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The Friends of Guimet Museum celebrate their centenary ! - Interview with Géraldine Lenain,
its President

An Art Historian, Géraldine Lenain has lived most of her life abroad, from her early childhood in Africa to her teenage years in China, in the United States, and India where she currently lives. An International Director at Christie's in Asian art for many years, she was, among other things, the first Western expert in the early 2000s to work in a Chinese auction house (China Guardian in Beijing).

Géraldine Lenain is also the author of two best-selling biographies, "Monsieur Loo. Le Roman d'un marchand d'art asiatique" published in 2013 by Philippe Piquier (Discover) and "Le Dernier Maharaja d'Indore" published in 2022 by Le Seuil (Discover).


Currently Chairwoman of the Friends of Guimet Museum, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, this interview is an opportunity to learn more about this century-old association and to look back on Géraldine Lenain's inspiring career, resolutely dedicated to the arts of Asia.

This year, the Friends of Guimet Museum celebrates its centenary. What can you tell us about the Association?

I've had the honour and pleasure of leading the Friends of the Musée Guimet for the last five years, and of being the 9th president in the 100 years of its existence! When Olivier Gérard handed over the reins to me, I realised that we had 100 years' worth of untouched archives. One of my first tasks was to prepare for this centenary.

I was very aware of the importance of archives, and I realised that these unpublished documents, which no-one had delved into, contained a number of unanswered questions: how was the SAMG formed, by whom and why? So I asked Annick Fenet (researcher, AOrOc laboratory, École normale supérieure - PSL) to tell the amazing story of the Friends of the Musée Guimet.

This tedious work took 3 years! In the course of her research, Annick Fenet realised that in fact everyone had got the date of the association's creation wrong: it wasn't 1926 but 1923.


So this year we are celebrating the centenary of the creation of this Society of Friends, which was founded at the request of the curator in charge at the time, Joseph Hackin. He wanted to create a group of friends around the museum team, to mobilise patrons and scientists capable of helping the museum with its acquisitions.

A core group was formed, including the great financier David David-Weill, the Sanskritist Emile Senart, the Tibetan explorer Jacques Bacot and the Sinologist Paul Pelliot.

What is your ambition as Chairwoman of the SAMG?

The role of this society of Friends is twofold:

The first is to raise the museum's profile internationally. We're not a Franco-French society, we're for the worldwide organisation ; in other words, we make the Musée Guimet visible and talked about all over the world. To achieve this, mini Societies of Friends have been set up in the four corners of the world.

A branch of the American Friends of Guimet has been set up in the United States in 2019 and another in Hong Kong in 2022. Local ambassadors lead a group of passionate patrons.

The second role is to support the museum in its acquisitions and restoration projects. As the budgets of French institutions are generally not very large, we get involved as soon as there is a particular need for a work or a project. For example, we have just launched a public appeal to help the museum acquire a rare 15th-century Tibetan bronze. Every contribution counts!

Last September saw the creation of the Young Friends of Guimet Museum. Could you tell us more about it ?

The SAMG now has 1,500 members. Last September saw the creation of the Young Friends of the Musée Guimet, which is going very well.

One of the ambitions of the Society of Friends is to pass on knowledge, to think about the future. It's vital that we pass on the message to this new generation today and get them to come to the museum and take part in its life. We have created this Young Friends membership card, which works a little differently from the classic membership card. This meeting of Young Friends takes the form of a community: young people talking to young people. The card for under-35s costs 20 euros a year and gives access to the same benefits as a traditional member (free admission to the Musée Guimet as many times as you like throughout the year, as well as to activities and exhibitions). In addition, they can take part in special activities. These don't necessarily take place in the museum: they meet up as a community, in very different places such as artists' studios and restaurants, to talk about Asian art. They are passionate about Asian art, and mainly students.

Could you describe your background? How did your vocation for Asia come about?

I was born in Madagascar and spent my early childhood in Africa, so I've been exposed to different cultures ever since I was born. I've come to realise that difference is an enrichment rather than a disruption.

At the age of 7, I moved with my family to Hong Kong where I spent my entire adolescence. My cultural development came from Asia. I saw a Ming painting long before a Picasso: it was France that seemed exotic to me. I'm much more at ease with Asian art than Western art.

When I arrived in France at the age of 16, it was a bit of a shock. It was a new culture, a new environment, and quite naturally the Musée Guimet became a place of refuge, a place of comfort that reminded me of my happy teenage years spent in Asia. 

My link with the Musée Guimet goes back a long way. I was 22 years old when, as an art history student at the Sorbonne, I was one of the museum's "little hands" in charge of preparing the move of collections in preparation for the museum's renovation.

I've been working in the art market for 25 years as a specialist in Asian art. I happen to be married to a diplomat, so quite soon after my studies, I followed my husband to his postings. We've been in the United States, France and Asia for 25 years. I started at the Cabinet Portier  in the mid-90s, with Thierry Portier and his father Guy Portier. In 2000, I joined Christie's in New York as a specialist in the Japanese art department until 2003. I then moved to Beijing. At the time, Western auction houses were not allowed to hold the gavel in mainland China so I was the first Western specialist to work for a Chinese auction house. Understanding the mechanisms of this Chinese world was not necessarily easy. It was certainly my most rewarding experience because of the way things worked very differently from what I knew in the West.

