’s stylish plywood furniture made in the 1930s to 1950s (estimates range from around £800 for a stool to £30,000 for an Isokon Trolley).
Some of the areas that the Petrous deals in—namely antiquities and ethnographic art from numerous cultures around the world—are becoming increasingly scrutinised, the very ethics behind selling them questioned by some. On this, Peter says: “I think a lot of the market now, whether it's contemporary art, whether it's antiquities, it's all about provenance. If you've got a strong provenance for the work of art, you're fine. But there are pieces that have been on the market for, say, the last 60 years, but they don’t have a good [documented] history. So, what do you do with those objects now? You can't just throw them away or dismiss them. They’re orphans.” He adds: “There are obviously going to be dodgy dealings, whether it's in the art world or the financial world. That's always gone on, it's always going to go on, but when 99% of the people who are in the market are trying to do the right thing, it tars everyone with the same brush.”
As for the highlights in the sale, Leonora picks out a carved wood, silver-mounted South American Mate cup holder in the shape of a horse (around 1800, est. £6,000-8,000), probably made for a child: “It's not a high-priced item, but it’s just so unusual and charming.”
Peter points to the works of Hew Locke ("he's one of our favourite artists") and the numerous German didactic models of flowers and insects, made for universities by Robert Brendel and his son Reinhold in the late 19th century—the flowers in particular have always been popular with clients and will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Petrous' stand at fairs such as Masterpiece London.
Another favourite is the Inuit child's parka jackets: “It's completely waterproof, because it's made from seal guts, stitched together with sinew thread." Such coats made from this lightweight, durable material were admired by Admiral Lord Nelson and Captain Cook—the latter even purchased them in large numbers for his crew. But they were also believed to have symbolic and protective powers—safeguarding the wearer against evil and bringing good luck—and were worn by Shamans during rituals. Seals are a central part of Inuit culture, the hunting of them crucial to keeping its people alive and warm in harsh conditions, and these parkas would be worn during the mid-winter celebration of the soul of the seals and at the start of the spring seal season. Similar, adult-sized examples are held in the collection of the British Museum.
"It's just got…a reason for being," Petrou says. "I think everything in the sale has a reason for its existence, they’re functional, very few things are just decorative.”