Among the greatest art collectors in the world, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani lends extraordinary works to the Hôtel de la Marine in Paris
A slouching bear made of gilt bronze appears to eye a fish dinner at his feet. His tongue protrudes hungrily, ready to satisfy his bulging belly. To the untrained eye, it could be a sculpture from the contemporary art world, so fine are its markings, when in fact, it originates from the Western Han Dynasty, circa 2 300 years ago. Associated with military prowess, immortality, virility, and shamanism in Han China, bears were discovered in tombs of the elite, meant to accompany them to the afterlife. Today, the bear is on display, to be admired in a gallery of the Hôtel de la Marine, in Paris’s Place de la Concorde. It was resurrected in part by The Al Thani Collection, one of the world’s most exceptional private art collections of items spanning civilizations across 6 000 years.
Dynasty, circa 2 300 years ago. Associated with military prowess, immortality, virility, and shamanism in Han China, bears were discovered in tombs of the elite, meant to accompany them to the afterlife. Today, the bear is on display, to be admired in a gallery of the Hôtel de la Marine, in Paris’s Place de la Concorde. It was resurrected in part by The Al Thani Collection, one of the world’s most exceptional private art collections of items spanning civilizations across 6 000 years. An intimate dinner – with press and social media photos banned – followed The Al Thani Collection’s ribbon cutting in November of last year. It was an opening that resembled the collection’s driving force, Qatari prince HH Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, insatiable treasure hunter of world civilizations; a man who has amassed more than 5 000 pieces over the last 20 years. “An extraordinary opportunity… They will be able to discover one of the richest and most prestigious private collections in the world,” remarks Philippe Bélaval, president of the Centre des monuments nationaux, of the current lending of 120 treasures from The Al Thani Collection for 20 years to the Hôtel de la Marine. Amin Jaffer, senior curator of the collection, adds, “Until 2018, little was known about the wide range of works of art in The Al Thani Collection, which was formed for private pleasure and shared principally in academic circles.” It is not the first time the pieces are on show – a curated selection was showcased at State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Tokyo National Museum, Château de Fontainebleau in France, Palace Museum in Beijing, Doge’s Palace in Venice, and the Grand Palais in Paris, where Indian jewels from the eras of the Mughals and the Maharajas offered a majestic display.
His Highness stands in the ornate halls of his Paris home on Île Saint-Louis. The 17th century Hôtel Lambert, with its gilded ceilings and walls from which hang paintings by Le Brun, is a jewel of French architecture and, more importantly, his Parisian pied-à-terre. In London, Dudley House, which Queen Elizabeth has reportedly said “makes Buckingham Palace look dull,” is his home across the Channel. The prince recalls his earliest memories, the moments when visions of such grand abodes penetrated his very soul. “As a child, I was completely fascinated by history and architecture. When I was about six years old, I visited the Louvre for the first time and I was enchanted by its treasures. In the following years, my mother would take me to visit museums, châteaux, and great houses, and I developed a fascination for European art and culture,” he explains. “I started reading constantly. Every book inspired more questions than it answered and prompted me to explore countless other topics. It’s been a limitless learning journey that continues to this day.” Educated in Qatar and the UK, the prince’s foremost subjects were history and physics. History quickly became his passion. “From an early age, my spare time was taken up by my fascination with history, architecture, and art. Once you have set off on the journey to learn about art, it becomes an endless pursuit,” he affirms. “I read books, visited museums, and aimed to learn more about each subject I encountered; it really is a world without limitations –I’m still learning today.”
Trips to France would prove to be exceptional, leaving lasting impressions on the budding aesthete. “I am particularly drawn to the châteaux of the Loire Valley; they are incredible, inspirational monuments to the French Renaissance,” he shares. “The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is enormously impressive; both the gardens and the rooms which have been so carefully restored to their Louis XIV glory,” recounts His Highness of the 17th-century castle one hour south-east of Paris. The prince himself dedicated years to renovating his French and English homes to their former glory. His predilections extend to more contemporary times, too. “I have always been extremely impressed by IM Pei’s extension of the Louvre, and the glass pyramids,” he comments on the cutting edge structure made in 1989. “We might take it for granted now, but it was an extraordinarily ambitious proposal at the time, and it now stands as a timeless symbol of Paris.”
The prince recalls his first collector purchase of a pair of Regency silver wine coolers by the great British silversmith Paul Storr (1771-1844), which he acquired in 1999. “I was on my way back to London from Coventry University one day,” he says. “I decided to visit a local antique shop in Stratford-upon-Avon, which was full of English furniture and works of art, and I found them there. I was instantly attracted to them, and they remain a treasured possession. English silver from the Georgian era is particularly remarkable.” The acquisition would be the first of many.
From collecting his first pieces of silver as a student, His Highness would go on to develop a universal fascination for great civilizations of the past, from the classical cultures of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to those of Mesoamerica, Africa and Asia. Next came small bowls carved from semi-precious hardstones; it has been documented that Emperor Nero paid a value equivalent to 73 kilograms of gold for one such bowl, so revered they were. There is also an entire collection of multiple faces – portraits of people and depictions of gods in human form from Gabon to Mesopotamia and Egypt – so vast that an entire gallery is dedicated to featuring them at the Hôtel de la Marine. Notably, there is also a singular gallery dedicated to Masterpieces from Islamic Lands. Inside, the adornment of Islamic works highlighting the art of Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran, and Mughal India show the sophistication of painting, metal and woodwork, ceramic, and hardstone-carving from a rich and revered culture.
“I hope that the diversity of the collection ensures that it appeals to everyone in some way or another, if not as a whole,” comments His Highness. Would such an expansive collection ever find a permanent home in Qatar, offering a window to the insatiably curious minds of one of its royals, to be enjoyed for generations to come? “Perhaps one day in the future,” considers His Highness. “However, I have no plans at the moment to do so. We have spent the last few years concentrating all of our efforts on the opening of the galleries at the Hôtel de la Marine, as well as on other loan exhibitions that have taken place at various international museums.” Part of the Hôtel de la Marine agreement includes the organization of two exhibitions a year. In a few months’ time, The Al Thani Collection will, in partnership with the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, present a curation of the late British-Armenian oil tycoon’s vast art collection, from May 26 to September 4. Undeniably, the prince has found his calling. In true, noble advantage, it is one that serves the world.
Originally published in the March 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia