Paris. Rue Faubourg Saint Honore. Enter Parisian auction house, Galerie Piasa. The air is dense with "seekers" and mysterious objects of decorative and cultural value that encompass two entire floors. It is a large-scale treasure box. Affluent French locals, the Chinese, and other miscellaneous foreigners frantically rummage through the goods with eagle eyes. It is at this specific moment, one grasps the big picture poignancy of what this means: one day, a slice of Chinese history, in the form of an everyday-life artifact, will be spread across various homes all over the world, stored away in a safe somewhere or mummified and encased in galleries. These rare objects tell stories of a certain time in The Middle Kingdom that we can no longer witness.

Human creations, no matter to which culture they belong, become precious relics as time passes. Therefore it is only natural to hold on to what we know we can no longer have. This may also be the reason why we feel needy to acquire and own a piece of history by buying it or immortalizing that connection through a camera lens.

Something was certainly impregnating this space with an intense sense of urgency. Yet, with a determined focus, one cuts through the heated energy of the excited mob to hear the voice of François Dautresme channeling through these extraordinary objects. This immense surface represents 35 years of one man's passion, obsession, and eye for beauty inspired from his recurrent travels to The Middle Kingdom.

Photos: François Dautresme

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Photos: François Dautresme, Mona Kim

Photo: François Dautresme
Beauty in Utility
These objects are
part of the natural process of
what a man is able to produce if he is respectful of his past,
has exceptional manual skills,
and is possessed by the rhythms of nature.

A folding portfolio made of paper and textile.
It contains 31 various-sized paper boxes which can be opened successively.

When one concentrates on seeing each object, they start to speak. They recount imaginary stories and transport us back to hidden places thousands of kilometers away and back in time: noises of markets; pungent smells; sounds of clattering bowls; tea being poured; floors being broomed; radishes being grated; herbalists concocting exotic potions from animal parts; screaming children at play with masks; neighborhood murmurs . . . In some lost place in deep China, some time ago, women and men in rural areas were making objects of remarkable beauty and art simply for the purpose of survival and function.

Photo: François Dautresme

Photos: Mona Kim

Gourd-shaped lacquer container with picnic accessories used by Buddhist monastery in Interior China. Photo: Mona Kim

Photos: Mona Kim

Photo: Mona Kim

Photo: Mona Kim

These utilitarian artifacts also speak of a culture of one man, who was touched by and had the eyes to see the grace and all that is extraordinary in the ordinary elements of daily life. Somehow, even with this posh version of trade we call "auctions", these pieces all come together to tell us a greater story that transcends the idea of ownership and privilege that is synonymous with being a "collectionneur". They are the tangible and living storytellers that provide a window into a particular tradition and lifestyle of an entire civilization. They are also the celebration of the mundane and all that might have gone unnoticed were it not for François' curious mind and talent for enchantment: "I came from afar and I was interested in the same things that only they (the rural people) were interested in: the objects of their daily life." Though François left this earthly life in 2002, these 7,500 odd pieces remain to bear witness to his love and passion for the vernacular, which he feared would disappear forever. They carry the soul of a pioneer and a traveler who explored the remote areas of China from Henan to Mongola and all the way to the edge of Takla Makan, the great desert of Central Asia, as early as the 1960s.

Lacquered leather hat box covered with indigo-dyed cotton. Photo: Mona Kim
The Ingenuity
of His 7,500 Children

François Dautresme in his atelier

Having spent half of his time in remote areas reveals something about his personal regard and his affinity for everyday objects. Art that comes from a place of necessity possesses something of rare poetry and surprising invention, and innovation comes from the clever use of what is readily available in the surroundings. Ingenuity is born from constraint—whether that be means or seasons.

In François' treasure box are tools, utensils and everyday objects made of ceramic, metal, as well as a myriad of things such as bamboo hats, birdcages, boxes and baskets. One also tastes the rich array of materials and textures: straw, red and black lacquer, ceramics, bronze, silk, colored stones, etc. It is also a cornucopia of toys, shadow puppets, jewelry, statuettes, antique books, ceramics, packaging, and undecipherable curios. A series of bowls from the Song dynasty and 18th to 19th century porcelain pieces. A bust of Mao. A stunning array of cheongsam. The painterly Ge Ba tableaux of collaged textiles made by women used as inner linings for shoes. Brushes and brushes and brushes. Tiger and dragon head caps. Amulets. A cabinet of traditional medicine full of giant centipedes, snakes, geckos, dried mushrooms, beef bile, roots, silkworm cocoons, coral roots, and unidentifiable things.

Photo: Mona Kim

Photo: Mona Kim

Photo: Mona Kim

Photo: Mona Kim

Photo: Mona Kim

Photo: Mona Kim

His interests were not bound to a specific social class. He wanted to know everything—from the life and labor of farmers and female workers to the life of mandarins, from the crafts and techniques of rural people to the traditions of the gentry. And he recognized the virtuosity of a civilization whose every mundane object embodied artistry and perfection. Growing despondent by the possibility that this splendid heritage might eventually vanish, he photodocumented and collected as many expressions of this culture with encyclopedic rigor.

The Chinese affectionately called him Lao Du, or "Mr. Du" in which "Du" was an abbreviation of "Dautresme." And they considered him one of their own despite the language barrier. Perhaps appreciation inspires appreciation. It is evident from past documents on Mr. Du that he must have been a soul who was deeply moved by the beauty of nature, who perceived poetry in minute details, and who had deep regard for the creativity and harmony of people he encountered in the rural areas. Somehow his heart must have been connected to the heart of China itself. And these objects—his "children" that he adopted over the decades—tell of the everyday creativity of the Chinese people. And through them, one is able to imagine and reconstruct the lifestyle and traditions of an entire civilization during a certain point in its history.

A special thank you to Françoise Dautresme
for her generosity to share this incredible legacy of her cousin François and the CFOC empire they had
built together, and to Nelson Sepulveda for connecting us.

François Dautresme(left) with his cousin Françoise Dautresme (right)

François Dautresme (1925-2002) was the Founder of CFOC (Compagnie Française de l'Orient et de la Chine, French Company of the Orient & China) in 1965. Seduced by tales recounted by his uncle Jacques Dautresme, a captain of overseas courier crossings, China soon became François' central passion. During his 35 years of countless travels and explorations in this land, he collected a staggering number of objects and extensively photodocumented its culture, particularly in its rural areas. The synergy between beauty and utility was at the heart of his fascination. 

Mona Kim is the Founder and Editor of Moowon, and the Creative Director of award-winning multidisciplinary design studio, Mona Kim Projects. The Moowon project is an extension of her background in co-curating and designing thematic museums and exhibitions for cultural institutions. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, WWD(Women's Wear Daily), The Creative Review, and in publications by Gestalten and The Art Institute of Chicago.