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Royal treasure house in danger: the Cabinet des Medailles, housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, has its origins in the collection of art and antiquities formed by the French monarchy. Starved of funds and space, it currently faces an uncertain future. Guy Weill Goudchaux discusses the problems facing France's oldest museum and introduces a selection of its treasures.

Not far from the Louvre, on the rue de Richelieu, is the Cabinet des Medailles, which has been housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale--formerly the Bibliotheque Royale--since 1666. It can claim, therefore, to be the oldest museum in France and ranks with the Amerbach Cabinet in Basel (opened in 1671) and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (opened in 1683) as one of the world's oldest museums: Despite its name, its collections are not limited to coins and medals, but include paintings, books, sculpture (including 8,000 bronzes and 400 marbles), some 10,000 gems, 2,000 seals, 2,000 ancient ceramics (mostly Greek) and hundreds of works in ivory, enamel and glass. In date they range from antiquity to art nouveau.

The Cabinet has its origins in the treasury of the French kings, and elements in its collections can be traced back to an inventory of Charles v drawn up in 1380. Its character as the royal cabinet of art and antiquities was formalised by Henri IV (1553-1610), who appointed the first 'garde particulier des medailles et antiques du roi'. During the Revolution, the Cabinet became the property of the nation, and in the reign of Charles x (1824-30) the collections were reorganised on historical lines. Abbot Barthelemy (1716-95) added to the Cabinet works seized from ecclesiastical treasuries during the Revolution, notably those of Saint-Denis and the Sainte-Chapelle. The Cabinet's new identity as a national collection attracted major donations, including the antiquities collected by the comte de Caylus and the Greek coins of the duc de Luynes.


Whatever the political system of government, the Bibliotheque Nationale has always been in charge of the Cabinet des Medailles, for which it is financially responsible. However, this relationship, which for centuries worked well, has been in decline for some decades, as the Bibliotheque has increasingly treated the Cabinet as a poor relation. This is especially true of the inadequate accommodation allowed to the Cabinet. Even though over 700 of its Egyptian antiquities--including the celebrated Denderah Zodiac--have been on show at the Louvre since 1907, and another 4,000 works are currently on loan to some 10 French museums, the Cabinet has never been given the space it deserves. Since 1974 French taxpayers have footed the bill for numerous large new cultural buildings, notably the Beaubourg, the Grand Louvre and its Pyramid, and the ethnographic Musee du Quai Branly and its garden. Nothing at all has been provided for the Cabinet des Medailles other than promises, despite the move in 1995 of the most of the Bibliotheque Nationale to a vast new building in the 13th arrondissement.

One possible reason for this is that the Cabinet des Medailles represents the connoisseurship and collecting of generations of monarchs and aristocrats in love with the cultural inheritance of ancient Greece and Rome, and is for that reason deeply unfashionable. In France, as elsewhere, the disappearance of the old elites, in particular capable collectors, whether rich or of modest means, has created a void that has been filled neither by the creation of a ministry of cultural affairs nor by the appearance of investors mesmerised by contemporary art.

Only a small fraction of the Cabinet's collections--some 900 works and around 1,000 coins, medals, gems and seals--is currently on show in the 540 square metres provided at the rue de Richelieu. The Delepierre collection of Greek antiquities and coins, given to the Cabinet in 1967, has never been exhibited. Funds for conservation are nonexistent. At present only one or two ceramics are conserved a year, although the collection of Greek vases is the second largest in France after that of the Louvre. Despite this, there is a plan further to restrict the exhibition space.

For these reasons, it has been decided to create a new organisation, Les Amis du Cabinet des Medailles, to lobby for adequate funding and space for the collection. If it proves impossible to secure additional space at the rue de Richelieu, serious thought should be given to transferring the collection to a new home--a move which need not necessarily sever the Cabinet's historic links with the Bibliotheque Nationale. The state owns several buildings that might be appropriate. One possibility is the former headquarters of the French navy, the 18th-century Hotel de la Marine (also known as the Hotel du Garde-Meuble) on the Place de la Concorde, the future function of which has yet to be decided. What better way could Nicolas Sarkozy find to perpetuate his name and the memory of his presidency than to come to the rescue of the Cabinet des Medailles?

