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What Stays With You

Everything in collector and curator Pierre Apraxine’s West Village apartment has a life of its own.

Library: Apraxine uses a Maarten Baas–designed burnt-wood table as his desk. The terra-cotta figure is a headless Janus, ca. 300 BC. The chairs are by Jasper Morrison for Vitra. The books are arranged by subject. Photo: Annie Schlechter
Library: Apraxine uses a Maarten Baas–designed burnt-wood table as his desk. The terra-cotta figure is a headless Janus, ca. 300 BC. The chairs are by Jasper Morrison for Vitra. The books are arranged by subject. Photo: Annie Schlechter

Books, jokes Pierre Apraxine, who has a lot of them, are “like a flood. Slowly, slowly there are more and more, and by the time you find a place for them, it’s too late.” He laughs when he says this; of course, he loves books — he is a scholar and curator. His two-bedroom in a classic West Village Bing & Bing building is full of them, cohabitating with his eclectic and erudite collection of art, furniture, and artifacts. “What you see now are basically the things which have passed through my hands and stayed,” he says. “Most of the things that I ‘collected’ found their place in museums and institutions and so on, but the things that I am surrounded with — they got here and never left.”

Living Room, Facing East: The painting Waves (2005), above the fireplace, is by Merlin James. The framed work on paper is by Alberto Sorbelli. The rubber vase perched on the windowsill is by Gaetano Pesce. Photo: Annie Schlechter

“I’ve never quite known anyone with an eye like Pierre’s,” says his close friend and longtime Museum of Modern Art trustee, Barbara Jakobson. “And you know he’s a Russian count.” Apraxine was born in Estonia in 1937 and educated in Belgium before arriving in the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar in 1970. The New York that embraced him then was bursting with the messiness of new ideas. “It was like I fell in a soup,” he says, laughing again. “And I was trying to swim. Everything seemed possible; all the boundaries were being tested. I had a chance to be part of that exploration. You know, everything was moving. It was an invitation to try; that is what New York was all about.” He worked for a while at the MoMA, where he met Jakobson (who helped him find this place 23 years ago), and from 1976 to 2007, he was the curator for the Gilman Paper Company Collection, headed by the late Howard Gilman. He renovated the apartment in 2007 with the help of his friend architect Christian Hubert.

Living Room, Facing West: Apraxine purchased the Russian Empire settee and armchairs from a friend in Paris. Another friend, set designer Chloé Obolensky, created the new upholstery. The curvy-legged table is by Ettore Sottsass. Above it, the photograph on the wall, Star Struck #2, is by Wolfgang Tillmans, and the paintings of the bamboo leaves above the settee and visible through the door, right, are by Emmanuel Pereire. The still-life photograph on the floor is by Irving Penn: “There are skulls and masks,” Apraxine says, “and it was one of the strangest still lifes he ever did. He gave it to me. It’s called Crossing the River Styx.” The ceramic pot is from Peru. Photo: Annie Schlechter
Living Room View Toward Framed Photographs and Sculpture: The ceramic torso and pedestal on a small table is by Belgian artist Johan Creten. The framed photographs on the wall behind are from five original albums of 368 prints of Cairo life by photographer Benjamin Facchinelli. The white lamp on the floor is Gherpe (1967) from Superstudio Italy. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The Living Room, Facing South: The lettuce-green sofa by Hella Jongerius features a landscape painting that Apraxine found in an antique shop in upstate New York. He calls it “my portable garden.” The Moroccan carpet sports a camouflaged toy dachshund beneath the coffee table — a gift from a friend. Photo: Annie Schlechter

Apraxine was a self-taught connoisseur of early photography. Along with Sam Wagstaff, John Waddell, and Paul Walter, he started frequenting auction houses in London and dealers in Paris, astonished to realize he could “buy a masterpiece of a territory that is unknown, this primitive photography.” Apraxine would go on to amass more than 5,000 photos for Gilman, a selection of which appeared at the 1993 show “The Waking Dream,” which he co-curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, he curated “La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione,” an exhibition that traveled from the Musée d’Orsay to the Met, which centered on the 19th-century Italian aristocrat and onetime mistress of Napoleon III who spent ruinous amounts of money creating hundreds of lavish photographs reenacting scenes from her own life. In 2005, he was honored as Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Republic.

The Living Room: The armchair is by Joe Colombo. “A friend of mine had a white one,” Apraxine says, “and I always thought that it is very comfortable for tall people, not for small people. For me, it is perfect.” The wall hanging is an Uzbek ikat textile; Apraxine bought it, “I think, in 1972,” just as he began collecting textiles. He’d acquired the African antelope head mounted on a stand in Paris in the ’80s and given it to Howard Gilman, who had it in his office. Apraxine inherited it after Gilman died. Photo: Annie Schlechter
Detail of the Settee and Tabletop of Masks: A 1956 George Nelson table holds a collection of papiér-mâche Haitian masks found at carnival in 1972. Photo: Annie Schlechter

Apraxine reports that his life in lockdown is not so different from his days before; he spends time reading and taking care of business as a consultant curator for the photography department at the Met.

I ask him about the Russian Empire furniture; he bought the pieces years ago in Paris, and when he had them reupholstered, it turned out the springs were original. “They have had quite a journey. The sofa bears the wax stamp of the City of St. Petersburg Customs. Therefore, the suite left Russia before 1914. I have a fantasy that Pushkin could have sat in one of these chairs.” When asked what one object he would save in a fire, he answers, “It’s difficult to say. Every one of them has a meaning, but I think I would save a triptych of an enameled icon that comes from my mother’s elder sister that is typical 1900s, but somehow it managed to survive all the moves over the years from Estonia, Belgium, and New York, and somehow it is still with me.” He adds, “Some things come here and have a life of their own. They decide to spend some time at my place; it’s a good address for them and then they are on their way someplace else.”

The Bedroom: The three painted portraits were found at auction in London; the one in the gold frame is of an ancestor of Apraxine’s who was an admiral general in the Russian army, and it is a copy of a famous portrait by Vigée Le Brun. There are three original prints of the Countess of Castiglione. In the middle of the top row is an early Kara Walker. The rug at the foot of the bed is Kurdish, and the long steel table beneath the window was custom designed by the architect Christian Hubert. Photo: Annie Schlechter
Pierre Apraxine sitting on Johan Creten’s The Storm (2014) at Middelheim Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. Photo: Johan Creten

*A version of this article appears in the May 11, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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