If you’ve ever wondered what a 212-carat emerald looks like (whopping), or how the Ancient Egyptian queen Hatshepsut played board games at court (with a piece of jasper carved in the shape of a panther), or what kind of robe you might have worn if you were very rich in 11th-century Central Asia (fur-trimmed silk, woven with words “glory, prosperity, victory”), then I have just the museum for you.
This month, the Al Thani art collection – created by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar and widely considered one of the most important in private hands – takes up long-term residence in Paris, within a grand and impeccably pedigreed 1770s palace complex on the Place de la Concorde that has recently emerged from a four-year, 132 million-euro restoration.
Built for Louis XV, the “Garde-Meuble de la Couronne” once housed the crown’s tapestries, furniture, gold and silver ornaments and jewels. Until 1792, that is, when sans-culottes broke in and pilfered the lot. The following year, they also watched Marie Antoinette’s execution from its loggia, after which the Admiralty moved in. Their 200-year occupation gave the building its current name – the Hotel de la Marine – though it also did away with much of the original decor.
The Al Thani collection holds about 6,000 objects, only a handful of which have been previously on public display (and those in temporary, thematic exhibitions that offered little clue of its dazzling breadth). For this first exhibition, 120 works of art have been installed over four rooms that add up to 5000 sq ft. Though the space is spitting distance from the palace reception rooms (I glimpsed their richly embellished, Louis Seize glory through the doorway opposite, though a ticket permits entrance to both) Sheikh Hamad plumped instead for a design that, while commensurate with the building’s history, is much sleeker and more avant garde in tone, and which I imagine might compare to Howard Carter’s torchlit experience, on entering Tutankhamun’s tomb.
It’s dark inside, for one, with deep black walls, and a grey-black stone floor whose pattern echoes the parquet of Versailles. Designed by the Paris-based Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane, the space is meant to be transportative, “an almost fairy-tale experience,” he says, and that tone is set in the first room, where thousands of acanthus-like gold ornaments are strung from the ceiling, shivering every so often in the cool air.