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Le Toit du Monde

Le Toit du Monde gallery was founded by François Pannier in 1984 on the Butte Montmartre before moving to rue Visconti. Joined by Adrien Viel, they work together on the study of Himalayan cultures and the search for exceptional pieces representative of the richness and variety of the art of this region.

Could you tell us a little about your career? Why did you decide to specialize in Asian art?


François Pannier: My journey began seventy years ago. I was ten years old, on vacation with my grandmother in Touraine, and I kept myself busy with books from the library my uncle had built up between the wars. It contained loads of adventure novels, like the books by Arnould Galopin, an author now forgotten by everyone, and which had nothing to do with ethnography. During an exhibition on little explorers at the Musée du Quai Branly[Le Magasin des petits explorateurs, 2018], the museum's former director, Stéphane Martin, talked about this author. He wondered about the role of these adventure novels and how these "uninteresting" texts had nurtured vocations. And that's what happened to me too.

So I became interested in Asia very early on. At the same time, I met a classmate, who became a friend, whose grandfather was a diplomat in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion. His family had collections of Chinese art. So I began to take an interest in Chinese art such as kingfisher feather ornaments and Ming ceramics - works I'm no longer interested in today.

I started collecting when I was fifteen. My parents lived next to the Place du Trocadéro, between the Musée de l'Homme and the Musée Guimet, two museums I still visit.

My first trip to India in 1973 left a deep impression on me, before I discovered the Himalayas in 1976 through Ladakh and Nepal. It was love at first sight. I was chief accountant and HR manager at the time, but accounting bored me a lot... so, in 1980, I thought of changing my life. On April 1, 1984, forty years ago, I opened my gallery on the Butte Montmartre before moving to rue Visconti in January 2000.

At the beginning, it was quite marginal, nobody knew much about the art of the Himalayas, Nepal having opened up quite recently, so I took part in the job of discovering and exploring this art. Now, there are many more people present in this field: there's going to be an exhibition for the Paris Tribal event, at the Crous rue des Beaux-Arts, with Alain Bovis and Frédéric Rond who are preparing a very fine presentation on Himalayan masks. I've also done a lot of exhibitions and produced catalogs, so I can say I've left my mark on the subject.


Adrien Viel : I’ve had an unusual career. I trained as a documentary filmmaker and have made several feature-length documentaries in Nepal. Gradually, my work as a filmmaker, with an awareness of editing, dramaturgy and the stories of the characters I filmed, led me to take a greater interest in the ethnographic practices of these populations, in particular their sacred practices through annual festivals linked to agriculture, their shamanic practices and drum-making.

Alongside my doctoral research at the University of Lille, I also became involved in the Association pour le Rayonnement des Cultures Himalayennes (ARCH) founded by François, and through that with the Le Toit du Monde gallery. It made a lot of sense, since here we sell objects I'd seen in the villages, such as the drums of Chepang and Tamang shamans. I've studied a lot about the construction of these drums and all the myths behind them. So there was a link between what I saw in the villages of Nepal, my ethnographic research, and the objects that were sold here.

We started with the objects we saw here in private collections, galleries and museums, and went back to the local populations to find out how these objects were used and what their function was. These objects raised a number of questions for us: the phurbu psychopomp birds of the Gurungs, the phurbu ritual daggers, the phurbu horsemen or the archers' bracelets were all objects that had been little studied and that we tried to analyse to find out more about them.

How would you describe your gallery?

François Pannier: Initially, as little was known about tribal art, I was interested in classical art. As time went on, I discovered tribal objects, and in particular shamanic objects, in which I specialised more, like these exorcism daggers, the phurbu. In fact, I made a donation to Philippe Charlier’s foundation, the former Director of the Research and Teaching Department at the musée du Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac. As part of the Fondation de l'Institut de France, he created FAAB, the Fondation Anthropologie, Archéologie, Biologie-Institut de France.

