Some of a Sheikh’s Treasures Find a Home in Paris

PARIS — As settings go, it could hardly be a better match.

On Nov. 18, the newly renovated Hôtel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde became the long-term home for a highly curated selection of objects from the Al Thani Collection, widely recognized as one of the most important and eclectic private art collections in the world.

The neo-Classical stone building was commissioned by King Louis XV and designed by his principal architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, to match the Hôtel de Crillon on the opposite side of the Rue Royale. During the reign of Louis XVI, the building was the royal repository for furniture, tapestries and even the crown jewels (which were stolen one September night in 1792).

It occasionally was opened to the public to show off royal splendors, making it the French capital’s first museum, predating the Louvre by more than a decade. After the French Revolution, it became the official headquarters of the French Navy for 266 years. And this past summer it emerged from extensive renovations as a monument to the French art of living. Features include a richly embellished suite of 19th-century reception rooms and a loggia overlooking the plaza’s Luxor Obelisk and, inside the main courtyard, the Café Lapérouse and Mimosa, a restaurant run by the Michelin-starred chef Jean-François Piège.

Now the Hôtel de la Marine is once again a showcase for princely treasures.

“Given my family’s affection for France and its cultural heritage, presenting the Al Thani Collection in the heart of Paris has a special meaning for me,” Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani wrote in an email. A member of Qatar’s ruling family, Sheikh Hamad, 40, is a first cousin of the emir of Qatar and a distant cousin of Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al Thani, another celebrated collector, who died in 2014.

The 120 works in the new exhibition, called “Treasures of the Al Thani Collection,” span more than 5,000 years, from the simplicity of a gold pendant — identified as one of the earliest known examples of goldsmithing, dating at least to 3,500 B.C. and possibly earlier — to a large and ornate Mughal decorative bird in gold, lacquer, rubies and emeralds.

In addition to jewelry in precious metals, gemstones and enamel work from the Mughal dynasty, rare pieces on display include the Mahin Banu “Grape” dish, a porcelain platter of royal provenance from China’s Ming era (1368 to 1644); a bear-shaped gilded bronze carpet weight dating to China’s Han dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220); ornate sabers; Byzantine coins; textiles; and illuminated manuscripts of the Quran.

The exhibition’s poster features a bust of Hadrian with a carved chalcedony head dating from the Roman emperor’s reign (117 to 138). Its beard was added during the 13th century era of Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire, and a vermeil and enamel mantle was embellished in Venice during the Renaissance.

A collector since the age of 18, Sheikh Hamad first introduced his assemblage of more than 6,000 objects with exhibitions that focused heavily on jeweled pieces. “Treasures from India,” which opened in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was followed by “Bejewelled Treasures” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the “Joyaux” exhibition, sponsored by Cartier, at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2017.

Yet in 2018, when the nonprofit Al Thani Collection Foundation signed an agreement with the Centre des Monuments Nationaux of France to occupy an upstairs gallery in the Hôtel de la Marine, its ambition was to show that the scope of the collection surpasses the jewels for which it has become famous. (Only 11 objects in the new exhibition were part of the earlier shows.)

“This exhibition reflects my interests in works of art made across civilizations, irrespective of geography or period, material or technique,” Sheikh Hamad wrote in his recent email. “Above all, I appreciate human creativity and refinement more than any other attribute.”

Tickets to visit the Hôtel de la Marine are sold in an inner courtyard with a jewel-inspired glass roof designed by the British architect Hugh Dutton. The entry price (13 or 17 euros) grants access to the Al Thani exhibition as well as the historic salons; reservations are recommended.

Philippe Belaval, the president of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, which oversees almost 100 state-owned monuments such as Notre Dame Cathedral and Mont-St.-Michel, said making the private collection accessible to the public would give the French cultural landscape an added sense of openness.

“While the Al Thani collection fits with the image of a gallery of treasures, our main preoccupation was to show its richness and diversity, with a decorative element that differs from what you see in the rest of the building,” Mr. Belaval said. “Seeing rare things you couldn’t see anywhere else in the world is something that justifies a visit all on its own.”

Paris is a prime location for the long-term exhibition. One of the most visited cities in the world, it attracted a record 38 million tourists in 2019 — and 17.5 million in 2020, despite international travel restrictions and lockdowns.

While the terms of the partnership between the foundation and the monuments administration remain confidential, an official statement mentioned an “extremely generous gift” — reported in the French newspaper Le Monde as €20 million ($23 million) — made to the state in return for a 20-year concession at the Hôtel de la Marine. The foundation also paid to renovate its exhibition space, an amount that has not been disclosed, but French media reported it as a multimillion-euro expense. (Mr. Belaval described the rooms, once used for storing tapestries, as “completely bare” before work began.)

Sheikh Hamad hired Tsuyoshi Tane of Atelier Tsuyoshi Tane Architects, based in Paris, to reconfigure the space into what the sheikh’s email described as a “21st century museum.”

Mr. Tane’s designs, he wrote, “have an avant-garde modesty and minimalism that don’t distract from the pieces exhibited, while also giving an abstract inspiration of the history of the place.”

The result is as striking as some of the objects displayed. Just inside the entrance, a selection of eight masterpieces that include depictions of deities or animals — chosen to represent the sheikh’s taste — are framed by thousands of gilded brass elements that, strung on nearly invisible wires, look like falling snowflakes. Mr. Tane said the effect was inspired by the gilded flourishes in 18th-century French décor, but abstracted to create a bridge to works in the collection.

Similarly, the flooring recreates the formal wood parquet found at Versailles, but was made of panels of dark stone.

“In a way, each element shows that we are looking at the past in an almost archaeological way, to take what was there, what is here and trying to push it into the future seamlessly,” Mr. Tane said.

“There is no one way to see the world,” he added. “I think that a 21st-century museum should let you discover your own journey, not limit how you discover things.”

In an adjacent room, heads from different civilizations and periods — a Mesopotamian king, a man from Egypt’s Ptolemaic period, an Amarna princess — are protected in capsules made by the Italian company Goppion, which in 2019 updated its display case for the Mona Lisa.

Having a home at the Hôtel de la Marine will make it possible to change displays and expand programming, said Amin Jaffer, senior curator of the Al Thani Collection.

And while parts of the collection will continue to travel the world — for example, to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in fall 2022 — Dr. Jaffer said he and his team would be exploring possibilities with other institutions, such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

“Sheikh Al Thani has said from the beginning that there’s no point in reproducing a museum experience that’s already been done,” Dr. Jaffer said. “He has a definite vision, a sure taste and a love of certain art forms, but he also has universal interests.

“I’ve never heard him say he wasn’t interested in something.”

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