Hildegard Schneider and René de Groot Hildegard Schneider and René de Groot Loraine Bodewes

The collectors

Written by  Femke Kools Tuesday, 07 June 2016 14:18

From the moment you step inside, it is clear you’ve entered the domain of collectors. Law professors René de Groot and Hildegard Schneider collect everything from old books, shells, ostrich eggs and fossils to textiles and old-fashioned crocheting. But their special passion is reserved for non-European art and utensils: over the last 35 years, they have amassed an overwhelming collection of tribal art. “We’re not great at setting limits”, says De Groot. “That’s a nice quote, isn’t it?”


With great enthusiasm he unveils the latest addition to their collection, which his wife picked up for five euros in the local second-hand store: a rectangular woven basket with matching primitive ‘maracas’. “I was thrilled when she brought this home”, he beams. “I saw something like it once in a museum in Budapest. It’s probably from Venezuela or Suriname.” Schneider smiles: “I like wickerwork, but René really likes it.” “I’m always amazed by what people can make with such simple materials”, he continues. The purchase illustrates one of the sides of collecting that so appeals to them: you can often find very beautiful things for very little money.

First find
They still recall how they discovered the Tongeren flea market in 1982. “We’d just moved to Maastricht, and we found this mask with cowrie shells”, explains Schneider. “When we got it home we found out it was used for initiation rituals in Congo. That was just fantastic.” It marked the start of an immense collection of diverse, ethnographic artefacts. Nepal, Tibet, Africa, South America – their place of origin matters less than their authenticity, and of course their aesthetics. “It’s all well and good to find beautiful things, but you have to be able to recognise them”, says Schneider. “We knew next to nothing when we started out. We’re getting better at it though.”

Retirement project
For her inaugural lecture, Schneider was given a ghurra: a carved wooden sculpture with a round hole, used by Himalayan peoples in the process of churning butter. “We really liked it, so we bought a few more, and over the years we’ve been given others”, she says. “Now we have over a hundred”, adds De Groot. Sometimes they buy entire collections, such as a series of wooden dolls made by the Guna, an indigenous people of Panama. De Groot: “We saw them in a shop window, and it turned out to be a 360-piece collection with dolls of all shapes and sizes. They’re supposed to be placed by a sick person’s bedside to help them get well again. They often have this very characteristic nose and a tie and hat. There are no good books on these, so that’s something I plan to write when I retire.” He can barely contain his enthusiasm: “It’ll mean going to the San Blas Islands in Panama, and to museums in Gothenburg and Oxford where they have beautiful collections.”

Candy store
They are not big believers in the purported powers of their collection. “An African colleague who came to visit said he had to work hard not to be afraid of all the ghosts in the house”, says Schneider. Instead, their interest is largely scholarly: with every new purchase, they itch to know where it comes from, how old it is, what it was used for and more. “It challenges you to learn new things, and the more you have of a particular object, the more interesting it becomes.” Karavanserai, a shop that sells indigenous art in Maastricht, is a veritable candy store: this is where they bought, among other things, the headdress finished with striking feathers and a matching breastplate that stands in pride of place behind the dining table. “It was made by the Naga, a headhunting people in northern India.”

The artefacts are often fragile and are becoming increasingly difficult to find. While De Groot and Schneider mainly collect for fun, they see it as an added bonus if their collection also contributes to conservation efforts. This was one of their motives to begin collecting old-fashioned crocheting: these works can be just as interesting, after all, as the textile arts of indigenous peoples.

The value of the objects is also not their primary concern. “I was at an auction in the 90s and bid on 38 pairs of Oriental shoes”, says De Groot. “When Hildegard found out she asked, ‘What are we going to do with all those?’ ‘Worst-case scenario, they go in the dressing-up box’, I said. But there were beautiful woven shoes from Japan in there, and special shoes for Chinese women with bound feet. Beautiful!” Schneider: “Later we saw similar ones at TEFAF. My first thought was, ‘Are they the same ones we have?’”

For birthdays and holidays, they traditionally give each other yet another item for the collection. De Groot picks up a beautiful woven basket: “Our son recently gave this to us; he’s started collecting these sorts of objects himself now. Our daughter recently asked, very delicately, if we’re expecting her to keep all these things when we’re gone. That’s not necessary – as long as they sell them wisely.”

René de Groot (1951) has been professor of Comparative Law and Private International Law at the Faculty of Law since 1988. An internationally renowned expert in the field of nationality law, he also cofounded the Association for the Study of Islamic Law and Middle Eastern Law (RIMO) in 1982.

Hildegard Schneider (1955) has been professor of European Union Law and European Migration Law at the Faculty of Law since 2001. In addition, she has been dean of the faculty since 2011. Her research revolves around freedom of movement, migration and mobility, as well as art and cultural property law.

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