In some ways, the gallery is a bit eclectic since I offer both classical and primitive art, but I'm now more focused on the primitive art, and that's how I met Adrien (Viel), who came to see me when he released his film on Himalayan shamans. The most sought-after objects in Himalayan art are masks. These are objects that everyone is familiar with, and we find ourselves dealing with collectors of African art who are now overwhelmed by the prices of major pieces of African art, whereas the prices of major pieces of Himalayan art remain more affordable.


A zitan figure of Lokesvara

Népal, 11th-13th century

This bust comes from

the Shigatsé monastery in Tibet,

but was carved by Newar artists.

(26 in.) high,

Former Ian Triay collection


Adrien Viel: The work of a gallery owner has changed a lot in forty years. Back then, art enthusiasts would walk into the gallery, without making an appointment, and leave with different pieces. Today, things have changed a lot: it's more complicated for people to walk into galleries, so we see fewer people and they buy less spontaneously. We have to contact institutions, museums and collectors online. So it's up to us to go and reach out to all these organisations, auction houses and collectors. It's a whole world that has transformed, and when François tells me about his work forty years ago, I realise that it's become a very different profession. We now have a lot of constraints, particularly for Nepal, where exit permits used to be very vague, but now we can no longer prove that certain documents correspond to these permits. Things are also getting more complicated with international organisations, such as the new regulations in Brussels, which are an issue at a European level.


A papier-mâché, wood and fur Nechung oracle hat 

Tibet or Mongolia

18th/19th century
(19 1/8 in.) high
Provenance : Paul Morse, Himalayan Antiques, Ipswich, USA


Can you tell us about the "Lettres du Toit du Monde" you created?

François Pannier: I produced "Les lettres du Toit du Monde" right from the outset of the gallery, when there was a certain lack of information about the objects. They are articles about objects or traditions. The first letter I wrote was about the Ghurra, a butter churn. Paul De Smedt, a Belgian collector, collected these objects, which he found beautiful and with a quality patina. He bought them on the Brussels market without knowing what they were, and the dealers didn't know much about them. He mentioned it to the director of the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, who then showed him my letter. De Smedt recounts in his book that my letter was the trigger for his knowledge of this type of object. It's interesting to see that you can produce articles that lead to something. We're now approaching forty letters from Le Toit du Monde and we're continuing to do so. We're planning to publish a book to bring them all together.


The gallery founded the Association pour le Rayonnement des Cultures Himalayennes (ARCH), could you tell us more about that?

François Pannier: In 1989, I put on the first major exhibition of Himalayan masks at the Etablissement public de l'aménagement de la Défense (EPAD). EPAD was in the process of building offices at the Grande Arche de la Défense, so a lot of people were working there, but there was nothing cultural in return. So two exhibition spaces were created, one of which I was given to hold an exhibition on Himalayan masks. The exhibition was so successful that I was asked to exhibit again in 1990. On that occasion, I wanted to borrow pieces from museums, in particular from the Musée de l'Homme, but this was impossible as a gallery owner. Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, deputy director of the Musées de France at the time, advised me to set up an association so that I could borrow objects from museums, and so I founded ARCH in 1990. Since then, we have regularly held exhibitions and conferences in the gallery. We are currently organising a series of lectures in collaboration with the Barbier-Mueller Museum Cultural Foundation.

A key artwork? 

François Pannier : I bought a mask in the 1990s from a collector in The Hague. I asked him afterwards if he knew the history of this mask. He told me that he had bought it from a Swedish pastor who had been on a mission to Central Asia with Sven Hedin. It was the latter who bought the mask in his presence in the 1910s. He explains that Sven Hedin bought it as being made of human skin; there was indeed a tradition of making masks from human skin at the Sera monastery in Tibet. I have many objects that were made from human bones, but Sven Hedin was a Nazi and supported Hitler, so in my mind I equated this mask with the human skin lampshades that the Nazis made. So I put the mask in a cupboard and neglected it a little. Around 2001, Nathalie Bazin of the Musée Guimet, who was organizing the exhibition Tibetan rituals: secret visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, was looking for tantric objects. So she came to see this mask, which corresponded to this type of very tantric object.

