Gabriel Barbier-Mueller bought his first samurai armor about 20 years ago from an antiques dealer in Paris, sparking a fascination that helped him create one of the most significant private collections in the world related to the Japanese warriors.
Although the vast majority of the Texas-based businessman’s pieces come from auction houses, art dealers and collectors, he still relishes visiting small European antiques stores seeking hidden treasures and strolling flea markets, as he adds helmets, weapons and other samurai artifacts that span the centuries.
“Every year starts with: ‘I’ve got everything I need. There’s nothing on the market.’ And somehow you luck out on something, and you discover new things,” said Barbier-Mueller, a Swiss-born real estate developer who opened a samurai museum last year near downtown Dallas.
Part of the collection — now numbering in the hundreds — is on an international tour that began two years ago in Paris and opened this month at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. It will head to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after the current exhibit ends Aug. 31.
The Kimbell display features more than 140 works including 20 suits of armor, three armors for horses and helmets and weapons from various eras of the samurai.
The entire collection is among the world’s most notable private collections and is only rivaled by a few museums in the United States, said Thom Richardson, deputy master at the Royal Armouries, the United Kingdom’s National Museum of Arms and Armour in Leeds.
The history of the samurai dates back to 792, when Japan stopped conscripting troops and landowners began assembling their own warriors, called samurai. By 1185, warlords ruled in the name of the emperor and clans used their samurai to vie for power. The samurai class was abolished after the emperor again ruled supreme in 1868.
The collection spans enough of the samurai history that one can see the difference in helmets as warfare progresses from bows and arrows to guns, said Jennifer Casler Price, the Kimbell’s curator of Asian and non-Western art. She said helmet designs became more elaborate through the years in order to identify fellow warriors amid the smoke from gunfire.
“They have assembled this really exceptional collection,” she said. “I think people will be rather dazzled.”
A discovery just last year came when Barbier-Mueller, 57, spotted a polished copper ball in a store down a tiny Parisian street and learned it was a mirror samurai used for protection.
“It’s what you would have hung on the ceiling,” he said. “They would travel and they were hosted by people along their journey. If they lay down and looked at that ball, it’s like a 360-degree mirror, so they could have seen anybody coming to attack them.”
• Kimbell Art Museum: Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection. 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth; 817-332-8451; www.kimbellart.org.
• Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum: The Samurai Collection. 2501 N. Harwood St., Dallas; 214-965-1032; www.samuraicollection.org.