DALLAS (AP) — 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. Samurai armors are 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 rivaled by a few museums in the U.S., 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. Since 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.