Some of a sheikh's treasures find a home in Paris

PARIS – Considering the settings, this could hardly be a better game. On November 18, the recently renovated Hôtel de la Marine on Plac...


PARIS – Considering the settings, this could hardly be a better game.

On November 18, the recently renovated Hôtel de la Marine on Place de la Concorde became home for a long time to a very careful selection of objects from the Al Thani Collection, widely recognized as one of the most important and eclectic private art collections in the world.

The neoclassical stone building was commissioned by King Louis XV and designed by its main architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, to match the Hôtel de Crillon across the Rue Royale. During the reign of Louis XVI, the building was the royal repository for furniture, tapestries and even crown jewels (which were stolen one night in September 1792).

It has occasionally been opened to the public to show royal splendors, making it the first museum in the French capital, before the Louvre in more than a decade. After the French Revolution, it became the official headquarters of the Navy for 266 years. And last summer he major renovations emerged like a monument to the French art of living. Features include a richly decorated 19th century reception halls suite and loggia overlooking the Luxor Obelisk in the square and, inside the main courtyard, Café Lapérouse et Mimosa, a chef-run restaurant starred Jean-François Trap.

Today, the Hôtel de la Marine is once again the setting of princely treasures.

“Given my family’s affection for France and its cultural heritage, presenting the Al Thani Collection in the heart of Paris has special meaning for me,” Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani wrote in an email. A member of the ruling family of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad, 40, is a first cousin of the Emir of Qatar and a distant cousin of Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al Thani, another famous collector, died in 2014.

The 120 works in the new exhibition, titled ‘Treasures from the Al Thani Collection’, span over 5,000 years, from the simplicity of a gold pendant – identified as one of the earliest known examples of goldsmithing. , dating to at least 3,500 BC. perhaps earlier – to a large decorative Mughal bird adorned with gold, lacquer, rubies and emeralds.

In addition to precious metal jewelry, gems and enamels from the Mughal dynasty, rare pieces on display include the Mahin Banu “grape” dish, a porcelain dish of royal provenance from the Ming era in China (1368-1644 ); a bear-shaped gilded bronze carpet weight dating from the Han dynasty in China (202 BC to 220 AD); ornate sabers; Byzantine coins; textiles; and illuminated manuscripts of the Koran.

The exhibition poster features a bust of Hadrian with a sculpted chalcedony head dating from the reign of the Roman Emperor (117 to 138). His beard was added during the 13th century during the time of Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire, and a coat of vermeil and enamel was embellished in Venice during the Renaissance.

Collector since the age of 18, Sheikh Hamad first presented his assemblage of more than 6,000 objects with exhibitions strongly focused on jewelry. “Treasures of India”, which opened in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was followed by “Treasures adorned with jewels” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and at the “Jewels exhibition, sponsored by Cartier, at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2017.

Yet in 2018, when the non-profit Al Thani Collection Foundation signed an agreement with the Center des Monuments Nationaux de France to occupy a gallery upstairs at the Hôtel de la Marine, its ambition was to show that the The scope of the collection goes beyond the jewelry for which he has become famous. (Only 11 objects from the new exhibit were part of previous exhibits.)

“This exhibition reflects my interest in works of art made across civilizations, regardless of geography or period, material or technique,” wrote Sheikh Hamad in his recent email. “Above all, I value human creativity and sophistication more than any other attribute.”

Tickets to visit the Hôtel de la Marine are sold in an interior courtyard with a jewel-inspired glass roof designed by British architect Hugh Dutton. The entrance fee (13 or 17 euros) gives access to the Al Thani exhibition as well as to the historical fairs; reservations are recommended.

Philippe Belaval, president of the Center des Monuments Nationaux, which oversees nearly 100 state-owned monuments such as Notre-Dame cathedral and Mont Saint Michel, said making the private collection accessible to the public would give the French cultural landscape an additional sense of openness.

“While the Al Thani collection corresponds to the image of a gallery of treasures, our main concern was to show its richness and diversity, with a decorative element that differs from what you see in the rest of the building”, said Mr. Belaval. “Seeing rare things that you might not see anywhere else in the world is something that warrants a visit on its own.”

Paris is a privileged place for long-term exposure. One of the most visited cities in the world, it attracted a record 38 million tourists in 2019 – and 17.5 million in 2020, despite restrictions and blockages on international travel.

While the terms of the partnership between the foundation and the administration of the monuments remain confidential, an official statement mentions an “extremely generous gift” – reported in the French newspaper Le Monde as 20 million euros (23 million dollars) – made to the State in exchange for a 20-year concession to the Hôtel de la Marine. The foundation also paid to renovate its exhibition space, an amount that was not disclosed, but French media reported it as an expense of several million euros. (Mr. Belaval described the rooms, once used to store tapestries, as “completely bare” before work began.)

Sheikh Hamad hired Tsuyoshi Tane from Paris-based Atelier Tsuyoshi Tane Architects to reconfigure the space into what the sheikh’s email described as a “museum of the 21st century.”

Mr. Tane’s designs, he writes, “have an avant-garde modesty and minimalism that does not distract from the pieces on display, while also giving abstract inspiration to the history of the place.”

The result is as striking as some of the exhibits. Just inside the entrance, a selection of eight masterpieces including depictions of deities or animals – chosen to represent the taste of the sheikh – are framed by thousands of gilded brass elements which, strung on almost invisible threads, look like falling snowflakes. Mr Tane said the effect was inspired by the golden flourishes of 18th-century French decor, but abstracted to create a bridge to the works in the collection.

Likewise, the parquet recreates the formal wooden parquet found at Versailles, but was made of dark stone panels.

“In a way, each piece shows that we are looking at the past in an almost archaeological way, to take what was there, what is here and try to push it into the future in a transparent way,” Mr. Tane.

“There is not just one way to see the world,” he added. “I think a 21st century museum should allow you to experience your own journey, not limit the way you experience things.”

In an adjacent room, heads of different civilizations and eras – a Mesopotamian king, a man from the Ptolemaic period of Egypt, an Amarna princess – are protected in capsules made by the Italian company Goppion, which in 2019 updated its showcase for the Mona Lisa.

Having a house at the Hôtel de la Marine will allow for a change of view and broaden the programming, said Amin Jaffer, senior curator of the Al Thani Collection.

And while parts of the collection will continue to tour the world – for example, at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in the fall of 2022 – Dr Jaffer has said he and his team would explore possibilities with other institutions, such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

“Sheikh Al Thani has said from the start that there is no point in reproducing a museum experience that has already been done,” said Dr Jaffer. “He has a precise vision, a sure taste and a love for certain art forms, but he also has universal interests.

“I never heard him say he wasn’t interested in something.”

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