his shop Saturday morning being shown pieces by a seller.
Ghiglia is the man behind the curtain. If you collect Oceanic or Native
American Art, there is a good chance that one of the pieces in your collection
was originally sourced by Denis Ghiglia! Among dealers, he is seldom
mentioned and certainly never to their collectors. Denis he is one of the most known and active pickers in Paris, the
Saint Germain Des Prey Art District and the famous Paris Flea Market. Denis is a naturally gifted dealer who has the pursuit of treasures in his
blood. In fact he's probably in prime form at 70 years old. He has been supplying many of the biggest name dealers in the
Tribal Art field for nearly 30 years.
During this interview
in his flea market booth, he constantly
had private sellers visiting and offering him pieces for sale. He seeks no
fame or publicity but we feel his rich journey and contribution to the field is
worth sharing and recognizing. Interviewing
him was much like boarding a crowded moving train and trying to find a quiet
corner. Once I was in his domain, there were numerous and frequent
distractions to work with as anticipated.
TM: How long
have you been selling at the Paris Flea Market?
I've been dealing for 45 years since 1971 but have been in this market for 25
years. I started selling Native American and shortly after met some very
important people in England who were selling African and South Seas and from
there I just learned and learned.
TM: Are you a
self-taught dealer or did you have a mentor?
Ghiglia: No, totally alone, I learned by myself. I had luck in my life though. A
long time ago I met some people in London who trusted me. They said, okay
you have a market in France, so we'll consign you the stuff and give you
terms. Every month I would fill my car up with good stuff, Maori stuff-
everything you can image! Thirty years ago in England the Portobello market was a
fantastic buyer's market with South Seas clubs everywhere. Because
they were a commonwealth, there was
such great material then with swords, pistols and Polynesian. All these guys, military people, came back on ships with
things from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii everywhere. Many of those
pieces were in the countryside and have slowly disappeared because people want
TM: Is your
passion primitive art and weapons?
art principally. I can not collect the best pieces for myself. My
specialty is North America, the Northwest Coast and the Southwest. I keep
the best African and Oceanic pieces for my customers, which are many French
dealers who are very important collectors. For me, selling medium quality
pieces keeps me busy and makes the difference.
Do you collect anything yourself or do you just enjoy turning deals?
At my house, I have an important collection of American Indian.
What is the key to success at the Flea Market, is it being here all the time,
having a consistent presence?
For starters, this is the biggest flea market in the world because there are
more than 2000 dealers here. The market is historical and started in the
mid 19th century for the rubber trade. Most of the important dealers like
Andre Breton, Charles Ratton, and Picasso used to come here every weekend to
find things. Twenty and 30 years ago there was a lot of great material
here, provenanced material and many dealers. Now I'm one of the only
left and people bring me material which is great.
examining pieces offered to him.
You've been in the business long enough to see how the market has changed?
Your thoughts on that?
I mean, the really good pieces are very very difficult to find. You
can find important pieces at galleries but always for a BIG price. If
you're running like me, I find 5 or 6 great pieces in a year I'm very happy and
consider myself lucky. Some dealers travel all over Europe and do the
same. People bring me good things to this shop all the time. They are
medium quality that I make a living on.
Can you imagine doing anything else for a living? Is this a business you
No! If you retire you die. I tired to retire at 62 and now I'm 70
and still working. If you retire you'll have American style health problems.
his element. His shop again full of visitors.
Thinking back, what was the best year you've had?
It is difficult to say but it was around 2005 about 10 years ago. It is
still possible it can come again because this business is like a
these collectors that are at the end of their life with great collections, the
art is coming back on the market. For example, I'm going to see the
biggest collection of Oceanic stuff, the guy is nearly close to dying. So
the thing is always turning, always retuning. You see these big auctions
at Sotheby's and Christies, all these dead people, and their collections
circulate or go to their children and they sell it.
What are the most memorable pieces discovered in the Flea Market in the last 10
For me the most important pieces at this market was a Northwest Coast Frontlet
mask with ermine pelts which I sold to the Cincinnati Museum. Well, I
consigned it to Lance Entwistle and he sold it to the museum. It turned up
at the flea market. There was also a fine Fang Figure from Helena Rubinstein
which I sold to New
York. There was also an Easter Island dance paddle which I sold to Anthony
Bella Coola Frontlet Mask
that sold to the Cincinnati Museum
What keeps you inspired getting out of bed in the morning and turning deals?
Because the pleasure to buy is much greater than to sell. To discover good
things at a fair price, hopefully unknown, is what gets me up in the
morning. People know me so sometimes I'm lucky. I like buying more
than selling. I keep my shop so I can buy, but if I have great material, it does
NOT stay in
the shop, it goes to the dealers I've mentioned who always buy.
So, the thrill of the hunt has never left you?
Never... never. I'm too busy to get depressed also. But there
is competition though, there are guys in Belgium running everywhere. If
you have the strength to do it and the capacity to get the money, well... The
access to pieces is the most important thing.
What was the first category of objects you started selling early on and was
there a learning curve?
Japanese swords and military weapons. After the war and the Japanese
surrendered, all these swords and weapons went to the United States. All
the GI's came back with souvenirs and swords since the Japanese were put in jail
if they tried to keep them. Some of the swords sold for just $200-300 and
some were extremely rare and sold for $25,000-$30,000. There was a big
hunt these swords in the States and I was at many of the Flea Markets in the
1970's looking for them. Some great swords were sold because the
GI's didn't know the value. If they sold one for $2000 they were very
happy. But you had to be a real specialist and it was very
difficult. Very specific knowledge of markings and signatures was required to be successful.
collectors came in to buy a sword.
work packing up a purhcase. Collector Thierry Mackie helping in the background
You know virtually everyone. I'm curious if it is hard to stay on good terms with all the
dealers, collectors and personalities?
Many dealers are jealous of each other. I work with an Important Hawaiian
dealer and he is very angry against some of the people who do the same job as
him because there is competition. My
favorite clients love me. I have some private collectors, I won't say the
names, but I have a few important collectors. But, many galleries I don't
want to work with and it is not possible.
What would you say is the easiest material to sell in Paris?
I would say that would be quality objects. It can be African, Oceanic or
American Indian. It really doesn't matter if the quality is there.
Given what you do and how a great piece can turn up an any moment, how much
cash/ euros on hand is it necessary to have at all times?
At least 10,000. However, when an important object turns up, I will try to
get it on consignment first or do half cash and half trade with the inventory I
have in the shop.
Do some of the Paris dealers owe their success to you?
Well, I have to say I sell to most of the dealers. I have a selection of
pieces that I'm always working. These people that have these big galleries
are always working and have to stay there all week and don't have time to run
around much. They often buy at auction. There are two worlds.
My world and the big important galleries with high HIGH prices and do big art
fairs. But they need to have this underground market for new material that I
serve. The runners serve this market too. If I have something good
and interesting that is fairly priced, the French and Belgium dealers will buy
it. They are all names you recognize. I like to work with the same
people who have knowledge and not someone who wants to borrow the material and
things like that...
his diverse inventory
What were your best years in Flea Market in terms of volume and quality coming
Like my friend in London says, we are the Dinosaurs in this market! I say
this because good stuff totally disappears. More and more people have the
knowledge about quality; with the internet and ebay, it makes it very difficult
to find things. Twenty or Twenty Five years ago you could find Polynesian
and everything. In today's market, the big problem is that it is managed by
the big auctions like Sotheby's and Christies. They get control of the big
collections, they get money from the buyer and seller, and they can guarantee a
price. So, for the dealer it is a matter of impractical odds.
Speaking of the auction houses, how often have you seen a piece that you've
sold, rise to the top or go to a top dealer?
