Louvre Launches Million-Dollar Fundraising Effort to Purchase Ivory Statuettes

Louvre Launches Million-Dollar Fundraising Effort to Purchase Ivory Statuettes
The Louvre hopes to acquire these 13th-century ivory statuettes for $3.3 million.
(© Musée du Louvre, Martine Beck Coppola )

The Louvre has recently launched a major fundraising appeal to acquire two 13th-century ivory statuettes, which would complete a permanent part of its collection. Its “Tous Mécènes!” or “Everyone a Patron!” project invites the public to donate funds to purchase the work — a strategy that has previously been successful for the museum in acquiring Cranach’s “Three Graces” in 2010 and purchasing two treasures of Cairo for the new Islamic Art pavilion in 2011. This time, the cost of the statues is €2.6 million ($3.3 million), which the Louvre hopes to raise by early next year. ARTINFO France recently spoke to Elisabeth Antoine, head conservator of cultural heritage in the Louvre’s art objects department, about the significance of the statuettes — which had long been thought lost — and the growing shift to online fundraising at the museum.

Could you tell us about the two works?

These are two ivory statuettes, about 20 centimeters (8 inches) each, depicting Saint John and a member of the Synagogue, who is wearing a blindfold, because she was not able to “see” Christ as the messiah. They belong to the famous group “Descent from the Cross,” which is currently shown in the art objects collection, and consists otherwise of five figures: the Virgin, Christ, Joseph of Arimathea, an allegory of the Church, and Nicomedes. The collection is a masterpiece of 13th-century Gothic art, and one of a kind. We’d thought that the two missing elements were permanently lost until a private collector contacted us a few months ago. You can only imagine our surprise and joy!

How did you make the connection between these two statuettes and the ivory group at the Louvre?

We made the connection almost instantly. We knew that the ivory group was incomplete — that it was missing the apostle John, who is traditionally present at the foot of the cross, and the Synagogue, the parallel of the Church, according to iconographic tradition. But above all we saw the characteristic craftsmanship of the “Descent from the Cross” — the artist’s style, the delicacy of the technique, the expression of the faces, and the workmanship of the drapery.

What do you know about the artist?

Not very much, unfortunately. He is anonymous. He must have been based in Paris, like all the good ivory sculptors of the period. Considering the quality of his work, I think that he also sculpted in wood, and that he must have known the sculptures on the northern doors of the Reims cathedral (1260), because very similar techniques can be seen in these statuettes.

What makes these two statuettes so exceptional?

Their acquisition will let us reassemble this group, which is a first! The “Descent from the Cross” is unequalled in the world for several reasons. It’s the only ivory group of such quality for the entire 13th century. The style is truly exceptional. The treatment of the shapes, the delicacy of the hands and faces, the elegance of the contours, the movement of the drapery, the realism — for example, the way that Christ’s body rests with all its weight on the shoulder of Joseph of Arimathea. If you look carefully, you’ll see that there are still many traces of gilding and paint: gold in the hair and on the border of the clothing, sleeves, and collars. With a microscope, we can even see some spots of blue in the figures’ eyes and red on their lips. In France, unlike in Italy, ivory is used for crucifixion scenes much more often than for the descent from the cross. So this iconography is quite rare (you must imagine the group placed in an architectural setting). The two works are of major aesthetic and historical interest.

What was the function of the group?

We don’t have any documents on the person or persons who commissioned the work. This type of sculpture could have been for private worship, or could have been placed in an abbey for processions and ceremonies. For example, in Pisa, a slightly bigger group made up of a Virgin and two angels, attributed to Giovanni Pisano, is shown on the main altar of the cathedral.

When did the group enter the Louvre’s collection?

In several stages. The first part of “Descent from the Cross” — with the Virgin, Joseph of Arimathea supporting the body of Christ, and the isolated statuette of the Church — was purchased by the Louvre in 1896. In 1947, the figure of Nicomedes was added when it was donated by the children of the Baron de Rothschild. The conservator in charge of the art objects department at the time nicknamed it the “Nicomedes in Disguise,” because instead of carrying pliers to remove the nails from Christ’s feet, he held a phylactery, as if he were a prophet. He was probably the victim of a bad restoration. For ethical reasons, in order to avoid going back over the history of the work, we didn’t undo the restoration. However, this phylactery does an injustice to the reading and understanding of the group.

When you learned of the existence of the two missing statues, you had them declared a national treasure.

Yes, that allows us to have a 30-month period to raise the funds necessary for their acquisition. During these 30 months, they can’t leave France. I think it would be a shame, since the Louvre has the five other statuettes in the group, for Saint John and the Synagogue to end up alone several thousand miles away (or more!) in another museum. The status of national treasure also encourages corporations to invest in the campaign, due to a significant tax write-off (98%).

The two statuettes cost €2.6 million ($3.3 million). That’s a very high price.

It’s a fair price, in terms of the art market. The collector made us an offer, and then we negotiated based on that initial offer. Of course, prices have gone up a lot in the last ten years, but medieval art objects are still protected from the speculation that affects modern or contemporary art. Normally, we’re dealing with auction prices below one million.

Why did you decide to raise money from the public?

With the success of the fundraising appeal for Cranach’s “Three Graces” in 2010, and the two Cairo treasures in 2011, we thought it was a good idea to go in that direction. The Friends of the Louvre has already donated half the sum, that is, €1.3 million, which guarantees that the Synagogue will enter the museum’s collection. The Axa group has joined the effort with €500,000 ($636,000). All that’s left is to collect €800,000 ($1.02 million) for Saint John. We have until January 31, 2013 to do so. And it’s well underway, because donations from the public have already covered 13 percent of the remainder in only two weeks.

Are you afraid that people will get tired of being asked to help purchase artworks on a regular basis?

Yes, it’s possible. But for now, it’s the opposite — these fundraising appeals have generated great enthusiasm. Seven hundred thousand people participated in the purchase of the “Three Graces” in 2010. People were even spontaneously contacting the Louvre’s fundraising department to find out when the next campaign would take place! Times are hard, and state support has been reduced. This system is an interesting alternative to prevent major works from slipping through our fingers. Louvre director Henri Loyrette and the fundraising department would like to make these campaigns an annual occurrence. And it seemed logical that these two exceptional ivory statuettes should benefit from this in 2012.

If the acquisition takes place, will it result in an exhibition, a publication, or even museographical changes?

We’ll publish an explanation about the group and send it to donors to thank them for their generosity. The case that currently protects the “Descent from the Cross” is big enough to house the two additional statuettes. When the group is finally reassembled, I would like it to be shown in the auditorium as a “work of art on stage” [a program in which the Friends of the Louvre can view a work of art in the auditorium]. As for an exhibition, nothing has been planned yet.