Why Christian Levett is selling a museum-full of art

The British collector says he is ending one ‘period of fanaticism’ and beginning another. Having closed his award-winning Mougins Museum of Classical Art, he is offering much of its contents — from marble busts and Roman helmets to works by Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol — across six sales at Christie’s

At the end of August, Christian Levett shut the very same museum doors he had opened 12 years earlier. ‘It was a poignant moment,’ he says of the closure of the Mougins Museum of Classical Art (known as MACM, from the French version of its name, the Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins), a venue that housed his superb collection of art and antiquities. Its inauguration had taken place in 2011, following Levett’s acquisition — and painstaking transformation — of a former mill in the French village of Mougins.

‘The time has now come, though, to move on,’ he says. ‘I’m sad to be saying goodbye [to MACM], but it was an incredible pleasure to have something so special — and its closure will offer others an incredible opportunity of their own.’

In recent years, Levett’s collecting interests have evolved into post-war and contemporary work by female artists — notably Abstract Expressionists — and in June 2024 he will repurpose the space previously occupied by MACM to open the Femmes Artistes du Musée de Mougins (FAMM). This will be Europe’s first major museum dedicated solely to women artists.

In the meantime — across six sales at Christie’s, jointly known as A Collecting Odyssey: Property from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art — Levett will be offering the pick of the collection he showed at MACM. ‘It would be a pity to have so many fine pieces languishing in storage,’ he says. ‘In the same way that I once shared these pieces with the public by displaying them in the museum, I now want to share them with collectors or institutions at auction.’

Christian Levett at the Mougins Museum of Classic Art

Christian Levett at the Mougins Museum of Classic Art, whose closure, he says, ‘will offer others an incredible opportunity of their own’

The name of the original museum only tells part of its story. The exhibits didn’t consist solely of classical antiquities, but also of artworks from recent centuries showing a classical inspiration. MACM received as much praise for the way it juxtaposed pieces from different ages as it did for the pieces themselves.

Classical and Egyptian vases, coins, sculptures and jewellery could be viewed alongside works by the likes of Rubens, Rodin, Picasso and Warhol. ‘Ancient meets modern’ were Levett’s watchwords, and the approach brought him critical and popular acclaim. MACM was named Apollo magazine’s ‘New Museum of the Year’ in 2011, and it ended up welcoming a quarter of a million visitors. (To put that figure in context, the population of Mougins is just 19,000.)

‘I think people enjoyed seeing pieces talk to each other across millennia,’ says Levett. ‘The museum was a jigsaw puzzle of connections. It never ceases to impress me just how many artists from the Renaissance onwards created works with classical themes.’

Damien Hirst (b. 1965), The Severed Head of Medusa, 2013. Gold, silver, in artist’s display cabinet; this work is number two from an edition of three plus two artist’s proofs. Sculpture: 12⅝ x 15⅝ x 15⅝ in (32 x 39.7 x 39.7 cm). Sold for £567,000. The painting is Massacre under the Triumvirate, Circle of Antoine Caron (1521-1599). Oil on panel. 33 x 57½ in (84 x 146 cm). Both offered in Ancient to Modern Art from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, Part I on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

One such artist is Damien Hirst, whose arresting sculpture, The Severed Head of Medusa (2013), is being offered on 7 December 2023 in Ancient to Modern Art from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, Part I, which kicks off the suite of sales spanning London and New York. Executed in gold and silver, it depicts the snake-haired head of the Greek mythological monster, Medusa. She’s caught in an expression of eternal fury, shortly after her decapitation by the hero Perseus. Her mouth is wide open, and there’s a gaping hole where her right cheek should be. No longer will a look from her turn any man to stone.

Levett purchased the piece during its showing at Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Hirst’s 2017 exhibition at the Pinault Collection in Venice.

Being offered in the same sale is a head of a different kind: a marble portrait from the 1st century A.D. of the Roman Emperor Augustus. He is portrayed with a rounded face, pursed, bow-shaped lips, and hair composed of a mass of comma-shaped locks. The piece was unearthed in France in the 1880s and would originally have been intended to glorify Augustus at a time when Gaul was part of the Roman empire.

Open link https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6452030

A monumental Roman marble portrait head of the Emperor Augustus, Julio-Claudian period, circa early 1st century A.D. 16⅛ in (41 cm) high. Sold for £378,000 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

Open link https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6452036

A monumental Roman marble portrait bust of the Emperor Lucius Verus, Antonine period, late 2nd century A.D. 38 in (96.5 cm) high. Offered in Ancient to Modern Art from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, Part I on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

Another stunning piece from the sale is a marble portrait bust of the later Roman Emperor Lucius Verus. In a conspicuous play of light and shadow, the 2nd century A.D. ruler is depicted with thick hair, which rises vertically from his head and falls from his beard in luxurious, haphazard curls.

Levett was born in the English town of Southend-on-Sea in 1970. His father had served in the army against Communist forces in the Malayan Emergency of the 1950s. Seeing his medals, and hearing his tales, generated in young Christian an interest in all things military. This also manifested itself in a love of making Airfix models of fighter planes and watching war movies.

