In the early 2000s, art dealer, curator and all-round obsessive collector John Perry moved his collection into a historic theatre in Helensville. Out the front, he ran Global Village, which sold a delightful mix of treasures from Aotearoa and the Pacific. Out the back, in 700 square metres of former cinema – the equivalent of four tennis courts and a place where only a favoured few were invited – he stacked his collection.
Perry was enormously charming, knowledgeable and a great conversationalist – well known around Tāmaki Makaurau’s auction circuit. “He had a knack for finding hidden treasure that others would miss,” says Benjamin Erren, director of decorative arts at Webb’s, “and he really delighted in all things art and antique.”
He attended Elam School of Fine Arts at the same time as Dick Frizzell and was on a first-name basis with Colin McCahon, Theo Schoon and Tony Fomison, which placed him squarely in the centre of the development of contemporary art and culture in Aotearoa in the 1960s. In the 80s and 90s, he was the curator of the Rotorua City Art Gallery and then the director of Rotorua Museum.
Perry passed away in 2021. Now, Webb’s is selling his collection in a series of auctions (the first was in late January), which will last several years – an unprecedented programme. “I once heard it described as not so much a store as a laboratory where John made sense of the world,” says Erren.
How far through cataloguing the collection have you got and, by your best guess, how big is it?
Benjamin Erren: We have really only just begun. It is most probably the largest collection of its type in New Zealand. My estimate at this stage is that we will offer 6000 items at auction this year, and that it will take three years to catalogue and sell all of it. It is vast.
Why is a collection like this important?
In some ways it is a very idiosyncratic collection. John had his own very specific way of assessing, acquiring and organising artforms. Yet, for all his particularity, he was the nation’s leading authority on folk art. He was the person other experts would call when they were stumped by something. In sum, his collection is mind-boggling. It contains some absolute gems, though it is almost a national treasure in itself.
Do you think he knew exactly what was in it?
He had an incredible memory for the contents of his collection. Some conversations I had with him demonstrated his knowledge down to a level of detail that was incredibly granular. That said, he couldn’t always put his hand on something, even if he knew exactly what it was. He’d say something like, “I know it’s in this general area...”
The collection is wide-ranging and seemingly random – what ties it together?
Well, John does. He is the common thread that runs through all of it. He had an exceptional eye for Polynesian artefacts, and an equally good measure of 1970s pop art and design ephemera. He had rich knowledge of a wide range of cultural phenomena, and he found and collected items from a myriad of sources. He was, unsurprisingly, a brilliant conversationalist, able to tell the unique stories of the items in his collection.
Tell us about the Gauguin?
Gauguin had a 10-day stopover in Auckland in 1895 while en route to Tahiti. While he was here, he made a series of sketches, including from Māori art and artefacts displayed at the Auckland Museum. Rumour has it that one of these sketches wound up a century later in John Perry’s hands, and it’s somewhere in his collection.
Artifacts: From the Collection of John Perry