Between 1861 and 1901, French industrialist and politician Louis de Clercq acquired more than 5,500 antiquities. The overwhelming majority of these were discovered as the result of unsystematic excavations at ancient sites along the Mediterranean coasts of present-day Syria and Lebanon. Following de Clercq’s death in 1901, his will was contested. As a result, de Clercq’s grand-nephew, Count Henri de Boisgelin, inherited de Clercq's collection and retained custody of it until he offered it to the French state in 1967. At this point, the Musée du Louvre acquired 653 antiquities, the Cabinet des Médailles acquired 955 antiquities, and the Archives Nationales acquired two eighteenth-century paintings. While a handful of artifacts from the former de Clercq-Boisgelin collection have since resurfaced on the art market or via museum acquisitions, the whereabouts of the other seventy-one percent of artifacts formerly in the de Clercq-Boisgelin collection remain unknown.
The de Clercq-Boisgelin collection is particularly important the study of Levantine visual culture for two main reasons. First, from 1898–1911, the entirety of the de Clercq collection was published in a massive eight-volume catalogue raisonné. For the more than 3,800 of these predominantly Levantine artifacts that the French state did not acquire, this is the only means by which we might be able to learn more about them and, by extension, that critical segment of Levantine visual culture that they represent. Secondly, the 653 artifacts that the Louvre acquired from de Clercq-Boisgelin collection now constitute fundamental aspects of how the world’s largest and most-visited art museum presents the visual culture of the ancient Levant to its global publics.
In July 2019, I traveled to Paris, France, to research this collection at the Louvre. This research consisted of three interrelated parts. First, I carried out intensive primary source research, which included in-person observation, intensive description, and high-resolution color photography, on a group of nine Roman bronze statuettes from this collection. Three of these constitute the core of one of my dissertation case studies that demonstrates the shortcomings of the nineteenth-century image typology that scholars continue to use to describe and interpret these images, and the remaining six are important comparanda. Second, I conducted secondary source research at the Louvre’s library, which houses difficult-to-access research resources regarding these nine statuettes’ acquisition, publication, interpretation, and exhibition from the 1860s to present. And third, I conducted primary source research on the archive of de Clercq’s correspondence from 1861 to 1882. Publications from the turn of the twentieth century onward frequently allude to or excerpt anecdotes from de Clercq's correspondence; however, neither academics nor curators have systematically explored this rich archive for additional details about the provenience of individual artifacts. During my time at the Louvre, I demonstrated that such an exploration would be fruitful for future studies of Levantine visual culture and its histories of acquisition, and I plan to return to Paris to conduct more archival research on this material during the upcoming academic year.
To summarize, the outcomes of my research that the Europe Center funded are twofold. First, I successfully conducted research that allowed me to complete a chapter of my dissertation. And second, I had the opportunity to further develop my network of curators, librarians, and archivists in Paris. Several research staff members at the Louvre were critical to both endeavors. As such, I would like to offer special thanks to Catherine Bastien, Sophie Descamps, Violaine Jeammet, and Giovanna Leo, whose generosity facilitated my research at the Louvre in both big and small ways. And looking forward, I am excited to build upon what I began this summer as I continue researching Levantine visual culture and the afterlives of the de Clercq-Boisgelin collection.
Dillon Gisch is a Ph.D. Candidate in Classical Archaeology at Stanford
Every Spring, The Europe Center invites applications from graduate and professional students at Stanford University whose research or work focuses on Europe.