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Swiss dealer caught up in Chirac museum row

Geneva’s Jean-Paul Barbier, owns one of the largest collections of indigenous art Keystone

A Swiss art dealer has been dragged into the controversy surrounding a new museum in France dedicated to indigenous art.

This content was published on January 15, 2003 - 09:08

The Musée du Quai Branly - set to open in Paris in 2005 - has come under fire for purchasing works of art that were allegedly plundered by former colonialists.

The project is the brainchild of the country's president, Jacques Chirac, who wants to leave behind a legacy devoted to his long-standing passion for indigenous art and antiques from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

The museum is set to become home to many works held by the Geneva-based millionaire, Jean-Paul Barbier, owner of one of the largest private collections of indigenous art

Around half of the new museum's art procurement budget - estimated at €22.85 million (SFr33.4 million) - has been set aside to procure artworks from his collection.

Critics have openly questioned whether some of the objects destined for the new museum may once have been looted from their native country. They say these should now be returned rather than sold and sent to Paris.

Looting art

"To satisfy high demand, international art dealers have looted art from Africa. Entire archaeological sites have been plundered by robbers, who have taken everything of value," André Langaney, a University of Geneva professor, told swissinfo.

Langaney, who is also director of the ethnographic section of the Museum de l'Homme in Paris, will have to turn over 80 per cent of the museum's indigenous art collection to the Musée du Quai Branly.

Some of the sculptures procured by the new museum are on Unesco's "red list" of endangered cultural artefacts and are thought to have been taken illegally from Nigeria.

Colin Renfrew, professor of archaeology at Cambridge University, is demanding the return of all "smuggled goods, that have come onto the market through plundering".

Indigenous art

Barbier has defended his purchases, claiming that Europe's growing interest in indigenous art has helped in its preservation.

"We only purchase from those areas where people are no longer interested in their antique objects," he said.

He added that cultural items were sold to international buyers all the time.

"Someone from Japan is permitted to buy antique farm furniture from Appenzell - it's seen as a cultural exchange," he said.

Cultural heritage

However, critics maintain that collecting works of art is not the same as purchasing objects sacred to a country's native culture.

"Most of the indigenous art was used in funeral ceremonies. Can you imagine if a museum, say in Congo, exhibited old funeral crosses and tombstones plundered from Europe? We would find that tasteless," said Langaney.

"And that is exactly what the new Quai Branly museum aims to do."

The French culture minister, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, maintains that the new museum is an important project.

"There are indigenous objects that are now considered true works of art. For many years, these objects were only thought of as ethnological relics," he said.

swissinfo, Peter Balzli (translated by Karin Kamp)

In brief

The Geneva-based millionaire, Jean-Paul Barbier, owner of one of the largest private collections of indigenous art, has been dragged into a controversy surrounding a new museum in France.

The Musée du Quai Branly, set to open in 2005, has come under fire for buying objects that were allegedly plundered by former colonialists.

Critics have openly questioned the origin of some objects destined for the new museum.

The project is the brainchild of the country's president, Jacques Chirac, who wants to leave behind a legacy devoted to his long-standing passion for antiques from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

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