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The Lost Treasures of Henri Vever

Written by Aileen Vincent-Barwood

Paris, 1943. The Nazis have a choke hold on France. Brown-shirted Storm Troopers and the dreaded SS patrol the streets, demanding identification, questioning anyone and everyone. They commandeer homes, property, vehicles and valuables.

Seventy-six kilometers (47 miles) outside Paris, at Chateau Noyers, German officers eat, drink and make merry in the spacious rooms of the chateau they have taken over as living quarters. It is the country home of Parisian jeweler Henri Vever and his wife.

The German officers do not know that there rests in the basement - literally beneath their feet - a fortune in early Islamic art. Since 1900, art lover and connoisseur Henri Vever had been assembling this dazzling collection piece by piece from all over the world. When shown in Paris in 1911 and again in 1931, art critics called it "the most valuable existing collection of the art of the Islamic book."

Vever's trove contains a number of important Arabic works, almost all the great classical Persian texts, and hitherto unknown manuscripts and paintings from the major artistic centers of the Middle Eastern world and Moghul India. In all, there are nearly 500 items: paintings, calligraphy, decorative bookbindings, illuminated pages from ancient Qur'ans, folios and complete texts, and 15 Persian miniatures dating from the 11th to the mid-19th centuries, painted with pigments made from malachite, lapis lazuli, cinnabar, gold and silver.

From the 18th century on, many collectors and dealers who recognized the commercial value of exquisitely executed Islamic manuscripts and books had found it more profitable to disassemble them and sell each page separately than to look for a buyer for an intact work. Because of this, most of the masterpieces on the market at that time had disappeared, or had long been dispersed as individual pages. Only the most dedicated searches by Vever had brought together a collection that contained so many intact works, and so many of quality and importance.

The loss of the priceless Vever collection would be a terrible blow to the world of history, as well as to the world of art and esthetics. Yet if the Nazis discover it, already within their grasp, the collection will be seized, divided up, and shipped off to Germany in secrecy, unlikely to be shared with the world ever again.

Henri Vever himself does not survive the year 1943. He dies at the age of 81 and is buried in the Vever family plot in a Paris cemetery. The fate of his great collection: unknown.

Europe, 1950. Peace has returned to France. In a slowly recovering Europe life has resumed some normalcy, but among the war's sad ravages in the world of art is the baffling disappearance of the fabled Vever collection. Chateau Noyers still stands intact amid its Normandy fields, but the collection is no longer there. Most think it was indeed stolen by the Nazis, and now either rests in some secret underground vault in Germany or has been destroyed somewhere in transit - in a plane crash or a bombed train. Others speculate that it has long since been divided up into small lots and sold piecemeal - a lesser, but not insignificant, tragedy, since much of the collection's art-historical value lay in the relationship of its pieces to each other. Yet not one piece of the collection has surfaced anywhere, or even been rumored.

In the eyes of the far-flung, close-knit international art world, the Vever collection, impossible to duplicate at any price, has become a legendary lost treasure. Connoisseurs and scholars continue to hope and speculate.

London, 1974. At Sotheby's, a number of Japanese prints - known to have been part of the Vever collection - go up for auction. The news is sensational, for everyone thought that Vever's entire collection of Japanese art was sold in the 1920's to a wealthy Japanese businessman, and now forms the core of the Tokyo Museum of Art. Did these pieces come from the Vever collection? Does the Vever collection still exist intact? And if so, where?

Art connoisseurs, dealers, collectors, and museum curators of Middle Eastern art - including those at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. - now believe there is a possibility, almost a likelihood, that the Vever collection survived the second World War. They also know that there will be many seeking to buy it or even portions of it - if the unknown and evidently very secretive owner decides to break up the collection. What a coup to find it, buy it, and keep it intact!

The pace of the search speeds up.

London, 1976. Leading the pack is art dealer Michael Goedhuis, who this year negotiates the sale of the other great 19th century collection of Islamic art - that of Baron Edmund de Rothschild. But despite two years of detective work, it is by chance that Goedhuis discovers the owner of the Vever collection. "A mutual friend, a collector, divulged the name and address to me," Goedhuis told Aramco World. Goedhuis is able to establish that the collection still exists intact, but not its location. He offers to buy it, sight unseen.

It is not for sale.

The owner commands Goedhuis's silence; the whereabouts and the state of the Vever collection remain secret.

Washington, Summer 1984. At the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Glenn Lowry, the Smithsonian's curator of Near Eastern art, and Dr. Milo Beach, acting director of the forthcoming Arthur M. Sadder Gallery (See Aramco World, January-February 1988), wistfully, half-jokingly, put the fabulous "lost" Vever collection at the top of their wish-list of art they would like to acquire for the Sadder Gallery of Asian and Near Eastern Art, scheduled to open in September 1987.

"But of course," Lowry says to his colleague, "it probably no longer exists intact. And even if it did, we'd have no idea where to search for it." Beach, sighing, agrees, and adds that by now the Vever collection must be worth over $10 million. Even if it were found, it is unlikely that the Smithsonian could afford it.

Paris, December; 1984. At a party, Laure Lowry, Glenn Lowry's mother, mentions to a dinner companion that her son is curator of Near Eastern art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Her fellow guest replies that he owns some Islamic art that her son might find interesting; he describes it.

Recounting the episode to her son a month later at her Long Island home, Laure Lowry can remember the guest's name but not the name of his collection. "Something like Vrambere, or Vrai, or Vorer," she says. Lowry, staggered, guesses "Vever." In his own words, he "nearly went through the roof."

Lowry and Beach immediately draft a letter to the owner, recalling his comment to Lowry's mother. He is Fran?ois Mautin, Vever's grandson, now a naturalized American with a desire for privacy. Although it now seems obvious, "no one had made the connection because of the different name," says Goedhuis. When Mautin replies, Lowry and Beach learn that the collection is closer than they had thought: For the last 40 years - since 1945, when it was secretly shipped out of France - it has been stored in crates in a New York warehouse.

In early 1985 the two Smithsonian experts meet with the reclusive owner. Though he does not intend to sell, he agrees to have an inventory and appraisal done at the London Bond Street gallery of Michael Goedhuis, who - in recognition of ten years of faithful discretion - is now Mautin's sole representative. In February 1986, Lowry and Beach fly to London to view the collection - the first scholars to see it whole in more than half a century.

"I was stunned," reminisces Lowry now. "There were piles of paintings stacked around this big room, and about 400 or so other pieces, many of which scholars never even knew existed. Very few had been shown publicly. My heart started racing and I spent the first couple of hours just buzzing around the room, gazing. I had such a sense of discovery!"

But would Mautin sell?

A wealthy and retiring man in his mid-seventies, unmarried, who had emigrated to the United States before World War II and was not himself an art collector, he had no need of money and had, according to Lowry, been quietly guarding his grandfather's collection for 40 years with no particular desire to put it on the market.

A private man, he abhorred the idea of drawing attention to himself by holding a public auction, but yes, he thought he just might agree to a private sale to the Smithsonian. It seemed a natural choice since, according to Lowry, he was fond of his adopted country, liked the way the Smithsonian cared for and displayed its art works, and enjoyed the idea that his collection would help make the United States a world center for the study of Islamic art.

And, since he wanted the collection to remain intact, he agreed to lower the purchase price from $11 million to seven million dollars.

Knowing that word of their find, and of their bidding for it, would soon get out, and knowing that they would soon be in competition with other potential buyers, Smithsonian officials began secret negotiations immediately to raise the funds. But it soon became apparent that - despite the owner's generous offer to lower the price - it was going to be difficult to come up with the money.

