PARIS - Jean Paul Barbier-mueller spent over half a century assembling an exceptional collection of African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art. At an historic sale to be held in Paris this March, Sotheby’s will offer his collection of Pre-Columbian art – first begun by his father-in-law Josef Mueller nearly one hundred years ago. Barbier-Mueller discusses his passion as a collector and museum director with Stéphane Martin, President of the Musée du Quai Branly, in a conversation organised by Connaissance des Arts.

Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller. © abm –  Barbier-Mueller Archives.

Stéphane Martin: How would you define your way of collecting compared to that of your father-in-law, Josef Mueller, who greatly influenced your taste initially?


Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller: He was my mentor. He expanded my horizons and gave me an insight on the world. When I met my wife in 1952, I had been passionately collecting antiquarian books since I was fifteen or sixteen. I adored antiquities as well, as I loved history. But I don’t come from a wealthy family, and did not start buying important objects until I was well into my thirties.

Josef Mueller was an extraordinary person. He lived in the depths of rural Switzerland, and was orphaned at age six. The father of one of his friends ran a paper mill and was interested in Contemporary art. One of the works he owned really caught my father-in-law’s imagination: a Picasso from 1905 – a marvellous female profile from his Pink Period. My father-in-law was only about sixteen at the time. He went on to meet the artists Cuno Amiet and Ferdinand Hodler, and bought a Hodler when he was twenty: Die Liebe (Love), a huge painting of a nude couple embracing, which was withdrawn from an exhibition in Zürich for obscenity. Hodler insisted on meeting the young student who had just purchased his painting.


Picasso’s Portrait of Fernande Olivier introduced Josef Mueller to art.

By 1918, when he was thirty, Josef Mueller already owned four or five Picassos, and just as many Matisses. He had a vision. When he was twenty, he wrote a very moving letter explaining that he had “discovered the goal of [his] life towards which all [his] thoughts, effort and feelings will be directed. And this star shining before [his] eyes, in the night of a changing, agitated world – this lone star, peaceful and far off – is Art.”


In 1957 Josef Mueller exhibited his collection in his hometown of Solothurn, Switzerland. © abm –  Barbier-Mueller Archives.

When did you first think that your collections formed an ensemble in need of organised presentation?

I had a large house in the country with a farm, and a huge room on the first floor. I had a sort of private exhibition room there, where I could entertain friends.

So you already had a small museum in the house?

Yes. And, whenever I acquired a new object, I would put it in place of another one, so I could see it as soon as I opened the door. I liked to go and sit down and contemplate these objects. Then word got round, and people asked if they could come and have a look. In 1974 my business was doing well and I was able to buy two neighbouring buildings, one with a large space that wasn’t used for anything. It was not brilliantly situated, but I had nothing to lose. So I sorted it out and installed my first museum there. That was in 1977. The need to stage new exhibitions prompted me to acquire new works, and fill up gaps in my collection with the eyes of a museum director rather than a collector.


Josef Mueller’s prized Le Jardinier Vallier sparked a collecting tradition that has spanned generations. © abm –  Barbier-Mueller Archives.

You belong to the breed of savvy collectors.

I was captivated by the sensual pleasure we can experience just by gazing at an object, and by engaging in a dialogue with it – especially in the fields of African and Oceanic art, where I tended to buy more as a collector than as a museum director. I sometimes bought Indonesian or Pre-Columbian pieces, which perhaps had slightly less appeal, but which I thought both beautiful and indispensable for completing the collection.

You have made many donations to French museums, especially the Musée du Quai Branly and the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre. Is there any difference in how you look at things displayed in a museum, which are commercially unavailable, and objects in private hands that may be for sale?

No, not really. I admire an object wherever it is. I’m not jealous. I have so many objects at home – very fine objects. I would happily have one flat here, another one there, and be able to spread the collection out among them.

Unless I’m mistaken, this is the third time in your career as a collector and museum director that you have decided to sell a coherent part of your collection. What goes through your mind when you part with an ensemble that has been painstakingly assembled over the years?

Basically, I’ve always collected Pre-Columbian art, but as a dilettante. I was twenty-two when my father-in-law, Josef Mueller, sent me to collect an Inca mortar he had bought from Charles Ratton, who had exchanged it before the war with a museum in Berlin. It was the first time I had ever held an important Pre-Columbian object in my hands. I bought my own first Pre-Columbian pieces together with my father-in-law, from a Geneva gallery in 1955.

When we were mounting the exhibition to commemorate the Columbus quincentenary in 1992 – it travelled to the top museums in Spain and Portugal, ending at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon – we selected 200 items. I became really caught up in the project, and started visiting specialist dealers to complete the collection. Provenance was always a concern, and I was able to purchase various objects acquired back in the 1960s from the Guy Joussemet Collection – also the source of the figure that now serves as your emblem at the Musée du Quai Branly.


Collectors Monique and Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller have continued her father’s collecting tradition. © abm –  Barbier-Mueller Archives.

Are you keeping anything from this ensemble of Pre-Columbian art?


Not really, just a few presents.  

Pre-Columbian art can obviously be sub-divided into various entities. Which one do you like best?

That’s like asking me which of my three sons I prefer! They’re so different. But I really like the art of Central America – I mean ceramics from Panama, though they are not the rarest or most expensive things you can find. And I love the art of Amazonia with its broad gestures. I like objects that help us feel that man is trying to surpass himself. It’s the same with Olmec artists. There was nothing before Olmec art, and then – whoosh! Around 1200 BC there suddenly appeared these figures with their hands on their cheeks, thighs or hips... extraordinary. That’s what touches me most: the movement and freedom of Olmec art.

Stéphane Martin is President of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]

Tags:African & Oceanic Art, Collections