As one of the most respected collectors of ancient oriental art, Pascal Butel lives and travels between Thailand and France. I spoke to him about his collection, and his family's long-lasting relationship with Asian Art.

What is the origin of your collecting passion?

My grandparents on my mum's side knew my grandparents on my dad's side a long time before my dad would meet my mum. They were both posted in French Indochina from where they collected important items at a time during which not many people paid attention to what was considered as negligible remains.

My grandmother especially gave me her passion. I was surrounded by astonishing masters of art since my early childhood in her house on the hilltops of Nice, acquired by her father from the Aide de Camp of the Tsar of Russia when he came back from Indochina. This literally opened my eyes to ancient Asian art.

What is your acquisition strategy?

If there is beauty, emotion and sincerity, it may be for me.

Figure 2:
"A wooden mask from central Nepal — just one of the many striking artifacts to be found in Butel's residence"
Image courtesy Asian Ancient Art and Time Magazine
Image Source

Do you like objects to be aesthetically pleasing or do they have a different purpose?

Each object is supposed to represent a state of mind, an opinion, a way of thinking and especially a way of believing in something which elevates people from their current condition. A collectible artifact is not always aesthetically pleasing; its reward in terms of desirability is sometimes the most important aspect. It brings satisfaction, mind pleasure and soul elevation. A decorative item brings a vision to the eyes, that's all.

Is branding, promoting or sharing your collection important to you and why?

It has no importance as such. The artists who created the pieces in my collection were humble enough not to sign their works. They did not look for promotion. I shall respect that and keep a low profile too. A beautiful collection is beautiful by itself, it does not need to be served by marketing. Each piece can talk about itself silently by touching viewers' hearts.

Is it important to live or visit the places where the objects originate?

It brings additional information about the context, sure. It also lets collectors understand the environment from which the raw materials were taken and/or created from.

Figure 3:
The collector, surrounded by some of his favourite objects. One can note the different origins and eras of the pieces that surround him.

As a collector, are you ever faced with an ethical dilemma when you take objects out of their context?

I have taken objects out of their context many times, and would provide a replacement, so that they wouldn't be missed by the people parting with them, unless of course they wanted to get rid of them.

Concerning statues serving a cult, I have never taken a statue out of its context. My biggest pleasure would be to visit a 13th century temple still featuring all its 13th century art pieces. A dream which by today's circumstances is simply unthinkable.

I know, however, that many of these artifacts would have not survived the climate, wars, greed and other human related weaknesses if they were not taken our of their context at a time during which this was possible. Nothing is perfect, it's just a conjunction of various elements which made it possible to study these artifacts, preserve them and raise awareness up to the source from where they were taken. Look at China, now buying its heritage outside its borders.

What defines a collection of ancient oriental art and what makes your collection a collection of such?

My collection is based on ancient Asian art, including Indian, Chinese, Mongolian, Himalayan (mostly Nepal and Tibet) and South East Asian arts. Pieces from such areas can be understood as a collection as soon as they are at least 100 years old. As for my own collection, I pay mostly interest in pieces of art from the first millennium as early as 2nd century and I try to stop around the 13th century. I would however make exceptions for art pieces from the Himalayas up to the 17th and even up to the 18th century because they are still outstanding and can hold a comparison with older artifacts coming from other Asian cultures. They may even win as emotion is very often always here when seeing/inspecting an Himalayan piece of art.

So, do you consider owning the pieces as a way of preserving them from negligence or destruction? If not, why do you collect?

My first task or duty as a collector is preserving what came to me. The second responsibility if to forward it in a condition as good as what I had the privilege to receive. Then an ideal aim would be to be able to forward them to the next generation with in depth explanations even though some piece still retain stand still secrets.

Is there ever going to be a point when your collection is complete?

A collection can't be complete. You always discover a new iconography, a variation in a culture you thought you knew well, etc... You can also dream of parting with your whole collection in order to acquire only one item which is so special to you that it catapults you in a dimension you didn't even think of.

What would be one piece of advice you would give to someone who is interested in collecting ancient oriental art?

Leave the 19th and early 20th century to other people. Concentrate on older pieces. They were made at a time during which the human hand had less obstacles to pass through to reach the heart and the brain. You will quickly get bored by a 19th century art piece while a 12th or 13th century sculpture will bring you an everyday visual, intellectual and even social pleasure.

What is the highlight of your collection?

I love the Gupta period despite how difficult it is to find beautiful and unbroken pieces. Indian art is mesmerizing and still not fully understood, except by a few. Chola bronzes are striking. Pre-Angkorian art remains a summit and a must-have, while Himalayan art totally touches my heart. Chinese art is quite spectacular in some aspects if one accepts to stop at the Tang Dynasty.

But exceptions always appear, because art is a human exception...


Cover Image: Pascal Butel handling a precious Chinese vase