The age of rediscovery

Aztec stone goddess of water (1300-1521), Mexico

On March 22 and 23, Sotheby’s Paris will present the most important collection of pre-Columbian art ever offered at auction. Its 313 lots, expected to realise about €20m, constitute one part of the Geneva-based Barbier-Mueller Collection, an extraordinary collection of collections begun by Josef Mueller (1887-1977) and then honed and expanded by his daughter Monique and her husband Jean Paul Barbier. It is a rare opportunity to acquire works of art that, in some cases, are the finest known – or only – examples of their type.

It is also testament to the sureness of eye of two generations of collectors who, initially at least, had little but their eyes to work with. When Josef Mueller began buying tribal art in Paris in the 1920s, no distinctions were made between any of the “primitive” sculptures – African, Oceanic or pre-Columbian – that were then enthralling the city’s avant-garde artists and Surrealist poets. It is only relatively recently that archaeologists, ethnographers and historians have begun to look closely at the disparate and still shadowy civilisations of Central and South America designated “pre-Columbian”.

“Josef Mueller did not buy many pre-Columbian pieces, but he did not make a single mistake,” declares an admiring Jacques Blazy, the Paris-based specialist who has worked with the collection for more than 30 years and is consultant to the sale. He gestures to the two pieces in front of us to illustrate his point, both acquired from the dealer Joseph Brummer (also the patron of Le Douanier Rousseau) in Paris in the early 1920s.

The first, a great pierced slab of an anthropomorphic figure with a terrifying wide mouth and fangs from which emerge two snakes, perhaps represents a shaman transforming into a jaguar. Carved with basic tools from volcanic andesite in the Diquis Delta of Costa Rica around 1000-1500, this monumental figure has a power and presence that belies its 49cm (estimate €150,000-€200,000). The second represents the Aztec water goddess Chalchihuitlicue, seated in the traditional pose of Indian women, kneeling with her hands on her knees and the soles of her feet facing out. It is a carving of impressive assurance, rhythm and detail, dating from 1300-1521 (expected to fetch about €500,000). Josef Mueller chose only intact pieces; otherwise, his selections were made purely on aesthetic grounds.

He turned increasingly to inexpensive tribal art during the Great Depression. (As a young man he had spent a year’s income on Ferdinand Hodler’s monumental frieze “Die Liebe”, and had lived frugally in order to gather numerous works by Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky and Miró between 1907 and 1927.) He bought tribal art in huge quantity. Even after 1,500 minor pieces were consigned to Christie’s in 1978-79, and various constituent parts subsequently sold or donated to museums, there remain more than 7,000 pieces in the inventory.

It was Jean Paul Barbier, however, who amassed the lion’s share of this holding, again buying against fashion and relying on his own eye and growing knowledge. As this cultivated collector of the old school explained to me: “Out of 100 craftsmen, one was an artist. I have tried to find the one who was the artist.”

His first big purchase was a green serpentine Olmec crouching figure, nearly 2,500 years old. Just 10cm high, it rests one hand on the bicep of the other arm, a gesture, it is thought, of submission and surrender. It was bought in instalments in 1976 for $9,000; today its estimate is €300,000-€400,000.

As notable collections were dispersed, Barber made further outstanding acquisitions. From the collection of Guy Joussemet in Montreal, for instance, came the top lot of the sale, the largest of all known Chupicuaro ceramics from Mexico, a remarkable 71cm hollow Venus dating to the late Pre-Classic Period, 400-150BC. The Chupicuaro probably wore no clothes but painted their bodies in bold geometric patterns as they decorated these anthropomorphic figures made as offerings to the dead. He chose this tour de force of a Venus (estimate about €2m) rather than her smaller sister who is used as the emblem of the Musée Quai Branly in Paris.

Another outstanding example of “negative” patterning is a ceramic duck taking flight dating from the Tarascan culture, Mexico in about 1200-1500, which also belonged to Joussemet (€1.5m-€2m). He also made astute purchases of Olmec and Chavin pieces from the estate of Gérard Geiger in Lausanne, and from the US film director John Huston (the striking Mayan effigy head here is expected to fetch €200,000-€250,000).

Stone deity with a feline head (1000-1500), Costa Rica

While many of the family collections have remained private, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller has always been committed to exhibiting and publishing the tribal art holdings, organising loan exhibitions from the cultural foundation based at the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva, which opened in 1977. After a Spanish tour of pre-Columbian treasures marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, the city of Barcelona requested that the collection stay on long-term loan. A “jewel of a palace” opposite the Picasso Museum was selected, and the Museo Barbier-Mueller de Arte Precolombino opened in 1997. Sadly, it has now closed: the city was unable to raise the funds to purchase the collection and, given that none of their children is particularly interested in this material, the Barbier-Muellers, both now aged 82, decided to offer it on the open market.

While African and Oceanic art has seen a sharp, albeit erratic rise in auction prices in recent years, the pre-Columbian market has seen only a gentle gain – reflecting the fact, perhaps, that of the big international auction houses, only Sotheby’s continues to stage an annual auction, and then only in New York. This is one market where the private dealer still dominates. While the auction record is €2.9m for a Mayan figure at Binoche et Guiquello in Paris in 2011, pieces have been sold privately for more than $10m.

Leading New York dealer Samuel Merrin says: “There has been a lot of crossover buying from African, and from Oceanic, to pre-Columbian art in the last 10 years but only recently have contemporary art and antiquities collectors come in. Something like the Tarascan duck will really appeal to those who like Cycladic art. These pieces are really inexpensive for one of the great arts of the world.” There are little Mezcala stone anthropomorphic figures from 300BC-100BC offered here with estimates from €8,000.

There may be little fresh material coming up for sale legally but this market seems to be sustained by sales of big collections. And while there are some new collectors in both Europe and the US, according to Jacques Blazy, few are interested in echoing the historic sweep or geographic range of the Barbier-Mueller – or its mission “to bear witness to forgotten peoples”.

Collection Barbier-Mueller Art Précolombien, on view at Sotheby’s Paris until March 21

Arms and the collector

When John Woodman Higgins (1874-1961) founded his steel company in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905, it was telling that he should choose as a company logo a knight in armour. Like William Morris, Higgins believed that modern manufacture should be informed by the greatest art and craftsmanship of the past; like Morris, too, he was beguiled by tales of knights and chivalry.

Higgins bought his first suit of armour when visiting London as a boy but his first serious purchases came in the 1920s. When in 1928 he decided to open his own museum, he commissioned one of the earliest glass-and-steel Art Deco structures in the country. Inside it was a vaulted Gothic great hall, one side housing an armoury with “100 Steel Knights”, the other a display of metalwork which included everything from Etruscan jewellery to a Piper Cub aeroplane.

A slow process of de-accessioning and redisplay began in the 1970s. This month sees the largest dispersal to date, when some 484 lots are offered by specialist auctioneer Thomas Del Mar in association with Sotheby’s on March 20. There have not been so many full armours – 12 European, eight Japanese Samurai – at auction in London for a century. Among the highlights are two composite etched north Italian cap-a-pie field armours, one – which previously belonged to William Randolph Hearst – of around 1540, the other slightly later (estimates £20,000-£30,000). For tighter budgets, plain 16th- or 17th-century south German or Italian morions (helmets) come with estimates starting at £400.

As for the rest, they promise the most idiosyncratic sale of the season: articulated iron insects from Japan, clubs from the Solomon Islands, 17th-century fuse rope, even a lance from the lavish, mock-medieval Eglinton Tournament of 1839. This sale provides a flavour of an age of collecting almost as remote as Arthurian Camelot.

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