Collecting stories: Christian Levett

As three ancient artworks come to Christie's from the Mougins Museum, its founder shows us around and explains how he scratches his collecting itch

Introducing the medieval village of Mougins, a 20-minute drive from Cannes in the south of France, the British art collector Christian Levett explains that artists have been drawn to the region for centuries because of its brilliant light.

Mougins is where Levett has been spending time for the past 13 years. In 2009, the investment manager from London bought a holiday home in the village, then built the Mougins Museum of Classical Art to house the thousands of Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts he had been fastidiously collecting for years. 

‘I think I have always been a natural collector. I collected coins and First and Second World War campaign medals as a child, and as I got into my twenties, I started collecting English medieval and Roman coins. I started buying artworks in my mid-twenties,’ Levett explains. ‘Then I discovered the antiquities market.’

It was about 20 years ago when, out of curiosity, Levett ticked the box marked ‘antiquities’ on an auction-house catalogue request form. ‘It struck me as unbelievable, absolutely mind-blowing, that you could buy ancient armour and classical marble sculptures,’ he told Christie’s Magazine in 2016. ‘And it all seemed so amazingly cheap compared with practically everything else.’

Levett is the first to admit that he became fanatical about the world of antiquities. As well as acquiring Minerva (a classical archaeology magazine) and funding excavations in Egypt, Italy, England and Spain, he would also leave dozens of absentee bids at antiquities auctions — sometimes buying up to 20 lots per sale.

Within a decade he had acquired more than 1,000 pieces, and soon realised he needed to invest in more infrastructure; larger storage, climate controls and a curator. The result was the Mougins Museum.

A selection of works from Christian Levetts collection at the Mougins Museum of Classical Art in France, which won Apollo Magazines Museum Opening of the Year Award in 2011

A selection of works from Christian Levett's collection at the Mougins Museum of Classical Art in France, which won Apollo Magazine's Museum Opening of the Year Award in 2011

The success behind Mougins, however, lies in Levett’s ability to see the past in the present. As well as being a centre for housing, studying and loaning antiquities, it was the museum’s luminous location — which, as he says, has inspired inhabitants and visitors including Man Ray, Picabia, Cocteau, Léger, ChagallDufy and Picasso, who died there — that pushed him to also exhibit modern and contemporary artworks from his collection throughout the space.

Between what is thought to be the largest collection of ancient weapons and armour in the world, and classical masterpieces of stone and ceramic, Levett has hung paintings of the pyramids by Alexander Calder, a bright-blue replica of the Venus de Milo by Yves Klein, a bust cast from the blood of Marc Quinn, colourfully painted skulls by Damien Hirst and metal casts of Antony Gormley’s own body.

‘Each artwork in the museum has to have a classical context or a classical composition,’ Levett explains. ‘That way it really shows you how the classical period has influenced artists’ work from around 1600 all the way through to the contemporary period today.’ By way of example, he singles out a Keith Haring vase which clearly references ‘black figure’ vases from ancient Greece

‘The drive to keep on collecting when your house is already full, and you start filling up storage facilities and creating your own museum... is a bit more manic and compulsive,’ Levett smiles. 

Evidence of Levett’s insatiable appetite lies in the fact that he has now consigned three antiquities from Mougins to Christie’s in order to fund further projects at his museum.

A Roman marble statue of the Emperor Hadrian, reign 117-138 AD. 82  in (208.2  cm) high. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A Roman marble statue of the Emperor Hadrian, reign 117-138 AD. 82 in (208.2 cm) high. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Standing more than two metres high is a 2nd-century AD marble figure of Hadrian, with detail so fine that even a small crease is visible on the Roman emperor’s left earlobe (indicating that he may have suffered from coronary artery disease). Previously in the collection of Cobham Hall in Kent, the statue was acquired by Levett at Christie’s in New York in 2008, after which it was the star attraction of the Mougins Museum’s opening in June 2011. 

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‘The Grand Tour provenance of this statue is illustrious and extraordinary,’ says Levett. ‘Documents in the British Museum describe its sale by the famous antiquarian Thomas Jenkins to Lord Darnley of Cobham Hall in Kent in 1790. The British Museum, the Vatican and the Louvre all contain classical statues that Jenkins supplied from Rome during the 18th century.’ 

Equally imposing is an Egyptian polychrome and gesso-painted wooden coffin from the 21st-22nd Dynasty (945-889 BC), which was originally made for a man named Pa-Di-Tu-Amun. It has entranced visitors to Mougins for the past eight years.

The final object coming to auction is an Egyptian blue faience cosmetic bowl in the form of Bes, the ancient Egyptian protector of households, children and pregnant women. Dating to the Late Period, 664-404 BC, this object has been documented since 1698, when it was in the collection of Cardinal Gaspare Carpegna in Rome.

An Egyptian blue cosmetic vessel of Bes, circa 664-404 BC. 3⅜  in (8.5  cm) high. Estimate $120,000-180,000. Offered in Antiquities on 28 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

An Egyptian blue cosmetic vessel of Bes, circa 664-404 BC. 3⅜ in (8.5 cm) high. Estimate: $120,000-180,000. Offered in Antiquities on 28 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

‘It’s a real honour,’ says the head of the Christie's Antiquities Sale Hannah Fox Solomon, ‘to be auctioning these three amazing artworks for the benefit of the Mougins Museum, which will no doubt inspire a new generation of smart, cross-category collectors.’

The artworks will be on show at Christie’s in New York from 24-27 October 2019 as part of Classic Week, before being auctioned across the following two days.