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A love of art
Local collector donating pieces to Florence Museum
Van Dam 1
Andy Van Dam stands next to a marble statue of Roman Emperor Augustus during a tour of his downtown art and antique store in Camden. The exotic artworks he has collected are now being featured at the Florence Museum of Art. - photo by Michael Ulmer

Local antique and art dealer Andy Van Dam has traveled the world for decades looking for intriguing and exotic collectables to add to his collection.

Although Van Dam will soon be retiring from his antique business on Market Street and convert it into a museum, he still has plans to allow others to view and enjoy his assortment of artwork.

The Florence Museum of Art will soon display several pieces from Van Dam’s collection of African and Middle Eastern art as part of their ethnographic collection focusing on rare textiles.

Van Dam learned about the museum’s interest in his collection from one of his customers.

“After someone told me about it, I then had two of the curators come by from the museum and we spread it out all over the floor and they couldn’t believe it,” Van Dam said. “I told them, well, wrap it up and take it with you. I’m so happy that they wanted it all that I’m going to help them fill up the museum.”

Originally from the Netherlands, Van Dam grew slowly into the antique business by selling furniture.

“When I started my business in the Netherlands, I began to realize how much it actually took to fill up a whole store with antiques,” he said.

After his initial business in his homeland, Van Dam soon traveled to Belgium to add to his collection.

“I sold a couple of pieces there and then I took my little Renault 4 car, which is a very small car, it was just a doghouse on wheels, and I went to Belgium and bought a lot of things there.”

Van Dam noticed that many of the art stores and auctions in Belgium contained African pieces due to the country’s colonization of the Congo.

“The Belgians wanted to get rid of it because of a lot of it was tribal masks, textiles, statues and sometimes weapons, but of course as soon as they came home, the mother or the grandmother usually became livid because they were all considered to be things from the devil,” he said. “It didn’t work well with the Roman Catholic way of thinking. So I could actually pick up those things rather cheap.”

Van Dam put some of the African pieces he acquired in Belgium on display and soon had people telling him about the different African tribes and about which books to buy in order to learn more about the subject.

“Slowly, I got such an admiration for what these so-called primitive people could do that I somewhat became more of an art dealer than an antique dealer.

“I also thought that if I buy pieces from Africa since the Congo was a colony of Belgium then I could try and get items from Netherland’s colonies as well like in Indonesia,” Van Dam said.

He began looking for new art pieces in places like Java, Bali and Sumatra, all islands of Indonesia, in order to find unique artworks, particularly because of the Hindu beliefs of the region’s people.

“They had the most fantastic, spooky masks with bulging eyes and they had strange orchestras and shadow dolls and consequently I began to sell more ethno-graphic pieces, which is basically folk art from primitive people,” he said. “I refused the term ‘primitive’ because some of the pieces were so fantastic that how could people make something like that and be called primitive? But that was our way of speaking then about those people.”

Van Dam added that he has owned some of the pieces going to the Florence museum for over 35 years.

“I showed some of the pieces to people, sometimes people bought maybe one or two, but there’s not that much interest around here, but that did not bother me because sometimes I would just put them out and admire them. Then I found a museum who would love to have them,” Van Dam said.

The exhibit opened Tuesday and through Aug. 21. An opening reception for Van Dam’s collection at the Florence Museum will be held Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. and is open to the public.