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21/03/2022 Collectionneurs, collecteurs et marchands d'art asiatique en France 1700-1939

Biographical article

Georges Labit was born on 12 February 1862 in Toulouse to a family of wealthy store owners. His father, Antoine Labit (1832–1912), founded La Maison Universelle, the first department store in the Occitan capital. After his training at the Collège des Jésuites and in the Lycée de Toulouse, Georges Labit was admitted to the École de Commerce in Paris, where he completed his studies between 1879 and 1881 (Lefèvre, G., 1994, pp. 15–16, 20–21).

His father gradually entrusted him with the role of a travelling salesman. In 1883, he was dispatched on several business missions abroad (in Western Europe and the Mediterranean), and he gradually began to enjoy his travels and discovering other cultures (Lefèvre, G., 1994, pp. 15–16, 39–40, 45). Curious about the popular arts, he initially focused on everyday objects, which soon formed the basis for his first collection. The first artefacts were found in markets (Lefèvre, G., 1994)—within the limits of the pocket money his father gave him—, as Georges Labit was under financial guardianship after his coming of age (Lefèvre, G., 1994, p. 17).

His membership of the Société de Géographie in Toulouse in 1888 marked a new phase in his life. Encouraged by the other members, Georges Labit went on many trips to discover the regions of the world (Scandinavia, the Maghreb, China, Japan, as well as Europe and the French provinces) from 1888 to 1898. Using a camera, he brought back views of various parts of the globe and took several thousand photos, most of which have unfortunately been lost (Lefèvre, G., 1994, p. 17). In a global context of profound economic and cultural changes, he took an interest in traditional customs and skills: he collected testimonies during his immersive stays, in particular in Lapland (Boulade, Y., 2008, pp. 48–57).

The trips he took to Japan and China in 1889, 1891, and 1895 left a deep impression on Georges Labit. He brought back many objects from these countries (religious sculptures, netsuke, weapons, small everyday objects, books, and paintings on silk), which became the central objects in his collection. When he returned from his first stay in Japan, he decided to create a museum, which was inaugurated in 1893.

As of 1896, his journeys took on a different direction: Georges Labit developed an interest in Western art and museography. Eager to improve the organisation of his own collection, he stayed in various countries to study European museums (Lefèvre, G., 1994, p. 163). His sojourns in Italy, Greece, and Austria enabled him to familiarise himself with the issues related to the presentation of works and museum management. During these stays, he sought to increase his knowledge of the history of Western art, as he owned a collection of objets d’art and paintings, very little of which has survived to this day (Lefèvre, G., 1994, p. 152).

He devoted the last years of his life to managing his father’s pisciculture station. Georges Labit died on 9 February 1899, at the age of thirty-six, in circumstances that have never been elucidated.

The collection

Georges Labit’s collection of Asian arts was assembled during stays in Japan and China in 1889, 1891, and 1895. These visits were made in the context of the recent opening up of Japan to Western civilisation, which was a period of great attraction for Western visitors who sought to collect objects that bore witness to a culture threatened with disappearance (Siary, G., 2000, pp. 21–22). 

The inaugural voyage (1889)

His first stay in Japan in 1889, with the help of the Société de Géographie in Toulouse, was, with that of 1895 (Musée Georges Labit (MGL), one of the best documented: this led to the publication of a letter (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1889, pp. 425–430) and a short article in the Bulletin of 1890 (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, pp. 274–308). The secretary general of the Société de Géographie, Stanislas Guénot, mentioned the possible existence of other letters (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Guénot, S., 1889, p. 374). The absence of such sources potentially deprives us of information about the nature and aims of this expedition. There did not seem to be a specific mission plan, as the Société presented his article as ‘a brief overview’ and ‘not (as) an in-depth study’ (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Guénot, S., 1890, p. 271). The printed account (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, pp. 274–308) and the collector’s published letter (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1889, pp. 425–430) do provide several clues about the Société de Géographie’s role in organising this Far-Eastern journey. Recommendation letters (BEP Toulouse: Labit, G., 1890, p. 308) enabled one to travel and establish a network of contacts, whose activation in the country facilitated his stay in Japan (Boulade, Y., 2008, pp. 58–60).

On 17 May 1889, Georges Labit boarded the Djemnah, a Messageries Maritimes steamer, in Marseilles (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1889, p. 425). After a trip lasting forty-two days and stopovers at Suez, Aden, Ceylon, Singapore, Cochin China, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, the passengers disembarked in the south of the Island of Honshu. Georges Labit subsequently visited the five Japanese cities of Kobe, Akashi, Yokohama, Tokyo, Utsunomiya, and Nikko (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, pp. 274–308). This was typical of the itinerary followed by Labit’s contemporary travellers. At the end of the nineteenth century, due to political constraints, Japan provided a limited access to travellers wishing to discover the country, as the usual circuit was most often restricted to Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Nikko, and Hokkaido (Siary, G., 2000, pp. 21–22). Georges Labit himself mentioned the difficulties of accessing the sites in his writings (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, p. 289).

Once in Japan, the traveller was guided by Corresponding Members of the Société de Géographie (the naval lieutenant Vaquier was a member of the Société and commander of the Djemnah: Mr Okashi, the Japanese consul in Lyon, who invited him to his home in Kobe; Prosper Fouque, a Toulousain and Corresponding Member of the Société de Géographie, and a teacher at the school of nobles in Tokyo; Monsieur Daigremont, a teacher at the military school in Tokyo and Georges Bigot (1860–1927), a painter and journalist, who was his guide in Nikko (Lefèvre, G., 1994, p. 93). He was also accompanied throughout his stay by Monsieur de Montreuil, commander of the battalion in the third regiment of Zouaves from Setif in Algeria, whom he met in Hong Kong, and who was ‘travelling around the world for pleasure’ (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, 1890, p. 277).

His correspondence (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, pp. 274–308), his published letter (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1889, pp. 425–430), and his library provide information about the methods used to study and collect objects during this first sojourn. Although the original library has not been kept as it was, we know about it thanks to three inventories drawn up between 1893 and 1913 (MPD, GL archive collection, no ref.: museum catalogue (1893?), and a post-death inventory dating from 1899 evaluated in 1913). An in-depth study of his library and reading matter has highlighted the frequent use of indirect references to draw up his reports, a common practice in the travel literature of the second half of the nineteenth century (Berchet, J.-C., 1985, pp. 11–12). His reading of the accounts written by Émile Guimet (Les Promenades japonaises) and Edmond Cotteau (Un touriste en l’Extrême-Orient) particularly influenced Georges Labit, as certain passages of the latter work were repeated almost textually in his own writings in 1890 (Boulade, Y, 2008, pp. 92–98).

Amongst the themes addressed in his published text, entitled Au Japon. Souvenirs de voyage, the theatre certainly owed much to the reading of the Promenades japonaises, which had contributed to familiarising the French public with the traditional kabuki genre. Giving an account of his own experiences in the theatres of Yokohama, Georges Labit was however less enthusiastic than Émile Guimet about the length and monotony of Japanese theatre performances (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, pp. 288–289) (Boulade, Y, 2008, pp. 90–91).

The influence of the Promenades japonaises was also evident in texts addressing the theme of religion. In Au Japan. Souvenirs de voyage, Georges Labit mentioned several visits to holy sites: the sanctuary of Ikuta in Kobe, the temple of Asakusa in Tokyo, and the holy city of Nikko (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, p. 279, pp. 293–294, and pp. 300–304). In Émile Guimet’s study of religions illustrated by Félix Régamey, the Promenades japonaises was a veritable reference in terms of religious ethnography in the 1880s. His familiarity with this work is evident in a number of later travel accounts, which often followed the same narrative thread. Georges Labit seems to have been influenced more indirectly via a new version of Edmond Cotteau’s travel account (Un touriste en l’Extrême-Orient). This French traveller, entrusted with a mission by the French Ministry of Public Instruction in 1881, followed in the footsteps of Émile Guimet’s peregrinations, while exploring new religious sites. Georges Labit’s descriptions owed much to the reading of this work: certain passages were, in fact, repeated word for word (Boulade, Y, 2008, pp. 92–95). With regard to his itinerary, he visited exactly the same sites as Émile Guimet and Edmond Cotteau. From the necropolis of Shiba in Tokyo to the holy city of Nikko, and the temples of Hiogo and Kobe, he followed the same itinerary as these travellers. The visit of the sanctuary of Nikko was suggested by Georges Bigot, a contact from the Société de Géographie and a friend of Félix Régamey, who may have advised the Toulouse collector to read the accounts written by Guimet and Cotteau (Boulade, Y., 2008, p. 93).

Although it is impossible to know the date of the acquisition of these works, it seems that Georges Labit undertook major documentary work before writing his own account of the journey. In addition to the books mentioned in the inventory of 1899, his writings attest to the fact that he was familiar with other works. The traveller evoked for example the account of Georges Bousquet, (Le Japon de nos jours et les échelles de l’Extrême Orient), one of the first ethnographic studies in the Empire of the Rising Sun, dating from the 1870s. He referred to it as ‘one of the books that best describe present-day Japan’ (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, p. 307). He also mentioned the first nineteenth-century accounts of trips in Japan and French and German travellers such as Ludovic de Beauvoir (1846–1929), Joseph Alexandre von Hübner (1811–1892), Rudolph Lindau (1829–1910), and Johann Justus Rein (1835–1918) (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, pp. 301–302).

Unfortunately, Georges Labit rarely mentioned the circumstances in which his acquisitions were made. Under financial guardianship, he generally had a very limited budget, except during his stays in China and Japan, where exceptionally he had greater resources at his disposal. One of the aims of this trip may have been to select objects for the Far-Eastern section of his father’s business, La Maison Universelle, which may explain the greater availability of funds (Lefèvre, G., 1994, p. 78, 102). His account was made public (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, pp. 274–308) and only reveals on two occasions information relating to eventual supply points, as well as the objects stocked there. Hence, Georges Labit mentioned ‘the evening fair’ in Yokohama, where elements of ancient Samurai military finery were exhibited, costumes of former feudal lords, porcelains from Kyoto, and illustrated books (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, p. 287). He also described the district of Shin-me-May in Tokyo, where a large number of artefacts and objets d’art were sold (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, p. 292).

For the acquisition of his photographic collection, Georges Labit may have been influenced by reading Edmond Cotteau’s Un touriste en l’Extrême-Orient. It was relatively inexpensive for Western tourists to acquire Japanese photographs at the end of the nineteenth century. Edmond Cotteau, who compiled a significant ensemble during his stay in 1881, stated that ‘in Japan, one can assemble a fine collection of photographs quite cheaply’ (Cotteau, E., 1884, p. 112). In his account of the trip, he wrote about his various acquisitions in the workshops of Yokohama, Tokyo, and Nikko, all places Georges Labit visited several years later, especially Tokyo (BEP Toulouse, LP15009: Labit, G., 1890, p. 294).

