As a medical student in Paris in the 1970s, Terry de Gunzburg supported herself with a variety of casual jobs: working at a florist’s, wrapping gifts in a department store, supervising a school playtime. What spare money she earned she would spend at flea markets, buying on instinct and honing her eye. Her stellar purchase, made when she was 20, was a Picasso plate for Fr100 (about £10). “At that time you could find all sorts of things at the marchés aux puces,” chips in Jean-Jacques Dutko, proprietor of galleries in London and Paris and, in de Gunzburg’s words, “one of the world’s experts on art deco”. “I also remember buying a piece by [the ceramic artist Georges] Jouvé for about £15,” she says. “It was nothing!” (Especially when you consider that one of his table lamps sold at Christie’s New York for $62,500 last winter, and his sculptures now fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.)
It was clear that she was destined to become a collector, not just of art – there are works by Francis Bacon, Modigliani, Giacometti, Pierre Soulages and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the sitting room of her London home, one of five she shares with her husband, the eminent molecular and cell biologist Jean de Gunzburg – but of French art deco furniture.
Dutko was also combing flea markets at that time, having traded a career in advertising for one as an antiques dealer. “I loved old furniture,” he says by way of explanation, having grown up surrounded by Louis XV and XVI pieces. However, his real epiphany came when he went to visit a client – a doctor – with a view to buying some 18th-century items, but what actually caught his eye was the 1930s L-shaped desk in his client’s consulting room. “It was fantastic!” he remembers. “Walnut and wrought iron. I asked what it was, and he said, ‘It’s by Pierre Chareau’.”
Dutko asked if he could buy it. “You’re not in that league” was the reply. “So I went home and researched Chareau, learnt how important an architect he was and realised that art deco was the period I wanted to deal in. That was the clincher. I sold all my antiques and started again.”
He too has an instinct for negotiation. On one occasion he spotted a lamp on a market stall by Jacques Le Chevallier, priced at Fr50, only to see it sold to the man ahead of him. Determined to have it, he offered the buyer a cup of coffee. “I told him I wanted the lamp he’d just bought and he said, ‘What will you offer me for it?’ Ten thousand francs, I replied, but it’s now or never. I knew it was worth twice that.” It was a hunch, but one that paid off when he sold it on.
De Gunzburg’s career did not pan out as originally planned, either. To her father’s disappointment, she quit medicine to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but a course at Carita’s Maison de Beauté in the intervening vacation led to an opportunity to work as a make-up artist at the couture fashion shows, prompting her to change direction again. In 1985 she joined Yves Saint Laurent, inventing Touche Eclat and becoming creative director of the brand’s beauty division, and 15 years later founded her own global skincare and fragrance brand, By Terry.
She and Dutko met “perhaps 20 years ago,” says Dutko, when she visited his gallery on Rue Bonaparte in Paris. It was, she laughs, “love at first sight!” She and her husband had just bought a house designed by art nouveau architect Hector Guimard and had decided to furnish it “only with premium quality things” in keeping with the architecture. Her first purchase from Dutko was a folding bar by Jean Dunand. “It’s an amazing piece, incorporating a lacquered bande dessiné [strip cartoon]. He sold it to us for the price of an apartment,” she says. “I don’t remember exactly, but somewhere between Fr3m and Fr5m. But I said to my husband, I love it and I want it, even if you never give me any jewellery ever again in my life.”
It’s an irony then that her next purchase was a 1920s jewellery cabinet designed by André Groult. Covered in shagreen, it stands in her New York apartment, along with a sofa by Marc du Plantier, a low table in wood, bronze, leather and parchment by Paul Dupré-Lafon, a carpet by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, a Dunand vase, and a desk, side table, set of chairs and – her latest purchase – cabinet by Eugène Printz, all giants of the genre, found for her by Dutko.
It’s not just furniture Dutko has found for her, but also paintings, especially by the underrated French abstractionist Jean-Pierre Pincemin. “That is the problem with the French,” says Dutko. “They don’t take care of their own artists. Take Jean Degottex – he was a great artist, but you can buy his paintings for nothing.” (They can still be had at auction for four-figure sums.) “But art is nothing to do with price,” says de Gunzburg. “It’s a feeling, a sensibilité. That’s the first rule of buying. If you don’t love it, forget it. Never buy anything just because it’s undervalued.”
Just as you should never furnish a home in a single style, counsels Dutko. “People say they want to make their apartment entirely art deco, and I say why? I mean, it can look nice, but it is so restricting when there are so many contemporary artists whose work shares the same inspiration and aesthetic, and sits so well with it.”
De Gunzburg’s London home combines a mix of styles, from Venetian baroque to contemporary. On the first-floor landing, for instance, a Damien Hirst spot painting is casually propped against a wall next to a 1930s commode by Jean-Michel Frank. And in her bedroom stands a second magnificent Groult cabinet in solid Macassar ebony with a top faced in ivory. It was commissioned by the fabled patron of artists and composers Marie-Laure de Noailles and had never been sold or exhibited when Dutko was offered it.
“I saw it and called her. Ça, c’est pour vous. It is absolutely unique. You must have it.” The cabinet sits below works by Picasso, Kees van Dongen and Matisse. Elsewhere in de Gunzburg’s bedroom are a pair of chairs and a low shagreen table by Frank, on which she displays bronze casts of her two sons’ feet, made when they were babies, next to a collection of cigarette cases and compacts by Cartier and Boucheron, and one like a telephone dial by Salvador Dalí. These she inherited from her grandmother (who was English, but of Jewish, Turkish and Syrian descent), who carried them with her when her family was forced to leave Alexandria after the Suez Crisis in 1956, because – her diamonds apart – they were all she could hold.
It’s clear from the warmth of their conversation that de Gunzburg and Dutko are firm friends. Their families used to ski together in Courchevel, and they meet regularly for meals. “One Saturday,” he remembers, “I was in the Rue Bonaparte gallery and saw her walk past with her husband and sons. I waved and they came in. The boys fell asleep and we spent the morning chatting.” By the time they left, she had bought three pieces, one of them an important palmwood cabinet by Printz. “It was an expensive walk.”