The Heijs-Voorhuis collection

Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis (1932-2021): one of the first gallery owner in the Netherlands for non-European art

Auction in Würzburg:
Saturday, 12 November 2022 — 2 pm

Preview:
Paul Gallery, Munich
29 and 30 October — from 10 am to 5 pm

Auction house Würzburg
9 until 11 November — from 10 am to 5 pm

Catalogue order

Please note current changes to the corona regulations.

She was 82 when she gave an impressively personal interview in 2014: about her story, her experiences and insights, about her extraordinarily large private Yoruba collection; but also about her view of the art market at the time.

Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis - she seems to have lost none of her energy and enthusiasm as a passionate collector. The fact that she is one of the first, maybe even the first gallery owner in the Netherlands to open her own gallery for non-European art in a male-dominated tribal art market in the early 1970s does not seem worth mentioning. Her eventful and fulfilling life as a collector and gallery owner is much more important to her.

„You can do it!“ - Because friends and confidants encouraged her to open a gallery after all, she decided – somewhat hesitantly at first – to take this step. Without much prior knowledge “I didn‘t know anything! I was kind of innocent about the value of works. I didn‘t know the trade and I didn‘t know how to bargain and negotiate. But I could and wanted to learn!”

And she did. She was supported by her family and the promise of the University of Nijmegen, where she was one of the few women to study sociology in the 1950s, to continue teaching students and high school students there – just in case….

Decades later, she looks back with satisfaction and rightly so: “I didn‘t go bankrupt. I didn‘t get rich either. But I got to know many, many people and had them visit me. And I‘ve learned a lot. And – I‘m still learning every day!”. She enjoys her open house, almost imperceptibly overflowing with art, a house she built with great effort after her time abroad after the death of her husband (1978) and after her return home (1983). An open house in Berg en Dal, where everyone likes to come, where adults bring art closer to their children and grandchildren, including numerous works that she had sold and bought back with great difficulty after her return.

Learning throughout her life, was her mantra – by listening and “asking a lot, an awful lot of questions”, as she likes to emphasize again and again.

As a young girl, she found access to art and folk art through her father, himself an antique collector. „From him I learned to see art and to recognize the differences between real and fake.“
However, the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal (opened in 1954), which at that time was still being run by the missionaries of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, laid the foundation and initial experience for her gallery business, and for which she worked for three or four years - willingly subordinate tasks took over but she was also allowed to participate in exhibition preparations. „I definitely wanted to work there, at any price, even for free, because everything I was able to learn there was pay enough for me.“

By then she had already acquired her first Africa exhibits, ethnographica objects; she keeps her first in her collection: a container from the Kuba, Congo, completely overpriced “bought stupidly”, as she puts it with a light humour in retrospect.

From many conversations with the fathers who had worked in Africa, she learned a lot about the living environment, the works of art, their origin and their use, she learned to identify the works and to judge their qualities.

The focus of her gallery at Smidstraat 7 in Nijmegen (later then in Berg en Dal, Bosweg 14) was on works from Nigeria, which she obtained through German collections and dealers from Africa, “Nigeria, because at that time, on the international art market, it hadn’t really much status, it was considered more a folk art, and was affordable for me, especially in the beginning“.

She developed a very special relationship with the works of the Yoruba: the diversity of the most diverse styles that had developed in the different kingdoms, the mutual artistic influence, and the so openly visible cult use, especially with the Ibeji twin figures. All of this culminated into what she calls an “emotional connection” to these works.

She was in close contact with Hans A. Witte (1928-2006), alongside William Fagg the recognized expert on Yoruba societies, lecturer in West African religions and iconography at the University of Groningen, explorer and curator of the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal. He specialized in Yoruba culture and often visited in her gallery. He was interested in her ibeji twin figures, of which she had now collected more than the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal owned.

Together they identified the collected twin figures by origin, area, workshop or woodcarver. Through stylistic comparisons, it was possible – especially among the Yoruba – to remove a large number of carvers from anonymity. Both were working on a joint publication of their Yoruba private collection when Hans Witte passed away; the works are nevertheless well documented in the AHDRC (African Heritage & Documentation Research Centre) under the Hans Witte files, as is the present offer, which can be described as the essence of their Yoruba collection.

All of her Yoruba collection, which was assembled over a period of 60 years under sometimes adventurous circumstances, most recently comprised more than 4,500 works from a legacy totaling tens of thousands, and must therefore have been unique and incomparable. Museums in Europe, collectors and dealers are aware of this. Convinced by the concept of the modernized Municipal Museum in Zory (Poland), which after its restart in 2013/2014 was already nominated for the European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) in 2020, and on the initiative of her good friend and Africa collector Gustav Wilhelms, a part of her estate can now be shown there.
Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis passed away in 2021, shortly after her 89th birthday

 

Source:
Interview Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis (conducted and recorded by Zbigniew Szendera, 2014), https://vimeo.com/118421341

Exhibitions:

2000 Tussen hemel en aarde, leven met de doden in Afrika, Van Reekmuseum Apeldoorn (NL), curated by Frits Bless

2001 Wereld in beweging, Afrikamuseum, Berg en Dal (NL), curated by Hans Witte

2002 Beelden aan Zee, Scheveningen (NL), curated by Erik Vos

2012 Gelede Masks, TOPIC Museum, Tolosa (ES), curated by Damiet van Dalsum

Nigeria, Yoruba, Ekiti, prob. Agbonbiofe von Efon-Alaye, Collection Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, St. Agatha, Netherlands

Nigeria, Yoruba, Ekiti, prob. Agbonbiofe of Efon-Alayee

Provenance:
Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, Sint Agatha, The Netherlands

Nigeria, Yoruba, Igbomina, "Master of the Owu Shango shrine",Collection Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, St. Agatha, Netherlands

Nigeria, Yoruba, Igbomina, "Master of the Owu Shango shrine"

Provenance
Gerbrand Luttik, Soest, The Netherlands
Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, Sint Agatha, The Netherlands

Nigeria, Yoruba, Oyo, Shaki, Collection Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, St. Agatha, Netherlands

Nigeria, Yoruba, Oyo, Shaki

Provenance:
Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, Sint Agatha, The Netherlands

Nigeria, Yoruba - Anago, Collection Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, St. Agatha, Netherlands

Nigeria, Yoruba - Anago

Provenance:
Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, Sint Agatha, Niederlande

Cameroon Grassland, Western Bangwa, Fontem Basin, Collection Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, St. Agatha, Netherlands

Cameroon Grassland, Western Bangwa

Provenance:
Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal, The Netherlands
Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, Sint Agatha, The Netherlands

Nigeria, Yoruba, Egbado, Akinola from Joga Orile, Collection Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, St. Agatha, Netherlands

Nigeria, Yoruba, Egbado, Akinola from Joga Orile

Provenance:
Ursula Heijs-Voorhuis, Sint Agatha, The Netherlands