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If you’ve ever wondered what a 212-carat emerald looks like (whopping), or how the Ancient Egyptian queen Hatsheput played board games at court (with a piece of jasper carved in the shape of a panther), or what kind of robe you might have worn if you were very rich in 11th-century Central Asia (fur-trimmed silk, woven with words “glory, prosperity, victory”), then I have just the museum for you.
This month, the Al Thani art collection – created by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar and widely considered one of the most important in private hands – takes up long-term residence in Paris, within a grand and impeccably pedigreed 1770s palace complex on the Place de la Concorde that has recently emerged from a four-year, 132 million-euro restoration.
Built for Louis XV, the “Garde-Meuble de la Couronne” once housed the crown’s tapestries, furniture, gold and silver ornaments and jewels. Until 1792, that is, when sans-culottes broke in and pilfered the lot. The following year, they also watched Marie Antoinette’s execution from its loggia, after which the Admiralty moved in. Their 200-year occupation gave the building its current name – the Hotel de la Marine – though it also did away with much of the original decor.
The Al Thani collection holds about 6,000 objects, only a handful of which have been previously on public display (and those in temporary, thematic exhibitions that offered little clue of its dazzling breadth). For this first exhibition, 120 works of art have been installed over four rooms that add up to 5000 sq ft. Though the space is spitting distance from the palace reception rooms (I glimpsed their richly embellished, Louis Seize glory through the doorway opposite, though a ticket permits entrance to both) Sheikh Hamad plumped instead for a design that, while commensurate with the building’s history, is much sleeker and more avant garde in tone, and which I imagine might compare to Howard Carter’s torchlit experience, on entering Tutankhamun’s tomb.
It’s dark inside, for one, with deep black walls, and a grey-black stone floor whose pattern echoes the parquet of Versailles. Designed by the Paris-based Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane, the space is meant to be transportative, “an almost fairy-tale experience,” he says, and that tone is set in the first room, where thousands of acanthus-like gold ornaments are strung from the ceiling, shivering every so often in the cool air.
Beneath are seven objects selected by Sheikh Hamad along with his curator, Amin Jaffer, to show high points of creative endeavour in the collection’s 5,000 year time-span. A round-hipped marble figure from Asia Minor, for instance, known as the Stargazer and dating from c3000 BC, demonstrates wryly that abstraction is nothing new, though it is an equal pleasure to relish the intricate detail in a 4000-year-old ceremonial gold drinking cup from Anatolia that resembles a stag kneeling on its haunches.
The second display is worth the ticket price alone. It contemplates how humans on every continent and every era have been driven to record themselves. It was inspired, Jaffer tells me, by the scene in the 1967 film To Sir With Love, in which Mr Thackery takes his pupils to see heads from the renaissance and ancient worlds in the V&A, to show them they have more in common with their ancestors than they think. At the Marine, the 11, theatrically lit heads, each in its own glass cylinder, are at a height that insists we look into their eyes.
The centrepiece is a bust of Hadrian with a carved chalcedony head dating from the Roman emperor’s reign (117 to 138), though its gilt, enamel and pearl torso comes from renaissance Venice. Look out too for the Gabon reliquary head formerly owned by Joseph Brummer, whose collection of African antiquities inspired Modigliani and co in 1910s Montparnasse.
The largest room concerns the Islamic lands and their courts, their antecedents, and also the aesthetic exchange with Europe and Asia. There are Afghanistani incense burners, an Iranian astrolabe, a Turkish sabre inscribed with gold lettering and the aforementioned Mughal emerald, though even that struggles to compete with a ruby and pearl encrusted rose water sprinkler beside it.
The final, much smaller room was designed by Tane to evoke an ancient royal treasury. Beside semi-precious hardstone objects and a cup created from a single sheet of gold, is the oldest of the 120 objects in the exhibition: a pendant dating to 4000 BC that is so elegantly executed that I would have believed you if you told me it was made last week.
Almost all the objects at the Marine are of the type that entire blockbuster exhibitions might be built around in other circumstances. It doesn’t matter much which order you choose to visit the four rooms either, since each is complete and satisfying in itself: the impression much less of being taught, than that you are on your own journey, and free to find in that journey what you will. Apparently, visitors have repeatedly raved about the collection’s “soul” and “chaleur” – warmth – which feels about right. A history not of cold facts, but of emotions, thoughts and stories.
For details go to: hotel-de-la-marine.paris