The Japanese collection

The documents that attest to the size of the Asian collections are the museum’s general catalogue (MGL, as well as the two post-death inventories of 1899 and 1913 (MPD, GL archive collection, no ref.: post-death inventory of 1899, evaluated in 1913). The absence of details about the acquisitions makes it difficult to precisely identify the quantity and the nature of the objects acquired during the different travels. This missing information means that a comprehensive study would need to be made of the various collections. The Japanese collection appears to be the largest numerically. No less than five rooms in the original museum were entirely devoted to the exhibition of Far-Eastern objects, most of which came from Japan and China. The Japanese collection includes a large variety of objects, most of which date from the end of the Edo period (1615–1868), and some of them from the new Meiji era (1868–1912). The scope of the collected objects is vast and attests to an interest in the popular arts (okimono (ex.: inventory no. 92.4.132), netsuke (ex.: inventory no.  92.4.151), clothing, furniture, earthenware, musical instruments, kakemono, kitchen utensils, an example of a Japanese car, and accessories) and in the insignia of power (religious sculpture, weapons, armour, and sabre guards (ex.: inventory no. 92.5.1-23)). The ensemble of ancient military clothing is characteristic of collections from the end of the nineteenth century. The military equipment (ex.: inventory no. 92.7.25-31), samurai armour (ex.: inventory no. 92.7.19–21) and sabres (ex.: inventory no. 92.7.1-5), which were suddenly brought into discredit after the abolition of the Japanese feudal system in 1871, were particularly sought after by Western collectors in the 1880s (Labails, M.-D., 1994, p. 86).

From his stay on Japanese religious sites, Georges Labit returned with a collection of Buddhist religious objects, dating from the Edo period (1616–1867). The Meiji era (1868–1912) was a period of decline for Buddhism, as Shintoism was reinstated by Emperor Mutsuhito 睦仁 (1852–1912) as the official state religion in 1872. Having fallen into disuse, these objects became more readily available to Western collectors. Georges Labit’s Collection mostly comprised sculptures of divinities or Buddhist monks, Kesa monastic cloaks (ex.: inventory nos. 59.883 and 59.884), and Moku Gyo lacquered wooden gongs, musical instruments that were used to accompany the monks’ singing during prayer—objects present in all the collections of Japanese religious art from the end of the nineteenth century, in particular in that of Émile Guimet, compiled thirteen years earlier (Labails, M.-D., 1994, p. 78). Amongst the most remarkable pieces are a carved wooden statue from Jizo (inventory no. 69.10.7) and a sculpture in lacquered and gilded wood of the Buddha Amida (inventory no. 59.498).

Like Émile Guimet, Georges Labit was extremely interested in Japanese religion. In a personal undated study undertaken into the history of religions (MGL,, pp. 11–21), the collector explored the various Buddhist and Shinto cults, focusing on the sects, rituals, and associated divinities. The museum’s initial layout attests to the significance attached to the comparison of religious practices. The catalogue (MPD, GL archive collection, no ref., museum’s general catalogue) and several rare photographs from the first museum show the equilibrium that existed between the various exhibited objects. In the central room on the first floor, there were statues of Buddhist and Taoist divinities, an altar connected with the Shinto rites, and another devoted to the Jodo sect (MPD, GL archive collection, no ref., the museum’s general catalogue, pp. 14–18). On the pillars of this Orientalist salon, inscriptions in Arabic taken from the mosque in Kairouan (‘God Alone is Great’) are worthy of a comparative study of contemplative practice (Labails, M.-D., 1994, p. 35). An article in La Dépêche, published in February 1891, was found in the collector’s archives. This press cutting, which is an article about a ceremony involving a Buddhist act of grace that was held in the Musée Guimet, attests to Georges Labit’s interest in the museographic treatment of religious objects (Labails, M.-D., 1994, p. 40).

Aside from this ensemble of religious objects, Georges Labit returned from Japan with more than 300 prints, tens of kakemono, watercolours on silk, embroidered panels, chased or lacquered bronze vases, fabrics, theatre masks, and a collection of 130 books in Japanese (ex.: inventory no.  92.4.107), some of which were illustrated by or after Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎(ex.: inventory no. 92.4.18), Utagawa Toyokuni 歌川豊国 or Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 (ex.: inventory no. 92.4.2). This collection attests to a pronounced taste for Japanese art dating from the end of the Edo period, in particular for prints, paintings, woodcuts, and volumes of designs (Lefèvre, G., 1994, pp. 158–159). These objects were particularly fashionable at the end of the nineteenth century amongst collectors, as well as in artistic circles, as Japanese art inspired a renewed plastic approach to painting, architecture, and Western decorative arts. Georges Labit’s library attests to this interest in japonisme: aside from the famous monograph entitled L’Art japonais by Louis Gonse, Georges Labit also owned the entire collection of Samuel Bing’s Japan artistique, a leading review of the French Japanist movement from 1880–1890 (Boulade, Y., 2008, p. 67).