After Beijing, we returned to France, at a time when foreign auction houses had just obtained permission to hold the gavel in France. Sotheby's asked me to set up the Asian Art department in France and to launch its first sales in 2007.

After this experience, I once again accompanied my husband to the United States, to Washington DC, from 2007 to 2010, where I worked at the Freer and Sackler Gallery. For three years I was in charge of the largest collection of shin-hanga in the world: the Robert O. Muller collection.

From 2010 to 2015, I returned to China - to Shanghai - where I once again joined Christie's who asked me to manage Chinese art internationally. In 2013, Christie's obtained a licence to sell in mainland China. I had two roles: to develop this market in mainland China and to develop sales of Chinese art worldwide.

In 2016, we returned to Paris where I continued to work at Christie's as an international specialist in Asian art and a member of the Chairman's office.

Since 2019, I have been living in India where I devote my time to private collectors, institutions and writing.

What do you think makes the Musée Guimet so special?

In my opinion, the Musée Guimet has one of the three finest collections of Asian art in the world. If you ask me which is the finest collection of Chinese art in the world, I'd say it's the Taipei Museum but the latter only has Chinese art, nothing from Cambodia or India...

Guimet has the finest collection of Khmer art outside Cambodia. It is also the largest collection of Asian textiles in the world. There have been some very important donations from private individuals: the Grandidier collection of 18th-century imperial porcelain, the Calmann collection of Song ceramics, and the Krishna Riboud collection of Indian textiles.

What makes the Musée Guimet so special is first and foremost its long history and, above all, the vision of an extraordinary man, Emile Guimet. We are fortunate to have with us Emile Guimet's great-grandson, Hubert Guimet, who is an active and committed administrator. Our history with the Musée Guimet is a history of friendship: a formidable team, united and driven by a desire for the future.

Do you have a special connection with a artwork in the Musée Guimet?

I have a soft spot for an archaic jade - that is the origin of the Friends logo. This jade is not only very special because it is the logo of the SAMG but also because it  omes from C.T Loo, the greatest Asian art dealer of the first half of the 20th century. It once belonged to Dr Gieseler, an engineer and great collector of the early 20th century. C.T Loo was of great help to him in building up his collection of Chinese art. C.T Loo's particularity was to sell pieces that were not yet known in the West, not even in China: "true Chinese art", i.e. objects produced in China for the Chinese such as archaic bronzes, archaic jades, statuary... The Gieseler collection was one of the first major collections of this type formed by C.T. Loo.

Dragon plaque, Warring Kingdoms period (475-221 B.C.), Jade, 8.7 x 18.3 cm, Gift of Georges Gieseler, 1932, MG 18435

This 20cm-long jade, depicting a dragon from the Warring Kingdoms period, is currently on display in the Chinese rooms of the Musée Guimet. It's not only the object itself but also the symbol it represents that fascinates me. It was one of the first archaic jades to reach the West. Before the arrival of C.T. Loo, Westerners tended to collect export porcelain, which was not necessarily in keeping with 'true Chinese taste'. It therefore symbolises a turning point in Western taste for Chinese art as well as the genius of this dealer, C.T Loo, who knew how to explain these objects and make them loved.

What's your latest artistic favorite?

The exhibition that made the biggest impression on me recently: "Vagues de renouveau" at the Fondation Custodia in 2018.

It was a magnificent exhibition of shin-hanga (Japanese prints produced in the first half of the 20th century), the most important exhibition on the subject ever organised in Europe. It was a private collection from the Netherlands which was subsequently donated to the Rietberg Museum.

When we think of Japanese prints, most people think of the Edo period with Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro. Less well known is the period of revival that Japan experienced after the Meiji period in literature, music and the applied arts. This new movement was both rooted in tradition (classical subjects such as landscapes and female portraits) and incredibly modern - modernity in terms of staging, lines, colours and minimalism.

"Vagues de renouveau", Fondation Custodia (2018)

The work that marked your career?

The Stoclet dragon, now in the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It's an iconic archaic Chinese bronze from the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. I'm very happy to have succeeded in entrusting it to one of my favourite museums, the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Winged dragon, North China, bronze, 48.5 x 67 cm, Louvre Abu Dhabi

What work inspires you?

The work of Dominique Bona: I really like the author, who has a very deep artistic

artistic sensibility. For me, she's the greatest biographer of our time.

The book that brought me to her, which moved me so much, and which I reread regularly because I find it so poetic and moving is Clara Malraux.

What subject would you like to tackle in a future publication?

I'm currently fascinated by Amrita Sher-Gil, the Indian artist from the first half of the 20th century who introduced modernity to India from an artistic point of view. Everything about her fascinates me: her incredible personality, her incredible multicultural background, her rich artistic life and her incredibly powerful work. She's a very free-spirited woman. In India she is considered a national treasure whereas in the West she is not very well known. Yet she studied in France, at the Beaux-Arts, and I think she deserves to be better known in the West.


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