Parallel Life of Art Collector Jean-Yves Ollivier, the Unsung Hero Who Helped End Apartheid in South Africa

Jean-Yves Ollivier is known as a French businessman specialising in commodities trading. But it’s only part of his story. He has another identity, 'Monsieur Jacques', which remained to be a secret until his story is revealed in a 2013 documentary Plot for Peace that recounts the pivotal role that Jean-Yves Ollivier played in knitting together behind-the-scene negotiations and deals, which finally led to the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela.

The 2013 film Plot for Peace reveals the untold story of Jean-Yves Ollivier helping end apartheid in South Africa

Ollivier used his day job to create a network of contacts across the continent which enabled him to act as a secret envoy brokering the 1988 Brazzaville Protocol. This agreement paved the way for the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. In return, South Africa removed its forces from Namibia, which allowed that country to become independent. Ollivier’s role in these negotiations only came to light when archive footage showed him being honoured both by the white former South African leader P.W. Botha and by Nelson Mandela.

Participants at Namibia's independence negotiations in the Congolese capital Brazzaville

Nelson Mandela (left), former President of South Africa, and Jean-Yves Ollivier (right)

Ollivier is also the Chairman and Founder of the Brazzaville Foundation, an organisation that seeks to help African continent to develop self-sustaining local economies, diminish conflict, and generate better health by support local environmental, economic and conflict prevention initiatives.

In addition to his roles as a businessman, a philanthropist and a parallel diplomat, Ollivier is also an important collector of Chinese art. The early Chinese bronzes in his collection are particularly representative of early dynastic China. Part of his collection will be up for sale at auction in London next month. Contrary to what we think, Ollivier did not come from a long line of art collectors.

Algérie française was a slogan used about 1960 by those French people who wanted to keep Algeria ruled by France

Born in Algiers in 1944, during the Algerian War of Independence, Jean-Yves Ollivier and his family fled the country and arrived in Paris in 1962. He was later arrested and imprisoned for running messages for Algérie Française, a resistance group opposing Algerian independence. Aged 17, he left for London and landed a job at Strauss Turnbull & Co. as a stockbroker for the fabled art collector Robert Strauss. Ollivier was invited to Strauss' country house in Sussex and was introduced to types of old artefacts to which he had never paid any attention in the past. But that's not how he began his life as an art collector.

National Palace Museum in Taipei

Bronze food vessel, Gui, Early Western Zhou Dynasty. Collection of National Palace Museum

Bronze wine vessel, You, Late Western Zhou Dynasty. Collection of National Palace Museum

It was while visiting the National Palace Museum in Taipei in the late 60s, that he first saw examples of Archaic Chinese Bronzes. For him, this Bronze Age art was even more powerful because it was not created just as merchandise, but for ritual purposes, which have imbued a certain spiritual element in each object. He eventually collected nine bronze ritual food vessels, all of which will feature in the London sale. The pieces included in this single-owner auction were assembled with the help of leading art advisors, principally the Brussels-based dealer Gisèle Croës, and are all of museum quality.

Jean-Yves Ollivier is an avid collector of Chinese art, especially those of the early period 

Jean-Yves Ollivie's collection

In the next article, we are going to introduce some highlights from the sale, including two archaic bronze vessels, Gui and Jia, from the Western Zou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), as well as a sancai-glazed model of a bactrian camel from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Please stay tuned.

Auction information:
Auction house: Bonhams London
Sale: The Ollivier Collection of Early Chinese Art: A Journey Through Time
Lots offered: 35
Date: 8 November 2018|10:30am