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Utamaro print representing a grasshopper among pink and purple flowers.

WANNIECK Léon and Marie-Madeleine (EN)

21/03/2022 Collectionneurs, collecteurs et marchands d'art asiatique en France 1700-1939

Biographical article

Léon Joseph Benjamin Wannieck was born 17 February 1875 in Vienna, Austria. Czechoslovakian in origin, he was the son of a Joseph Wannieck and Ada Mauroner, and the nephew of Friedrich Wannieck (1838-1919), a famous industrialist in Brno, today in the Czech Republic. He acquired French nationality by a decree of 16 July 1921 (AN, Sous-série BB/11, Decrees of naturalisation for the year 1921), following his engagement in the French Foreign Legion, as of 29 September 1914.

Marie-Madeleine Perault was born 2 August 1871, in Barberier (Allier). She was the daughter of Nicolas Péraud, whose name would later be spelled “Perault”, deceased, and Marie Citerne, without profession (AM Barberier, s.c.). On 8 December 1916, Marie-Madeleine Perault married Léon Wannieck in Paris. They were living at 17, rue Drouot, in the 9th arrondissement. The later moved, at an undermined date, to 29, rue de Monceau, in the 8th arrondissement. Le couple had no children, but the Perault nieces and nephews appear to have had quite a presence in in their personal and professional life, like Francis Perault (1903-1930).

The Wannieck couple does not seem to have obtained any sort of university training: Marie-Madeleine Perault’s modest background allow one to infer that she did not have access to a long period of schooling. Léon Wannieckabandoned his studies at the age of fifteen to join the army. However, the couple possessed a rich library centred on Asian arts, and in particular concerning Chinese ceramics (AN, AB/XXXVIII/137).

How the gallery operated

The Maison L. Wannieck possessed the historical particularity, rare in that period for an antique dealer specialised in Chinese arts in the period, to have been founded in China, in Beijing, on the Tiananmen Square, in 1902. This parent company, where Francis Perault seems to have served as relay, every two weeks or so supplied the Paris gallery, located first at 5, rue d’Enghien (10th arrondissement), then at 1, rue Saint-Georges (9th arrondissement) from 1914 on (Wannieck L., 1911). Some pieces were acquired from Beijing antique dealers, whereas others were purchased from locals undertaking digs (Rostovtzeff M., 1929, p. 111).

Registered from 1913 as a company “Importing antique art objects from China, Porcelains, Pottery, etc.” (AP, Bottins du commerce, 1910 to 1914), the Paris gallery was specialised more precisely in “Chinese works. Antique Chinese Porcelains. Antique Chinese Bronzes, ceramics. Antique Buddhist sculptures in stone, paintings, lacquer panels” (The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 1923-1931). It is a complex task to distinguish what was part of the personal collection of the Wanniecks from the pieces destined for sale.


The presence I China was accompanied by several voyages, during which the Wanniecks brought back numerous objects. Subsidised by the city of Paris (BNF, Bulletin municipal officiel de la Ville de Paris, 8 February 1923, printed), the long sojourn of 1923 enabled Léon Wannieck to undertake archaeological research in northern China and in Mongolia, conditioned upon leaving to the city of Paris the right of first choice on the imported objects, with the exception of manuscripts. The objects imported into France in this manner led to an exhibition at the Musée Cernuschi in 1924 (AP, VR 233, Musée Cernuschi), and the major part was acquired by the city of Paris for this same institution. Marie-Madeleine Wannieck was present on the second voyage, in 1924, although her role is unclear. The dangers encountered on these voyages were emphasised by the press at the time. They did in fact take place during a very turbulent period in China’ history, marked by the conflicts between the “Warlords” and by famines and insecurity they entailed.

Relations with the world of sinology and museums

The Wanniecks socialised with a number of professionals and amateurs of Asian art. Thus, Ching Tsai Loo (C. T. Loo, 1880 - 1957), a famous antique dealer of Chinese art, was among Léon Wannieck’s friends and competitors. The couple was also very involved in the Société des Amis du Musée Cernuschi (Friends of the museum), for which Léon Wannieck served as vice-president from its founding in July 1922 (minutes of the Société des Amis du Musée Cernuschi, s.c.). During the society’s assemblies, the couple socialised with leading sinologists, such as Paul Pelliot (1878-1945). Léon Wannieck was also in regular contact with Henri d’Ardenne de Tizac (1877-1932), the curator of the Musée Cernuschi.

Through this direct link, or through the Société des Amis, the Wanniecks donated or sold numerous works to the Musée Cernuschi. The status of major doner to the museum led to Léon Wannieck being proposed by Henri d’Ardenne de Tizac for the Croix de la Légion d’honneur (AP, VR233), a decoration the attribution of which has thus far not been confirmed. As for Marie-Madeleine Wannieck, she was awarded the doners’ vermeil medal, the highest distinction of the city of Paris (BNF, Conseil Municipal de Paris, 1956).

The Wanniecks were also in contact with a number of curators across the western world, among whom were Zoltán Felvinczi Takács (1880-1964), director of the Ferenc Hopp Museum of Asiatic Arts of Budapest, which acquired some twenty-five pieces from the Wanniecks, and who paid them a visit during each of his sojourns in Paris (Fajcsák G., 2008).


