The Tragi-comic Mishaps of the Louvre Abou-Dhabi

Venezia, c. 1500
Basin for a Ewer
Polychrome enamel painted on copper - Diameter : 49.5 cm
Abou Dhabi, Louvre-Abou Dhabi
Photo : Christie’s

Libération in a byline signed Vincent Noce was the first to break the news. We congratulate him for his investigation on the snags encountered in the Louvre Abou-Dhabi project and for having managed to put his hands on the letter sent by the Emirate in February 2012, the key element in this article whose contents we knew but which we had never laid eyes on.

All of the information (difficult to obtain since communication statements at the Agence France-Muséum are kept to a minimum) in this article is exact. The project has not only accumulated a four-year delay : it appears to have started out in an extraordinarily poor manner, due largely to the arrogance of the French officials in their dealings with Emirate counterparts.
From the beginning, we were adamantly opposed to turning the collections into negotiable merchandise as initially planned and we also regretted just as fiercely the fact that French curators, civil servants thus employed by the State and at its service, were to be in charge of acquiring works for a foreign museum. To our knowledge, this is a unique case because the only possible competition between international museums lies in fact in these very acquisitions. However, once the agreement was signed, all parties were bound to respect the conditions.

The letter sent by Abou Dhabi in February 2012 was addressed to Henri Loyrette, with a copy to Frédéric Mitterand, who was then French Minister of Culture. This must certainly not have been a surprise for the Ministry since each of the meetings between France-Museum and the Emirate was a source of extreme tension, about which the latter complained to all the ministers (including, already, Christine Albanel - who had preceded Frédéric Mitterand at the post).
All of the points of contention mentioned by Vincent Noce were discussed in this letter. In order to respond, Henri Loyrette went there directly without an official order and without informing anyone at the Ministry of Culture, to negotiate notably the elimination of the clause to return the Pavillon de Flore to the museum and putting the name of an eminent figure from the Emirates on one of its new rooms [1].

As concerns the acquisitions, which we will soon be able to judge in Paris, one of our fears at the outset was that they compete with French museums. On this point, except for two or three exceptions (the Visigoth fibula and Géricault’s The Dedreux Children whose acquisition by France-Museum in fact did not go through), we must admit that none of this materialized. Indeed, besides the fact that they chose to respect the museums by avoiding purchases which might interest them, the curators in charge of France-Museum - and Vincent Noce describes this perfectly - are perhaps competent in a scholarly way but most of them have no inkling of the art market. A reliable source told us (and we were able to confirm the information elsewhere) for instance that, recently, an Islamic object sold previously at auction for 17,000€ was almost purchased for one million euros ! No wonder then that the Emirates started to worry and asked someone from outside the project to perform an audit on the purchases (notably on the prices paid).

There are now a countless number of acquisition orders which have been cancelled and postponed, at times complicating matters for art dealers. One of them, who works at the Louvre des Antiquaires, had thus sold an object but had not heard back for over a year. The sale was finally cancelled. As for the Nicolas Poussin painting mentioned by Vincent Noce, which France-Museum lost out on, it was in fact acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (see news item, in French).
On the subject of the logic behind the acquisitions, contested by Vincent Noce, we might indeed wonder how objects this different (and with a very diverse order of interest) will be integrated into a coherent overall presentation. With 40 million euros a year, curators might have acted more wisely by concentrating - a bit like the Kimbell has done - on a few rare, but major works as appear at auction several times a year on the international market.

François Hollande, appears to have very little vision when making his choices : just when Henri Loyrette is getting ready to leave the Louvre, the President of France decided, a few days before Libération published the rather pathetic results of his (lack of) interest in Abou-Dhabi, that the head of the Louvre will "keep an eye on this project". We doubt that the Emirates will be too happy about this, especially given the fact that the confusion announced by Vincent Noce concerning the purchases for the Louvre and for Abou-Dhabi (Cy Twombly and Yan Pei Ming) seems to go even further : Ming has in fact presented his portrait to Henri Loyrette for his departure. A gift worth several hundred thousand euros, even more perhaps, to thank a government civil servant ? We hope that the former President of the Louvre will have the good taste to donate this work to the Musée National d’Art Moderne...

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 16 avril 2013


[1] The Louvre received a donation of 25 million euros for this.

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