DALLAS – 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 the 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 in February at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. It will head to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after the exhibit ends Aug. 31.
The Kimbell display features more than 140 works, including 20 suits of armor, three sets of armor for horses, and helmets and weapons from various eras of the samurai. Samurai armor is made of a variety of materials, often intertwined — from iron to wood to fur to leather.
The entire collection is among the world’s most notable private collections and is only rivalled 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.
“Many of the pieces in the Barbier-Mueller collection are quite familiar to Japanese armor scholars in the West,” Richardson said.
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.
Barbier-Mueller said after the samurai were disbanded, many artifacts were sold or melted down for steel. Because so many pieces were sold off, he can track most of his pieces to sales at European auction houses in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Barbier-Mueller said one piece he acquired was bought from a descendent of a minister who left Japan in 1920, returning to England with an entire collection of samurai armor.
The collection spans enough of 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.”
Barbier-Mueller came to Dallas in 1979 and founded his company, Harwood International, in 1988. His projects around the world include an area featuring offices, residences and restaurants near downtown Dallas, including the building that houses his museum.
But the 57-year-old said he still finds time to expand the historical collection he’s built along with his wife, Ann, whenever and wherever he can. A discovery just last year came when he 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.”