Sven Hedin.jpg

Mask collected by Sven Hedin


H. 25 cm

Former Ian Miog Collection - The Hague François Pannier Collection

The question remained: was it made of human skin? It took me about two years to find out what it was made of. I first contacted the forensic institute in Paris, which couldn't analyze objects for private individuals. I was then put in touch with the director of the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine in Paris, who took a sample looking for DNA, but came up with nothing. One day, while reading an article, I learned that the Gendarmerie Nationale laboratory had carried out studies on Egyptian mummies. I contacted them, but they didn't carry out analyses for private individuals either. Nevertheless, they advised me to contact a hospital department. Finally, I came across Philippe Charlier, a doctor with a passion for this kind of thing, who took a sample. It turned out that the mask was in fact in papier-mâché. It was an object that obsessed me for quite a few years, until I managed to find out what it was.

I had a client who went to the Sera monastery and photographed a human skin mask, but it didn't show up in the photo. In some cases, the shaman warns that he won't appear in the photo. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby also recounts how someone wanted to record a shaman singing event though the shaman warned him that he wouldn't hear anything, and the soundtrack didn't work. We have lots of strange situations that we can't explain.

This is also what fascinated me about researching these objects: you come across a lot of unknowns, and this opens up new horizons. For example, phurbu, the exorcism daggers used by shamans that matched to the handles of dyangro drums, are used to draw demonic forces through the tip in order to neutralize them. People who are mediums find it very difficult to pass through the axis of the dagger tip. I spoke to Philippe Charlier about this, who passed it onto the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission: they say that things do happen, but they can't explain them at the moment. What is certain is that this is not a neutral object. It's one of the things that fascinates me.


Last year, the Musée des explorations du monde in Cannes presented the exhibition Shamans, about shamanism worldwide. I was the scientific curator and Adrien the scientific advisor for the Himalayas. In December 2022, we also organized a study day at the Musée du Quai Branly, which had a major impact on the roots of shamanism, and we end up with a whole host of bizarre situations that we can't explain scientifically, but which we can actually observe.

Phurbu dagger and drum handle


c. 17th or 18th century

Height: 43 cm for the handle

and 34 cm for the dagger.

Provenance :

Ex Michel Lostalem collection, Paris.

Ex Bruno Gay collection, Paris.

Photograph: Bertrand Hugues,

© Galerie Le Toit du Monde, Paris.

What do you consider to be the best reference works on the subject? 


François Pannier: Jeremy Narby's book, Anthology of Shamanism, is a very interesting work that deals with shamanism from the very beginning of its discovery, through the texts of anthropologists and ethnologists. There is no single founding text for shamanism. In every region, Adrien and I are constantly confronted with this kind of problem: people say they've seen shamans, but who are actually medicine men for example, but not shamans. It's all very mixed up, and we give evening talks on these subjects.


Is there a work that has particularly marked you in your life?

François Pannier: There's a fresco in Florence that I love: Perugino's Crucifixion. Every time I went to Florence, I would go and see this painting in the chapter house of the Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi convent. It's light years away from the art of the Himalayas, but this painting fascinates me. As much as the Mona Lisa leaves me unmoved, I find this fresco incredible.


Do you have a favorite museum?


François Pannier : I must have been to the Louvre 500 times. Now that I have a “Amis du Louvre” card, I take the bus in the evening on rue Bonaparte and visit a couple of rooms... and that's wonderful. You don't have time to get tired, and you see a few objects that you remember well. In the same way, in Florence where there are always a lot of people, for example at the Uffizi Museum, so I tend to visit the schools, which are usually former convents and monasteries with frescoes. I love being able to visit unlikely and little-visited places, I find it absolutely magical! At the Louvre, I love 17th-century French painting, in particular the paintings by Sébastien Bourdon and other painters of his time. I also really liked Renaissance sculpture for a while, but I'm a bit over that now. There are also rooms in the Louvre that have changed a lot. Fifty years ago, you could admire Veronese's The Marriage at Cana, and the Mona Lisa was in the Grande Galerie, where it was very easy to contemplate it, which has become impossible today.

