Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller, museum founder and collector who opposed the return of artefacts to their countries of origin

When he saw an object he liked, he would never let it go. Sometimes he waited years to acquire some of them


Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller, the Swiss collector and founder of the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva, died on 22 December, aged 86. Barbier-Mueller started collecting when he was a boy. Silex and stones at first, and later Etruscan lamps, Tanagra statuettes and Cycladic heads. His insatiable curiosity about culture in all its manifestations was arguably the defining characteristic of his life. His passing signals the disappearance of one of the last representatives of the generation that included Rubinstein, Rockefeller, Janssen, Ortiz, Vérité and the like, who elevated primitive art to its highest expression, according to the Parisian expert Jacques Blazy, who considers himself a pupil of Barbier-Mueller.

Influential father-in-law Born in 1930, in Geneva, Jean-Paul Barbier was the only child of divorced parents. His mother was a pianist and his father a dentist and professor, who was also an amateur musician. Jean-Paul studied law, but turned to banking and finance before becoming a real estate developer. His path changed radically when he met his future wife, Monique Müller, the daughter of a wealthy German-speaking family. They married in 1955. Monique’s father, Josef Müller (1887-1977) was a prominent collector of works by artists such as Ferdinand Hodler, Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir, Picasso and Van Gogh. In the 1930s, he had begun to collect “Negro sculpture” and he acquired a series of small naïve sculptures in stone, praised by Dubuffet as a unique example of art brut. When he died, he left about 1,000 paintings and 2,500 artefacts. 

Barbier had very different ideas from his father-in-law. In 1977, three months after Josef Müller’s death, he and his wife opened a small museum in Geneva (Jean-Paul would later add his father-in-law’s surname, using “ue” instead of “ü”), that today holds more than 7,000 works. Together they published more than 100 catalogues and books. The day before his death, sitting on his bed, surrounded by the objects he loved, including an Ife bronze rider, Barbier-Mueller was discussing an exhibition to be held this September at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris. It is one of the several events planned to mark the 40th anniversary of the Geneva museum, along with the 110th anniversary of Josef Müller’s collection. Twenty-two museums will exhibit pieces from the collection. There are also substantial loans to the exhibition The Routes of Africa at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, which opened last month (until 12 November). The Quai Branly already holds large number of works from Barbier-Mueller’s exceptional collections from Nigeria and Indonesia.    

Barbier extended his father-in-law’s collection to include Mediterranean antiquities as well as Oceanic and American artefacts. “He praised what we call ‘difficult objects’,” the Parisian dealer Alain de Monbrison, a close friend, says. “He didn’t like pretty or decorative works at all.” Marguerite de Sabran, the head of the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby’s Paris, says “He had a unique view of beauty”. Jacques Blazy, the Pre-Colombian art expert, describes him as “a real hunter”, adding, “When he saw an object he liked, he would never let it go. He waited years to acquire some of them.” His conquests included masks that had belonged to the poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara and the co-founder of Fauvism André Derain. 

Anti-restitution man of letters Barbier-Mueller regularly sold pieces to pay for new ones. He gave his Pre-Colombian collection to Barcelona and, in 1997, a renovated Gothic palace, Casa Nadal, opened as the Barbier-Mueller Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. But there were financial and legal complications, and he withdrew his collection in 2012 to sell most of it the following year at Sotheby’s in Paris. The sale did not meet expectations, mostly because Mexico and Peru discouraged American institutions from buying. A thorough check of provenance by Sotheby’s debunked rumours of looting, but the damage had been done. Barbier-Mueller did not like to speak of this episode. He was hurt by the end of his dream in Barcelona much more than he cared about the financial loss.

He was no friend of Central American governments. He was a strong opponent of the return of cultural goods supported by Unesco or Unidroit, fearing unique artefacts may disappear in their countries of origin. He believed that they should be thankful to collectors, who saved the cultures of the world from oblivion and destruction and made them part of universal art.

On 17 May, which would have been his 87th birthday, the Barbier-Mueller Museum will open an exhibition on vessels, from Mayan bowls to Daum vases, selected by the late Michel Butor and accompanied by his poems, an indicator of another area of Barbier-Mueller’s interests: literature. He was the founder of a research centre on Italian Renaissance literature at the University of Geneva and benefactor of the city’s International Museum of the Reformation. In his last days, he was engaged in compiling a dictionary of 17th-century poets. This witty and humorous literary scholar could recite a Protestant sonnet as easily as he could talk about a Japanese armour or a Papuan war club.

• Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller, born 17 May 1930, Geneva, died 22 December 2016, Geneva