Globally, few collections span such a diverse range of civilizations and cultures as the Al Thani collection. From November 2021, this collection will be displayed at the Hôtel de la Marine in the French capital of Paris.
Spanning 5,000 years, the 6,000 works in the collection are so diverse that it includes a carved red jasper depicting the head of an Egyptian royal figure from between 1475 to 1292 BC, a jade wine beaker of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir from between 1569 to 1627 AD, several Islamic manuscripts, Mayan and Celtic pendants.
Besides antiquities, the prince also collects natural history prints, precious stones, jewelry, fossils, books, photographs, vintage cars, cameras, and antique bicycles. Besides his personal collection, the Sheikh also collected items in his former role as President of Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Arts, and Heritage, building museum collections for the tiny emirate and its capital, Doha.
The projects of the collection are run by the Al Thani Collection Foundation, a non-profit organization based on advancing and promoting art and culture. It works primarily through public art initiatives, museum projects, staging exhibitions, sponsorships, international loans programs, and academic publications. International loans and exhibitions projects have so far been organized in the major museums of Asia, North America, and Europe.
Understanding the Collector
The Al Thani Collection is named after its collector, Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, a member of Qatar’s royal family and cousin of the Emir. One hundred and twenty pieces were selected to spend the next 20 years at the newly renovated historic Hôtel de la Marine.
Sheikh Hamad is known for his love of French Culture, especially French furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries. He started collecting from a young age, but it is just these past two decades that he started to avidly collect art objects fit for museums.
The Mughal jewels in the collection were the first to be exhibited in 2014, at the New York Museum, before moving to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2017, the jewelry collection traveled to the Doge’s Palace in Venice.
Some 300 of these jewels were auctioned off in 2016 by Christie’s New York, fetching $109 million. Currently, several pieces of the collection are in St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum until early 2022.
The agreement signed between the Qatari prince and the Centre de Monuments Nationaux was signed in 2018, guaranteeing a historic location to display this collection in the place where Marie Antoinette’s death warrant was signed in 1793. This historic structure on the Place de la Concorde is also where Napoleon I and Marie-Louise wed in 1810.
Since the end of the French Revolution, the building served as the headquarters of the French navy. Today, a wing on the first floor of this beautiful building, where the French crown’s tapestries were once displayed, houses the Al Thani collection.
For the next 20 years, the collection will have 400 square meters of exhibition space at a rental of €1m annually. The Al Thani Collection Foundation also contributed €132 million to the restoration of the monument and contributed toward the acquisition of a commode made by Marie Antoinette’s chosen cabinetmaker, Jean-Henri Riesener.
The four galleries for the Al Thani collection were purpose-built into a state-of-the-art exhibition area by ATTA, the Paris-based architecture practice led by the Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane.
A Treasure Trove of Islamic Works
One of the four galleries is currently showing pieces from the Al Thani collection titled Masterpieces of the Arts of Islam. Manuscripts, textiles, metalwork, ceramics, glass, and jewelry from the Umayyad Caliphate to the Mughal Empire show the rich diversity of the Muslim world.
Visitors can expect to see a folio from the Iraqi Blue Quran, Ottoman sabers, textiles from Bursa, and a celestial globe. Without a doubt, the Blue Quran and the jade Wine Cup of Emperor Jahangir are the highlights of the Islamic exhibit.
The Blue Quran folio is not only one of the best-known manuscripts of the Islamic medieval world but is also strikingly beautiful. Its origins have caused much debate, with scholars suggesting between the 8th and 10th centuries, coming from either Abbasid Baghdad, Fatimid North Africa, or Umayyad Cordoba.
Also on display, a stunning robe from Central Asia or Iran believed to have been created around 1020 AD. It is woven in color silk, cotton, and fur. Visitors can also admire the 17th-century painting by the famous Mughal artist Govardhan, depicting Prince Murad Baksh with holy men and attendants.
The Sheikh is a major collector of smaller objects, and in the current display, visitors can admire an Iznik dish (circa 1585-90). This was formerly part of an important Islamic collection in the hometown of collector Edouard Aynard, Lyon, where it was displayed at the Islamic Museé des Beaux-Arts.
The plan for this area is to have two exhibitions annually.
Precious Stones and Gold
In the fourth gallery, lovers of precious metals and stones can gape in awe at pieces made with impressive skills. Whether these are a combination of gold or silver with stones like agate, lapis lazuli, or turquoise, they come from around the world from various cultures and varying times in history.
Visitors get a glimpse into what wealth looked like in ancient Egyptian, Iranian, Greek, Tibetan, Celtic, and other cultures. Here the gold and turquoise table from the Yarlung Dynasty competes with a gold cup from Iran, a crouching dwarf statuette from the Olmec culture, and a gold Celtic moon-shaped necklace crafted in gold 5,000 years ago.
What does the future hold for the collection?
In Paris, the pieces on display are all selected by Sheikh Hamad who plans to steer away from the classic feel of most museums. According to the Sheikh’s Chief Curator, Amin Jaffer, the choices in the exhibit are personal and reflect the Sheikh’s taste and various areas of interest.
For the next 20 years at least, a large part of the collection has found a home in this Parisian hotel where visitors can admire them up close. Other pieces can be seen in traveling collections and Dohan museums.