‘When a shop opened near our house selling medals, that’s where I’d spend my pocket money,’ says Levett. He was only seven or eight years old at the time, and already his collecting journey had begun.

Open link https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6452005

Grayson Perry (b. 1960), A Classical Compromise, 1989. Glazed earthenware. 17⅜ in (44 cm) high. Sold for £37,800 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

Open link https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6452004

An Attic red-figured neck-amphora, attributed to the painter of the Louvre Centauromachy, circa 440-430 B.C. 13¾ in (35 cm) high. Sold for £151,200 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

Along with campaign medals from the First and Second World Wars, he soon took to acquiring Victorian coins, too. It was as a commodities trader in Paris in the early 1990s that Levett turned to art. He would visit the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay every Sunday, often with friends or dates, but also on his own.

‘That was my artistic education,’ he says. ‘I also started reading art books around then, before deciding I wanted to collect some works of my own.’ Levett duly began buying Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and modern drawings, as well as hand-painted natural history books.

After he moved to London in 2002, the focus of his collecting shifted again, and he entered what he calls his ‘next period of fanaticism’. Purely out of curiosity, he ticked the box marked ‘Antiquities’ one day on an auction-house catalogue-request form — and soon found himself diving headlong into the ancient world.

A Roman marble group statue of Bacchus, a satyr, Pan and Cupid, circa early 3rd century A.D. 26⅝ in (67.5 cm) high. Offered in Ancient to Modern Art from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, Part I on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

He began to buy avidly from galleries and at auctions. One of the standout works he acquired was a Roman marble group sculpture of Bacchus, a satyr, Pan and Cupid. The main players in this dynamic, joyful scene are the young god Bacchus, who smilingly holds a bunch of grapes in one hand and a cornucopia in the other, and a good-natured satyr, who carries him on his shoulders.

The deity was associated with winemaking and pleasure, and his revelrous spirit infuses two of the modern works being offered at Christie’s: Bacchanale (1964), a gouache by Marc Chagall; and Scène bacchique au minotaure, a 1933 etching by Picasso.

Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Sans titre (Garçon à la cruche), 1935. Oil on canvas. 28¾ x 36¼ in (73.2 x 92 cm). Offered in Ancient to Modern Art from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, Part I on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

In time, Levett’s fondness for classical antiquity extended to collecting art of recent times with a classical inspiration. He ended up with more than enough pieces to fill a museum (MACM would display 800 works across four floors).

Levett hit upon Mougins as a location partly because he knew the place well, already owning two restaurants there; and partly because its history, in a way, mirrored his collection — ancient meets modern. The earliest settlement of Mougins dates back to Roman times, but a host of major 20th-century artists lived there too, such as Francis Picabia, Fernand Léger and, most famously, Picasso (who spent his final 12 years in the village).

It’s important to stress, however, that Levett’s collection of antiquities comprised more than artworks. In keeping with his boyhood love of military history, he acquired so many helmets, breastplates, backplates and swords that they eventually amounted to the world’s largest private collection of ancient arms and armour.

The highlights occupied MACM’s entire top floor, notwithstanding the fact that pieces were regularly lent to other institutions — a notable example being the Guttmann Mouse Helmet, which was loaned for five years to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (where Levett is a member of the visiting committee for arms and armour).

The Guttmann Mouse Helmet: an important Roman iron, brass and copper helmet for Julius Mansuetus, together with a dolabra, Antonine period, circa 125-175 A.D. Helmet: 9½ in (24 cm) high; 18½ in (47 cm) wide. Offered in Arms and Armour from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, Part I on 30 January 2024 at Christie’s in New York

This exceptionally well-preserved iron helmet with copper-alloy adjuncts bears an inscription on the neck-guard naming its owner: an infantry officer called Julius Mansuetus. The back of the dome — in a highly unusual, perhaps devotional motif — is decorated with two small mice, each pursuing what appears to be a loaf of bread.

Levett calls this ‘one of the great ancient helmets’, and it will be the top lot at the second sale of works from MACM: Arms and Armour from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, Part I in New York on 30 January 2024.

The helmet takes its name, incidentally, from its previous owner, Axel Guttmann, a German industrialist whose famed collection of ancient arms and armour was sold off through several auctions following his death in 2002 (with a significant number of his pieces ending up at MACM).

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Levett retired from the world of commodities in 2016 to devote himself full-time to art and antiquities. Along with collecting, he has been engaged in a range of philanthropic ventures, from sponsoring academic scholarships (at institutions such as the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford) to funding archaeological digs (for example at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, outside Rome).

As for the upcoming sales at Christie’s, and the opening of FAMM, Levett says he is ‘excited for the next chapter. The focus of my collecting has always changed periodically, and I hope others will enjoy the classical works just as much as I did.’

A Collecting Odyssey: Property from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, the private collection of Christian Levett, will be offered across six sales at Christie’s in London, New York and online, from December 2023 to December 2024. Explore art from antiquity to the 21st century at Classic Week, 1 to 15 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

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