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It’s a masterpiece!

“Recently I was at a Parisian dealer’s and I saw a beautiful Dogon mask, crowned with a woman with arms outstretched. I passed on it… Later I went back and my heart stopped. Idiot! You didn’t see! From side on I thought: it’s a masterpiece! I bought it immediately. These days I ‘only’ possess 15 Dogon masks.” It was 2006 and the famous collector of ethnographic art, Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller, was at the head of a collection of 6,500 artworks (1).

Songyé seat

A true collector…

In a flash he decided to acquire a new one. Back then he told us about his nightly ritual before he went to sleep: he would look at his new “trophy” from his bed. “A true collector can only be defined in one way. When he has 1000 francs he buys something for 2000.”

Fang figure(detail)

Family vocation 

Jean-Paul was introduced to this passion by Joseph Mueller, father of his wife, Monique. This was how collecting became a family vocation. It was also accompanied by a desire for knowledge – he hired specialists to analyse his objects – and a desire to share. In 1977 he opened a museum in Geneva’s old town that bears the name of the two families joined together. Meanwhile he’s donated 500 pieces of Asian art to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and sold 500 Indonesian pieces to the institution.

Fang head( detail)


In 2013 he dispersed his collection of pre-Columbian art at auction. Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller died in 2016, his wife Monique in 2019. And in 2021 their heirs put up for auction another of their collections, composed of old books of French poetry (See here the report about this sale). This marks a crucial new stage in the story of the Barbier-Mueller ensemble.

Moai Miro Figure

100 works at Christie’s

On 6 March 2024 the children and grandchildren of Jean-Paul and Monique are putting up for sale at Christie’s around one hundred artworks from Africa and Oceania which belonged to the couple and, in certain cases, once belonged to Joseph Mueller. The total estimate is 20 million euros. The circle of specialists in the field is in uproar.

Double Baoulé mask

Bernard de Grunne

“Extraordinary” is the pithy comment from an auction house rival. “This kind of auction happens once every 80 years,” observes Brussels-based dealer Bernard de Grunne. “Imagine: certain exceptional pieces that belonged to Joseph Mueller, which haven’t been seen on the market since the 1930s. There are many objects we are familiar with because they have been widely showcased, displayed in exhibitions or at the Barbier-Mueller museum. But until now they have been unattainable.”

Master of the cascade coiffure (detail)

50% of the star pieces of the museum

Several lots in the sale are jewels of the collection, leading us to believe the Genevan institution could be struggling or changing direction. According to an insider who prefers to remain anonymous, over 50% of the star pieces in the museum are being put up for sale. Anne-Joelle Nardin, the director, refuses to comment, referring us back to Christie’s who state that “the museum will continue to present its permanent collection while exploring the dialogue with contemporary artists initiated in recent years.”

Alexis Maggiar

Nail Figure (detail)

The auction house expert, Alexis Maggiar (he didn’t agree to a video interview) also recalls how the collection has changed shape over the years: “In 1978 and 1979, after the death of Joseph Mueller, Jean-Paul and Monique put 2000 objects up for sale. They considered their collection to be evolving.”

Record: 9.7 million euros

The 2024 version of the Barbier-Mueller sale tells a story of Western passion for African and Oceanic art. Objects that are out of the ordinary have estimates between 1 and 3 million euros. Remember that this field, compared to modern or contemporary art for example, only has a limited number of followers. The record for a work of ethnographic art “only” goes up to 9.7 million euros (a little over 12 million dollars) obtained in 2014 for a female Senoufo statue from the Cote d’Ivoire or currently Burkina Faso. “Twenty-odd people in the world could potentially be interested in the pieces with an estimate of a million euros and more.

The label “Barbier-Mueller”

But here the label ‘Barbier-Mueller’ should come into play to attract buyers outside the usual circles,” forecasts Bernard de Grunne.


To justify his vast collections Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller once said: “I never focused my tastes on a particular field of tribal art. But I had to have coherent ensembles that showcased the variations of forms. That’s what allows us to understand the genius of an artistic movement.”

Mahongwé-Ngaré mask

Mahongwe mask

The piece with the most impressive pedigree in the catalogue is a Mahongwé-Ngaré mask originally from what is now the Republic of the Congo. (Estimate: over a million euros). It belonged to the legendary Parisian dealer Charles Ratton before being sold to Moma in New York in 1939. It was from this same institution that Barbier-Mueller acquired it in 1984. This oval, concave sculpture measuring 35.5 cm tall stands out due to its extremely pared-back forms, a triangular nose, a mouth in the shape of a tube and eyes that are slits in relief. Even though the mask arrived in France in 1930, a number of modern art critics believed to have seen it as the subject that inspired Picasso for his mythical Demoiselles d’Avignon, the canvas known to mark the birth of Cubism in 1907.

Fang figure

Fang figure

In the 1930s the Fang artworks were the ultimate aesthetic point of reference, for the sole reason that modern artists like Picasso and Derain collected them and were above all inspired by this form of sculpture.

It was in 1939 that Joseph Mueller bought a wooden Fang figure from Cameroon, 69cm tall. Formed of fine muscles and carved in wood, it is decorated with metal jewellery. It featured on the cover of one of the inaugural catalogues from the Barbier-Mueller museum (estimate: around a million euros).

Master of the Cascade Coiffure

Master of the cascade coiffure

In African ethnographic art the name of the sculptor is not always known, but research in the field is making notable progress. In what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an artist of exceptional creativity has been identified from among the Luba people, who sculpted characteristic statues. Their signature is abundant hairstyles that look like waterfalls. The catalogue contains a headrest by the “Master of the Cascade Coiffure” with an estimate of 400,000 euros. It was acquired at auction in 2014 for 660,000 euros (See here an other report speaking about the Master of the Cascade Coiffure).

Figurehead  from the Solomon Islands

Figure head of the Solomon Islands


Among the estimates at the lower end in the sale there is a figurehead for a canoe from the Solomon Islands in Oceania. It was acquired in 1939 by Joseph Mueller. Its original purpose was to dispel the “troublesome” spirits on board. It takes the form of a head resting on hands that hold another head. The face, comparable to a dog’s snout, is adorned with large earrings.

Extraordinary nail figure

Nail figure

All these objects clearly had a magical purpose that collectors could tend to overlook. The most charged among them is an extraordinary nail figure, the Nkisi N’kondi by the Kongo from the Republic of the Congo. The statue, standing with mouth open and arms raised, is 96cm tall and has a body that is covered in blades and nails. The American professor of anthropology Wyatt MacGaffey says that these statues embodied people who had died and whose power was now at the disposal of the living. Sometimes a village would even lend this magical sculpture to a neighbouring locality.

The Parisian dealer Bernard Dulon comments in the catalogue: “He bristles from the waist with hundreds of nails, evidence of his therapeutic effectiveness. His royal posture is still very visible and it imposes immediate and non-negotiable respect.”

On 29 June 2022 Christie’s attained the record price for a “little brother” of this nail figure: 1.9 million euros. It was smaller and less expressive. This one has an estimate of the same price. Caution is now called for in the art market.










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