Photographs by James Mollison

Four Texas-based collectors and their collections

Our quartet tell us about their passions for samurai armour, illuminated manuscripts, toy banks and antique dolls

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  • Gabriel Barbier-Mueller The real-estate CEO and scion of a family of collectors on his samurai treasures

‘My grandfather started collecting primitive art at the turn of the 20th century, and my father collected his whole life. Every mealtime was also time for a quiz. Which African ethnic group made that? Which Oceanic island does this come from?

‘Once when I was a teenager, I found myself in a gallery where my parents were having an endless discussion with a dealer. I was sitting next to a suit of samurai armour, and had plenty of time to look. Completely enchanted, I asked my parents if I could have it as a future birthday present. Of course, their reply was not a simple yes, which just made me want it more.

‘Some years later, my wife Ann and I were able to buy a suit of Japanese armour, the first of 76. What I find most alluring about samurai armour is the aesthetic effort that goes into every element. Many of the helmets have a beautiful crest called a maedate, intended to make masked warriors recognisable in the fog and smoke of battle. 

‘My children are fourth-generation collectors, having developed a love for art and artefacts early on. Art will always be part of our growing family.’

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  • Marguerite Hoffman The arts patron and philanthropist on her devotion to illuminated manuscripts

‘The collection started about 10 years ago. My husband Robert Hoffman and I had recently decided to give away our entire collection of contemporary art, but soon after the announcement he contracted leukemia and died, which was terrible. I was adrift in terms of art collecting, because we had always done that together.

‘I said to myself: I am going to step back and get my bearings; I’ll go to Maastricht, where I won’t know anybody. One of the first stands I visited at TEFAF was a dealer in illuminated manuscripts. I stayed there for a long while, looking and looking and looking.

‘Each of the manuscripts above is a book of hours, a lay version of the prayers that the clergy would follow at different times of day. You have to sit still to comprehend what is going on in the miniatures. 

‘There is beauty in the way artists took subjects that had been done a thousand times before — an Annunciation, a Nativity — and put their own spin on it. And there is something powerful and humbling in holding a book that might have belonged to a royal family 600 years ago, and was probably the most precious object they owned.’

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  • Gerald Ford The business leader on the toy banks — and the real ones — he has bought

‘In 1989 my firm acquired the oldest Savings and Loans in Texas. One of its branches, in the middle of nowhere, had numerous toy banks like these — 134 of them, as I recall. They were not particularly well displayed, and no one was paying them much attention. So when we sold the banks some years later — the real ones we had acquired, not the toy banks — there was a provision in the deal that I would have the collection at cost. That’s how I wound up collecting toy banks; I now have about 250.

‘They’re a very American thing. Most were made for competing banks that gave them away to customers, or sold them cheaply. The idea was that those customers would take the toy bank home, fill it up with coins, then bring the money back and deposit it.

‘You see the “Ferris Wheel”? That would be the name of the bank that produced the toy. I couldn’t name a favourite, I have several. But I tend to like the ones with the complicated parts. The value is enhanced if the clockwork mechanism is in working order. Condition and colour are important too, of course, and some of the banks are just prettier than others.’

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  • Gail Cook The doll collector on how a present for her daughter sparked an enduring passion

‘I never played with dolls when I was young. But when my daughter was nine, she wanted a beautiful doll. We researched it, found one or two in antique shops, and that’s how it started. She is an artist now, and busy with her work, so she left the collection to me.

‘They all come from France or Germany, where there is wonderful porcelain for the heads. Often the dolls have been re-dressed, and not well, so I make clothes that are appropriate for the era using antique fabrics, with little shoes that came off some other doll years ago.

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‘Not all of them are toys; some are “fashion dolls”. If, say, Catherine the Great wanted a gown from Paris, the couture house would send a dressed doll to Russia, and if the empress liked the costume she would order it. As for the doll, that might be gifted to a princess at court.

‘Then there are “exhibition dolls”, made for the great trade fairs in Europe and the USA. Manufacturers would produce a one-off — a unique doll with an extraordinarily expressive face — and compete for a gold medal. There are very, very few exhibition dolls, but I am holding one in the picture, a Jumeau from 1889.’