Was there a conference that stood out for you?

François Pannier : We screened a film by Véra Frossard on the healers of Nepal, which included a healer of Tibetan origin. We learn that she treated a French woman who had kidney stones. She sucked on her back at kidney level and spat out the stones and blood clots into a basin. The Frenchwoman in question, who was on the ground floor when the film was shown, was Bernadette Vasseux, the secretary at the French embassy in Kathmandu at the time, who confirmed the facts and assures us that she no longer has kidney stones. She said that she had recovered the stones that she had given to her doctor, who had mysteriously lost them. At the time, I thought that the doctor had simply preferred not to get involved in this story. One day, I spoke to Hervé Nègre, a photographer who had worked with the ethnologist Jean-Yves Loude on the Kalash of Pakistan, and he told me that he had witnessed shamanic cures among the Kalash. The shamans sucked up the tumours, spat them out with blood clots, and two days later everything had completely evaporated. We can assume that matter is transformed when it passes through the tissues of organs and skin. The scientific world remains perplexed when this situation is mentioned.

We give a lot of talks on this kind of somewhat supernatural subject, with researchers and ethnologists. At the end of the month, we'll be giving a talk at the Société de Géographie, which is run by EPAD, on the shamanic practices of the Inuit.


What are your future plans?


François Pannier : I'm 80, so I'm at the end of my career, and Adrien is taking over the gallery. I'm very happy that the gallery will continue with him. After we met, I introduced him to Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller and Adrien was awarded the Foundation's grant for his work.


Adrien Viel: As far as the gallery is concerned, we're going to continue to take part in cultural events in the area, such as Paris Tribal, Printemps Asiatique and Parcours des Mondes, in addition to our gallery exhibitions. In particular, we're planning something on the Nagas. We're also relaunching our partnership with various contemporary artists. For Paris Tribal, we have the Staëlens, contemporary artists who create beautiful sculptures in different materials and in September, we'll have the artist Mike Esson, who creates quite tortured drawings of skeletons. In this way, we hope to offer other forms of work and create a dialogue between contemporary art and the primary art objects associated with the gallery. We've also worked as auctioneers' experts. It's not really our priority, but it's an interesting way of opening up to other people.

Adrien, you've just published a thesis. Can you tell us more about it?

Adrien Viel : Indeed, thanks to the Barbier-Mueller Museum Cultural Foundation, I was able to develop my thesis research more easily and publish it. The book came out at the end of last year and is a socio-cultural study of a population in Nepal called the Chepang. Through this study, I revisit their history as hunter-gatherers of an ancient nomadic society, and their shamanic practices, whether in a nomadic or sedentary context. I'm trying to see the discrepancies between these two shamanic practices, the hunting one and the sedentary one, as well as their transformations, particularly with conversions to monotheism. It's a study that includes a lot of photographs, both silver and digital, as my thesis study was also carried out with a specific focus on visual anthropology. The appendix is particularly dear to my heart, as it's a photographic study of drum construction, which has remained very rare in ethnographic research. I was happy to have succeeded, and especially happy to see that the younger generation had been involved in this construction, even though they had never seen it. The older generation had only distant memories of it. This project brought to light these traditional practices that are evanescent in today's global and contemporary context.


Find out more:


  • François Pannier, Stéphane Mangin, Masques de l’Himalaya. Du primitif au Classique, Paris, Editions Raymond Chabaud, 1989

  • Galerie Le Toit du Monde, Art chamanique népalais, catalogue, 2007 

  • Jeremy Narby, Francis Huxley, Anthologie du chamanisme. Cinq cents ans sur la piste du savoir, Paris, Albin Michel, 2009

  • Adrien Viel, Les Chepang du Népal, Paris, In Fine Editions d’art, 2023




Contact : 

Le Toit Du Monde gallery

Arts of the Himalaya

6 rue Visconti

75006 PARIS

+33 (0)1 43 54 27 05 

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