It was here that Dr. Arthur Sadder, the New York psychiatrist and author, himself a noted collector of Asian and Near Eastern art, intervened. Recognizing the worth of the Vever collection, the donor of the Smithsonian's new Sadder Gallery of Asian and Near Eastern art also contributed toward buying the Vever collection. With that contribution, and through a combination of the Regents' Collections Acquisitions Fund, Smithsonian trust funds and other private gifts, the money was scraped together.

On January 9, 1986, some 11 months from the day Lowry and Beach first saw the collection, the contract was signed and Washington became the permanent home of the long-lost Vever collection. It made the Smithsonian, in the words of the institution's Secretary Robert McC. Adams, "an internationally important center for the study, not just the exhibition, of Near Eastern art."

Now, who was this Henri Vever, the collector of the most famous Islamic art collection in history?

Vever was raised in Paris, after his parents fled there from Metz to escape the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. As a youth he studied painting and throughout his life maintained that "all I ever wanted to do was paint." By the time he was 17, Vever had bought his first Rembrandt print, the keystone of what was to become an extensive collection of European prints and paintings, including a significant group of French impressionist works.

But though he painted throughout his life, and counted many famous painters of the day among his friends, Vever continued in the tradition of several generations of his forebears and became a jeweler and head of Maison Vever. He attained recognition as one of those artist-craftsmen in the forefront of the art nouveau movement, and, according to his detailed diaries, it was Asian arid Islamic art that inspired his jewelry designs.

It may be that Vever's interest in Islamic art was stimulated by a series of exhibitions of Persian arts of the book that took place in Paris starting around 1878. These minutely-detailed works with their jewel-like colors may well have seemed to the young Henri like a painted counterpart of the precious gems he worked with.

In any event, Vever traveled to Samarkand, Bukhara and other cities of the region in 1891 and became entranced with the brilliance and richness of Asian and Islamic art - like his friends and colleagues jewelers Louis Cartier, R?n? Lalique, and Gustave Boucheron, art dealers Joseph Duveen and Georges Demotte, and the Armenian oil merchant Calouste Gul-benkian. In 1900 Vever began selling off his important collection of European and impressionist art in order to acquire Arabic manuscripts, Persian paintings and other examples of the art of the Islamic book.

These arts are unique. Inspired by Muslim reverence for the written word and the sanctity of the Qur'an as the word of God, driven by the desire of Muslim rulers to possess - and pay for - exquisite works of art of spiritual significance, the Muslim arts of the book reached a zenith of beauty, refinement and luxury in the first half of the 17th century. Calligraphers were joined in royal workshops and studios by master painters, bookbinders, illustrators, paper-makers, leather-workers, illuminators, and artisan specialists who ground pigments from gold, silver and precious minerals. From this body of work, for 40 years, Henri Vever chose the best.

His collection, on display until April 30 at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sadder Gallery in Washington, contains 39 full volumes, 291 miniature paintings, 98 calligraphic pieces and illuminations, 29 bookbindings, and four textiles.

Outstanding among them are numerous 10th- through 14th-century Qur'anic texts; several rare Arabic texts never before exhibited; eight illustrated pages from the Shahnama, the Persian national epic; an illustration from the history of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal; pages from the Materia Medica of Dioscorides and the Automata of al-Jazari; and a double-page frontispiece from the Khamsa of Amir Abu'l Hasan Dihlawi.

"With the purchase of this collection," says Curator Glenn Lowry happily, "the Smithsonian affirms its commitment to the study, display and understanding of the Muslim world. It will attract a new generation of scholars and provide a catalyst to them to study and interpret Islamic Art. It will enhance American interest in the Middle East.

"But, perhaps most important, it will show our audience the richness of the artistic traditions of Islam, and how important they are to our own Western civilization."

Aileen Vincent-Barwood, veteran Middle East correspondent and author of North Country Editor, now freelances from upstate New York.

This article appeared on pages 12-19 of the January/February 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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