Léon Wannieck died on 24 March 1931, at the age of 56, a consequence of the faulty operation of that caused an X-ray burn (Pelliot P., 1931). Marie-Madeleine Wannieck lived until 6 June 1960. During this period, she continued to run the gallery, which she renamed the “Maison L. Wannieck - Vve Wannieck, Succ.” (indicating her successor status as widow). She bequeathed her personal possessions and financial holdings to her closest family, namely her nieces and nephews. The stock of works of art was sold during a series of auctions in 1960.

Characteristics of the collection

The collection as currently inventoried cannot give an exhaustive idea of the content of the Wannieck gallery at a given moment.Slightly more than 800 works have been identified, but this corpus probably only represents a sampling of the pieces that passed through the Maison L. Wannieck during its many years in business. Moreover, the Wanniecks did not necessarily have simultaneously in their possession these different works.

However, this corpus makes it possible to identify a few major characteristics of the Wannieck collection. It was relatively homogeneous in terms of the origin of the works: the great majority of the pieces were Chinese, with the exception of rare Tibetan or Mongolian works. The dates of pieces fall within periods generally considered quite ancient: over half the pieces dated from the Song dynasty (960-1279) or earlier, whereas the Han dynasty (206 BCE. -220 CE) represents one fifth of the works counted (Robin Julie, dir. Bellec Mael. Léon et Marie-Madeleine Wannieck. L’art chinois au musée. Dissertation, Ecole du Louvre, May 2019).

In the corpus thus gathered ceramics are largely predominant, representing three fifths of the inventoried collection. These ceramics were essentially pieces of dishware, but the mingqi were also a considerable portion of the objects in this category. A significant number of the more recent ceramics, namely of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), formed the core of the personal collection of Marie-Madeleine Wannieck, exhibited in her apartment, rue Monceau, where she held court (Collection of Madame L. Wannieck, estate sale…, 1960). though the Wanniecks were renowned for certain of their bronzes, in the final count, these only represented approximately a quarter of the corpus. However, these pieces were among the most studied works, in particular the set of Bronzes from Liyu and the bronze scythes of the Ordos, among the finest exhibited in Europe (Fajcsák G., 2007, p. 181).

The bronzes from Liyu

A fortuitous discovery in the province of Shanxi, in northern Chine, and shortly thereafter acquired and imported by Léon Wannieck, the Liyu bronzes were the most famous and best documented pieces of the collection. Today exhibited at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques — Guimet, these bronzes are part of a much larger ensemble of ritual vessels, of which the other elements are held in Shanghai, Stockholm and Washington. They are representative of the itinerary followed by pieces in the organisation of the Wannieck gallery.

Discovered by a local peasant thanks to a mudslide, in March 1923, these Liyu bronzes attracted the attention of Léon Wannieck, already on a mission in the region. Once on site, he bought without difficulty some twenty works and managed to export them. From his earliest declarations to the press concerning this voyage, the antique dealer lends a specific history to the ensemble designed to excite intense public interest, by linking the bronzes to the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who would ostensibly have used them to perform sacrifices on Mount “Hochan” [Hua Shan] (Shaanxi, China) (BNF, J. Kolb, 1924).

This version was rapidly challenged, but the rumour seems to have greatly contributed to their success. Exhibited in the Musée Cernuschi since 1924. Most interestingly, the Liyu bronzes created an event in 1934, during the “Chinese Bronzes” exhibition at the Muséé de l’Orangerie. On loan from Marie-Madeleine Wannieck, the ensemble aroused the interest of the Musée du Louvre, which aimed to acquire them by means of a public drive for funds, for its department of Asian art (AN, 20144786/1). Supported by several personalities from the world of sinology, such as Paul Pelliot, the drive undertaken in parallel with the exhibition enabled the acquisition of these bronzes, excluding the five pieces already sold to other museums, such as the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington.

Dispersal of the collection

After the death of Marie-Madeleine Wannieck, the collection was sold during two estate sales, on 2 December 1960 at the Hôtel Drouot and on 5 December at the Palais Galliera. In keeping with the commercial objective of the company, many works were sold throughout the active business life of the Maison L. Wannieck, but many donations were made to museums as well. Worthy of particular interest were the regular donations to the Musée Cernuschi, notably through a series by Marie-Madeleine Wannieck, from 1937 to 1946, of on piece every other year. The sale of the remaining works, was obviously the main way works exited the collection, particularly following the couple’s trips. Thus, the most massive sales took place in 1923, the year Léon Wannieck returned from a trip to Chine.

Current locations of conservation

Today, in the western world, at least fourteen museums possess pieces from the Wannieck collection. These are mainly European institutions. However, some ten pieces are held in the U.S., by the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. The Musée Cernusch holds the greatest number of works, possessing 350 pieces, either bought or received as donations from the Wanniecks. Undoubtedly owing to the Austrian origin of Léon Wannieck, the Weltmuseum of Vienna is the museum containing the second largest number of works from the collection, numbering some 300 objects. More than simply quantitatively important groups, many of the pieces from the Wannieck collection are still considered as works of the highest quality by the curators and directors of these collections, and many are currently on display.