Fragment of a statue of Aphrodite Anadyomene, Asia Minor or Rhodes, 2nd or 1st century BC. Marble, ht 100 cm

This movingly sensuous fragment of a larger than life-size sculpture from Rhodes or Asia Minor was acquired in Rome in 1840 by the duc de Luynes (1802-67) from the collection of the Swedish sculptor Johan Niklas Bystrom (1783-1848). The duc de Luynes removed modern additions to leave this torso. The sculpture depicts Aphrodite shortly after her birth from sea-foam ('Anadyomene' means 'rising from the sea'), wringing the water from her hair, which the sculptor shows spread out over her back. As linear as an Ingres drawing, this fragment is arguably even more impressive than the Venus de Milo. Yet, like that famous statue, would she be so admired today if she were complete?

Cup, Laconia, c. 560 BC. Terracotta, diam. 38 cm; ht with foot, 20 cm

Discovered in Vulci, Etruria, this cup was bought by the Cabinet des Medailles in 1836 at the sale of the Durand collection of art and antiquities, which contained over 2,000 lots. According to one of eight inscriptions, it depicts Arcesilaus 11 of Cyrene, who holds a sceptre in the shape of a plant. Nicknamed 'the Cruel', Arcesilaus ruled from after 570 to around 530 BC. He is depicted supervising the weighing and storing of roots of silphium, an extinct plant of the fennel family used for medical as well as culinary purposes. Of great importance to the economy of ancient Cyrene, silphium was frequently depicted on the coins of this Greek colony in what is now eastern Libya.


As well as being unusual in its subject matter, the painted decoration of this cup is also strikingly original in its animated design. Figures of people and animals spin anti-clockwise around the central axis of the weigher in front of his scales, to powerfully kinetic effect.

Young Nubian, Alexandria, 1st century BC. Bronze, ht 20 cm

Tiffs masterpiece was one of 18 bronzes of different periods contained in an oak casket that was apparently discovered by a peasant in 1763 in a vineyard at Chalons-sur-Saone. It was acquired by the comte de Caylus (1692-1765), who gave his collection to the Cabinet du Roi. The figure seems originally to have held an oar, which would explain his sinuous pose; the present author has suggested that the statuette depicts a gondolier on one of the canals of the Nile delta. The excessive thinness of the legs and arms, and the slightly bloated stomach, are signs of chronic under-nourishment. Despite its elegance, the statuette belongs to an Alexandrian caricature tradition that often represents characters that are deformed or sick. The position of the arms and hands strongly recalls an Alexandrian satyr in George Ortiz's collection, tentatively dated by him to the 2nd century BC.


Scarab ring. Carnelian engraved in Etruria in the second half of the 4th century BC in a 19th-century gold mount. Length of carnelian 1.5 cm


Leaning forward, a muscular Neptune straddles his barely visible trident. The god's Etruscan name, 'NETHUNUS', is freely incised around his legs. He is bringing to an end a drought in Argos by making water gush from a spring for a nymph, Amymone, one of the 50 Danaids, whom he had seduced. Although the engraving is of high quality, it reveals the close dependence of Etruscan art on Greek models. The gem, carved in a scarab form inspired by Egyptian examples, is in a gold mount probably commissioned by the duc de Luynes, who gave the ring to the Cabinet des Medailles in 1862.

Ring, Greece, late 6th century BC. Gold, length of bezel 1.4 cm


Given by the duc de Luynes in 1862, this ring depicts Philoctetes in a crouching posture holding Heracles's bow. The engraver's ingenious use of this very small space transforms the engraving into a master drawing: Philoctetes is face on, the right profile is turned towards the left and, on the hero's right, the bow is cleverly used to fill the space. Without Herades's bow, the Greeks could not have won the Trojan War.

Pedestal of a perfume burner, Etruscan, c. 550-520 BC. Bronze, ht 18.7 cm

A naked male dancer, graceful despite his muscular legs, balances on a tripod table. Details such as the arm tings, the points of the shoes, and the hands, which are depicted flat, like fins, emphasise the figure's silhouette, in the manner of a hieroglyph. In his left hand he holds what is probably the base of a candelabrum, to judge by a comparison with a painting in the Tomba dei Giocolleri in Tarquinia that depicts a female dancer with a chandelier resting on her head. A painting in another Etruscan tomb, the Tomba Cardarelli, depicts a clothed female dancer executing a similar dance. In republican Rome, dancers and musicians often came from Etruria. This bronze was bought at the sale of the Durand collection in 1836.

Heracles, Greek, possibly Olympia, c. 490-448 BC. Bronze, ht 3.5 cm

In Roman art Heracles is usually depicted standing at ease, leaning on his club. Here, in contrast, he is preparing to fight, firmly grasping his club in his right hand. With his left hand, he holds his bow (of which only one half remains), which, in a finely observed fencer's gesture, he uses like a sword to stave off blows. Such small statuettes of Heracles were used as votive offerings at important sacred sites, including Olympia, Delphi and Dodona, in northern Greece. Yet it need not necessarily have been made locally: the Ortiz collection has a statuette of a Heracles, who is depicted hunting in a similar pose, which is thought to have been made in Gela, in Sicily, in about 470. This bronze was part of a bequest to the Cabinet des Medailles by Commandant Oppermann (1808-78).



