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Remarkable treasures of ancient Egypt on display at Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

The Egyptian antiquities that come to the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg for an exhibition opening Dec. 17 are considered to be part of one of the finest — if not the finest — private collections of such objects in the world.

It's owned by Jean Claude Gandur, a self-made billionaire ranked as the seventh wealthiest man in Switzerland. He is a risk-taker, having made several fortunes in the petroleum industry, in part by buying, for example, oil rights in Africa when the volatility of many of those nations made dealing with them potentially precarious.

The drive that has made the Geneva-based entrepreneur successful has translated into his talent and success as a collector.

His love of antiquities began when he was a child in a sophisticated, cultured milieu. Though born in France, he grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. His father's family emigrated there from Italy in the early 19th century and became prominent merchants, professionals and philanthropists. His mother's family were wealthy Russians who fled to the Middle East, then settled in France, during the Russian Revolution.

He was fluent in Arabic and was exposed to the history of Egypt on archeological digs arranged by his school. For his 9th birthday, his grandmother gave him a small, early-Christian oil lamp, the first of many objects he began purchasing with his allowance.

Gandur was 12 when he and his parents, as well as many relatives, left Egypt because of increasing hostilities to Westerners under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser. They moved to Switzerland, where they had often spent summers, and his father practiced medicine and his mother became a pharmacist.

He studied law and political science at the University of Lausanne, then ancient history at the Sorbonne in Paris.

When he was 27, Gandur said, he realized he had to earn a living. He joined an international trading company "that taught me how to be a professional," he said. In the late 1980s, after moving up through the ranks of other trading companies, he founded his own and began accruing the wealth that would allow him to become a world-class collector.

His antiquities now number about 800. He began with small objects that could be held in one's hand and then began adding larger, even monumental pieces. Though knowledgeable, he sought the advice of experts, including Robert Steven Bianchi, a leading Egyptologist and author who lives in the Tampa Bay area and has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum.

Gandur is famous for his antiquities but his growing collection of paintings from the Second School of Paris, dating from 1946 to 1962, is distinguished, too. Its only rival is the Pompidou Center in Paris.

In a recent telephone interview from his office in Geneva, Gandur talked about his remarkable life and success, but mostly about his real passion, collecting.

Do you still have the lamp your grandmother gave you when you were 9?

Yes, it sits next to my bed. That is what triggered my taste for art. It is my most personal object and I'll never exhibit it.

Was your family able to bring the art they had collected for several generations in Egypt with them to Switzerland?

No. We left with two suitcases each. They recovered a bit of the wealth later but not very much.

So you started from scratch.

It became a personal challenge to rebuild all my family had lost. In my mind, it was a duty. As I made more and more money, I bought nicer things.

Were your parents able to see your financial success?

Some of it, at least. They died in 2007, six months apart. They had been together for 61 years and I knew that the first would take the second. I had parents who gave me a very free education, without obligations, and let me do what I wanted.

Do you have children, grandchildren?

Yes, a son and three grandchildren, 10, 7 and 5. For my granddaughter's 10th birthday in August I gave her her first antiquity, like my grandmother did, a terra cotta object from Guatemala. I want it to be a tradition for each when they turn 10, to receive an object to see if it opens their eyes to something new.

Has it become difficult to collect antiquities?

Absolutely. Other than for a few museums, mostly in Arab countries. When a great object comes on the market now, they go to those museums because they have so much money.

Collecting Greek and Roman antiquities has become almost impossible after all the charges of looting by the Italian government that have tarnished the reputations of several major museums in the United States, especially the Getty in Los Angeles, and led to the return of some important works. Are there the same kind of issues in collecting Egyptian antiquities?

After the Getty, even the big (auction) houses have to be very careful about what is offered (in Greek and Roman antiquities). But Egyptian antiquities are different. The same object was repeated hundreds, even thousands of times because when someone was buried, everything he owned was buried with him so the next generation had to start over to create their own possessions. The museums in Cairo or Luxor or Aswan are full of things.

What about counterfeiting?

There is lots of counterfeiting. You have to be really careful. I bought a marvelous wood object some time ago and had it carbon-tested (for age) which was verified. But professor Bianchi said it was impossible that it could be from the century (it carbon-tested for). The design and age of the wood weren't similar. Now I am reluctant to rely only on physical or chemical tests (for authenticity).

Tell me about your new collecting interests, the Second School of Paris abstract expressionist paintings, for example.

The prices for antiquities are seven to 10 times more that they were 10 years ago. I like to buy what others don't want. It's a pity about these paintings. They were ignored because everything was about New York after the war (World War II). The European paintings have a different sensibility (than the New York abstract expressionists) but they're from the same tree trunk. And they are part of the history of painting. We have been looking at each other from both sides of the Atlantic, each saying "I'm better than you." I'm talking to museums, the Whitney (Museum of American Art in New York), for example, about a show with their American collection and from my collection so people can see them together. It's time to make peace.

This collection, like your antiquities, is ranked at the top level for its breadth and depth.

Fifteen years ago, I began buying them piece by piece. Nobody saw me coming. Now I can't buy it anymore because the prices have gone up so much. Now I'm buying Christian art of the 14th and 15th centuries. Nobody wants it and I can afford it. But auction houses have noticed and want to organize sales for me, so I will have to change my target.

You price yourself out of the market because others see what you buy and start buying it, too, which raises prices.

Yes.

The antiquities are such a prestigious collection that could have gone anywhere. Why did you choose St. Petersburg?

New York has the Met, Paris the Louvre, many big cities already have great collections. Why would they need mine? I thought, why don't we go to places where people don't have the chance to see this marvelous civilization? I told the Museum of Fine Arts that they could also lend it to other museums if they wanted. That is the spirit of the foundation.

It is also a recognition for professor Bianchi and all he has done: upgrading the collection, making the catalog. It was a way to send back thanks.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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Ancient Egypt Art and Magic: Treasures from the Fondation Gandur pour l'Art

The exhibition opens Dec. 17 and continues through April 29 at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE. (727) 896-2667 or fine-arts.org.

Remarkable treasures of ancient Egypt on display at Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:30am]

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