Oh yes, it happens. But they don't like to get pieces from dealers, since
they think the pieces have been shown. For example, I bought a club from
you and it sold for a BIG price at Christies. If I came to them with the
club they would not take it. So, the club went through my friend, a private
guy. They are always scared to get stuff from dealers, fearing it has been
seen, so it is difficult. If you're courageous enough to put a piece away
and don't show it to nobody, which is totally impossible with me, then you can
put it in an auction. No problem, Of course! But, if you have very good clients like
"...... ....., .... .........", sometimes it is best to offer it to
them and get the money quick. With the auctions, you can have like 30 percent
commissions, the expertise, the photo charges... you know the job. You get
paid months after the piece sells and they have the piece for months before it
Do you ever buy at auction?
Yes, sometimes. I found a good piece at Drouot and nobody knew
what it was. It was at a morning sale when nobody was there. I got
it cheap and it turned out to be a rare Hermit Island God figure. I sold
it very quickly and it went through like five dealers in one week!
Island God Figure, Ex. Hotel Drouot sale.
Do you think the average person would be surprised to know the volume of
material you turn over in a year?
Yes absolutely. Officially like 1000-1100 pieces per year, but unofficially
Do you recall any wild and crazy stories about chasing an object or discovering
Yes, sometimes I'll just be sitting in the shop and someone will come in with a
masterpiece. One of my favorite stories happened a couple years ago.
A guy knew I was specializing in American Indian and he had the best Cradle
board in the world. It was a Sioux quilled cradle board with doll dating
to the 1820s. The guy came about 10 o'clock in the morning, he was
like 45-50 yrs old... I said, where did you find that??? He said,
"I went to a small home sale in the country and found it". I
said, do you want to sell it? He got upset and said, "no no, I want to
trade it". I said what do you want? He said, "I want an
African mask"! I said, look around I have a number of them here.
He said, "you're very nice BUT there is a better one I like with Lucas
Ratton that is 3000 euros". Luca also had a shop in the market at
that time. I said, NO PROBLEM and we went to his shop with him and got
it. I made it work and we both got what we wanted. I consigned
it to Bonhams in San Francisco. There are five known in the world.
There is one in the Pitt Rivers Museum and one in New York.
Craddle board that turned up in the Paris Flea Market (estimate
Is there any material that you won't buy or sell? Anything that is Taboo
or off limits?
There are things that I don't deal in because I don't know. When You start
getting into things you don't know or have the knowledge, you make
mistakes. I don't buy Pre-Columbian... but one day I fell in love with one
piece. It was the only Pre-Columbian piece I ever bought in my life
because it was fantastic. It was a silver piece from Peru. I
bought it because the guy brought it to me at a fair price, like 3000 bucks. I
showed it to my friend and he sold it to the Quai Branly Museum. Its
very difficult for me to buy Chinese, Japanese and Pre-Columbian because I don't
know enough. I don't buy things where there are issues of possibly repatriation, or
ivory or Rhino horn.
visitor/ shoppers flowing in to have a look
Do you ever make mistakes and lose money when purchasing?
Yes, sometimes I lose money. I prefer to lose money on pieces I make a
mistake on, taking part of the money and keep playing the game. The
mistake is done. It doesn't matter if I lose 1000 or 2000 dollars, I turn
the money on other pieces. I'm always looking forward. Like this
morning, you see people come bringing stuff, buying, trading things; its always in
an invention with business. I think I'm one of the few dealers in France
to do this, but I always buy with a little bit of trade and a bit of money,
so it doesn't cost so much. For example, if a guy brings me a piece for
$10,000 usd and I don't want to pay his price, I'll give him $5000 and the rest
in trade and the guy is happy. Always people get money with me and a bit
of trade and I get rid of pieces I have a problem to sell. I see very few
dealers do this and it is important because when you have runners, my suppliers,
they always need money because they have expenses like airline tickets, trains and
cars. They have to make a living. A guy like ".... .....",
he comes from Los Angeles, I buy two pieces from him, I give him back a Makonde
and some money and he is happy. I have good things here.
You interact with so many people. Do you ever have trouble telling them
No, its just business. I have great experiences. If I have to think
about a piece too long its no good.
(second left) posing for a photo with the gang.
a wrap. A special thank you to Denis for a great lunch, his generous time and insightful