Fragment of a cameo vase, Alexandria or Rome, 1st century BC. Glass, 4 x 3.8 cm

Made by a Greek craftsman, this is a fragment of a glass cameo vase depicting Perseus freeing Andromeda from her rock. It was presented to Louis xv in about 1750 by the comte de Caylus, who had commissioned a drawing of it by the sculptor Edme Bouchardon, which was engraved. Caylus was one of the first collectors to advocate the precise rules of observation from which modern archaeology originated. A draughtsman and engraver, with an interest in the chemistry of glass, he published his complete collection of Egyptian, Etruscan and classical antiquities in seven volumes.


Paten and chalice, Burgundy, late 5th or early 6th century AD. Gold, garnets and turquoises; chalice, ht 7.4 cm; paten, 19.5 x 12.5 cm

Both chalice and paten are decorated with garnets and turquoises set in gold filigree. The chalice, which has handles in the form of stylised birds' heads, with eyes of garnets, is decorated with delicate applied vegetal ornament in gold spreading out around inlays of garnets and turquoises shaped as hearts and palmettes. These pieces formed part of a horde discovered by a shepherd girl near Gourdon in Burgundy in 1845, together with about 100 Byzantine gold coins, the latest of which dated from around 530. The horde was concealed beneath a Roman tile engraved with a cross.

Both pieces probably date from the reign of the Merovingian king Clovis I, who converted to Christianity in 496. In the 6th century Gourdon was the site of a monastery. The horde may have been concealed by the monks during the wars in the early 520s between Clovis's successors and the Burgundians, which culminated in the defeat of the latter at the battle of Vezeronce in 524. The chalice and paten were acquired by the Cabinet des Medailles at auction in Paris in 1846.



Chesspiece, south Italy, late 11th century. Elephant ivory, 12.7 x 12.3 cm

This is one of 16 surviving pieces from what is known as 'the chess set of Charlemagne', although the game was not introduced to the west (by the Arabs) until two centuries after the emperor's death. The set, made in Salerno in southern Italy, shows Scandinavian influence in its archaic and powerfully stylised forms, although the form of the charioteer with his quadriga evokes the races in the Hippodrome at Constantinople. This piece was probably used as a pawn. The set was in the treasury of the abbey of Saint-Denis until the French Revolution. The pieces are so large and heavy--and valuable--that they are likely always to have been intended for a royal or ecclesiastical treasury rather than for everyday play.


Self Portrait by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), c. 1435-38. Single-sided bronze plaque, 20.1 x 13.55 cm

A brilliant jack-of-all-trades, the great Tuscan architect, artist and writer Alberti is known to have produced both paintings and sculptures, but no paintings by him survive and his only known work in sculpture is this self-portrait plaque. It survives in two copies; the other is in the Kress Collection in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Alberti shows himself in profile, crowned with a laurel wreath, in the manner of a Roman emperor--an imperious attitude for a man who was the illegitimate son of an exiled Florentine banker. Beside him is his device, the winged eye, representing all-seeing divinity. Alberti spent most of his career in Rome, but John Pope-Hennessy suggested that this plaque could have been executed during the Council of Ferrara in 1438, which Alberti attended as part of the entourage of Pope Eugene IV. Formerly in the Armand-Valton collection, the plaque was given to the Cabinet des Medailles in 1907.


Christ, bloodstone cameo, probably Florence, c. 1560, in an enamelled gold setting, Paris, late 17th century. Overall dimensions, 8.5 cm x 6.5 cm; cameo, 5.8 x 4.2 cm

Bought by order of Louis XIV in 1690 with its pendant, a bust of the Virgin in the same material, this cameo is finely cut in bloodstone, a vein of which has been skilfully exploited so that the blood and tears of Christ appear red. This is a refined example of a type of fashionable cameo typical of late-16th-century Florentine workshops. The enamelled gold setting, with cherub heads, added after the cameo had been acquired by the king, was made by one of the royal jewellers. Its purchase suggests the influence of the pious Madame de Maintenon, who was instrumental in the movement of Louis XIV's taste from mythological to religious works.

Guy Weill Goudchaux is a historian of antiquity who trained at the Louvre and the Sorbonne. For more details of Les Antis du Cabinet des Medailles, please contact the author at
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Author:Goudchaux, Guy Weill
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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