After decades spent amassing the world's top private collection of tribal arts, Swiss collector Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller is switching his sights -- crusading to save the heritage of little-known peoples across the globe.
"I'm shedding my identity as a collector of beautiful objects to become a gourmet of beautiful legends and beautiful souls," said the dapper Dior-clad 80-year-old in his more-than-swish Paris apartment with view over the Trocadero gardens and Eiffel tower.
Very wealthy Barbier-Mueller, who eats and sleeps amid Picassos and Cezannes as well as priceless African and Oceanic pieces, and has two museums in his name in Barcelona and Geneva, this week launches an ethnographic foundation that will chart for posterity the ways of life of endangered peoples worldwide.
"This is an anti bling-bling foundation, it's not Indiana Jones," he told AFP. "We're not out to seek emerald statuettes hidden in caves in the Andes.
"We're going to collect the memory, the myths, the ancestral stories of very tiny groups of 10, 12 villages who are being absorbed by bigger more brilliant ethnic groups, the groups who produce the masks and statues I collected for 33 years."
Born into a middle-of-the-spoon Swiss family, Barbier-Mueller was an early collector, gathering fossils as a child and later amassing old books, in particular 16th-century French and Italian poets.
Then at 22 when still simply named Barbier, he met and wooed Monique Mueller, daughter of renowned collector Josef Mueller, who along with early 19th-century Picassos, Legers and Braques also picked up antique African pieces.
"Their house was unbelievable, covered in oils from leading artists, but what really caught my eye were the African objects," said Mueller, who after successful careers in finance and real estate built up the 2,000-piece collection inherited from his father-in-law to a 7,000-piece treasure-trove encompassing Oceanic art as well as other "primitive" schools.
"I call it traditional art," he said, referring to discord over the use of terms such as "primitive" or "tribal" to refer to such works.
An extremely chatty charmer whose Andy Warhol portraits of him hang in the meticulously tidy flat -- his wife has her own because she is "too bohemian" -- Barbier-Mueller said of his collection of museum pieces: "We focused too much on objects."
"Because of my aesthetic sense I only looked at beautiful girls", he added laughingly, referring to works from well-known ancient civilisations, many of which he has donated or sold to leading museums such as Paris' Louvre and Quai Branly.
"But there are others that may be less beautiful but much more intelligent, or who are in the shadows and who must be sought out so we know what they have to tell us before they die."
According to the polyglot who speaks four languages and reads another four, including Latin and ancient Greek, there are at least 14 endangered peoples in Africa, four in India, three or four in Russia, two or three in Asia, and others in China, Central America and the Amazon.
Backed by the head of Swiss watch firm Vacheron Constantin, Juan-Carlos Torres, his new ethnology project will fund two ethnological studies a year on such communities in peril, with the studies followed up by books and conferences on each.
A first such work will look at the little-known Gan people of Burkina Faso and their funeral rites, the second to the animist Wan people of Cote d'Ivoire. The third study will touch on the Shamanic nomads of Siberia, the Nenets.
The scientific committee of the Fondation Culturelle Musee Barbier-Mueller includes Harvard's Suzanne Preston Blier, the British Museum's Jonathan King and Steven Hooper of East Anglia Univeristy, Robyn Maxwell of Australia's National Gallery and Anne-Marie Bouttiaux of Belgium's specialist African museum.
"We aim to cover the entire globe," Mueller said. "Who knows, we might discover a myth about the origin of the world as beautiful as the Iliad."
"I even hope to research a Swiss valley where they dance in masks at the New Year to chase away the devil," he added.
By: Claire Rosemberg