The Toulousain collector also compiled a vast collection of photographs, partly comprising photos by the famous Venetian photographer Felice Beato (1833–1907) (ex.: inventory no. 92.6.130), the owner of a photography studio in Yokohama from 1863 to 1877, and his successor the Austrian Baron Raimund von Stillfried (1839–1911) (ex: inventory no. 92.6.20). These photographs, most of which date from the very end of the Edo period and the very beginning of the Meiji era, constitute a documentary and artistic collection of great quality; they attest to a radically evolving lifestyle and society, a Japan where connoisseurs were eager to collect the traditional cultural and artistic vestiges, which can still be seen in the portraits (ex.: inventory no. 92.6.38), landscapes (ex.: inventory no.  92.6.142), and scenes from everyday life (ex.: inventory no. 92.6.135) (Labails, M.-D., 1994, p. 34).

The Chinese collection

Georges Labit brought back a smaller collection from China, comprising everyday objects (costumes, pipes, bracelets, fans, ivory chess pieces, an abacus, a small bone kiosk, a junk, an item of furniture, masks, combs, and purses), objets d’art (paintings on silk, Fondo paintings, prints, landscape studies, screens, embroidered panels, and carved wood, statuettes made from terracotta, Fo lions, and porcelains), weapons (daggers, sabres, and execution knives) and religious objects (a Buddhist altar, an altar front, a kakemono from the Temple of Canton, incense burners, a sacrifice vase, and a bronze statue of Buddha). The collection also includes objects from Annam (Buddhist divinities), Cambodia (a malachite divinity, fabrics), Ceylon (a silk sarong, jewellery, ivory amulets, pairs of shoes, statuettes of brahmans, sutras), Korea (bronze vase), and Java (sarongs), perhaps acquired during stopovers (Lefèvre, G., 1994, pp. 102–103).

The voyages of 1891 and 1895

Georges Labit sojourned in the Far East on two subsequent occasions. In 1891, he went to Northern China and Mongolia, during the Jindandao incident, in the context of the repression of the Mongol population by the Han Jindandao 金丹道Chinese secret society. Equipped with his camera, he sent several of his photos to L’Illustration, some of which showed a judgement in a Chinese court, in Tung-Tchao, near Peking. His photograph of the execution of a convicted person featured on the front cover on 5 December 1891 (BF, L’Illustration, 1891/12/5, PER X1 Fol).

In 1895, Georges Labit went to China again via the new Trans-Siberian Railroad (Lefèvre, G., 1994, p.86). Few details are known about this journey. His stay in Japan, the same year, was slightly better documented. The collector’s logbook (MGL, provides information about the crossing between Liverpool and Yokohama from 4 January to 11 March 1895. Two handwritten documents, devoted to the Kabukiza theatre in Tokyo (MGL, and to the sites of Miyanoshita, Otometoge, and Fujiyama (MGL, provide information about the places he probably visited during his stay.

The Musée Georges-Labit

The collections were initially held in the family mansion on the Rue Bayard. At the end of the 1880s, Georges Labit decided to build a museum to house and exhibit his entire collection. This project, which was intended to promote La Maison Universelle, was funded by his father Antoine Labit: the latter bought land in the district of Montplaisir, which was still relatively unbuilt upon at the time, during his son’s stay in Japan in 1889 (Lefèvre, G., 1994, p. 133). The Labit family hired the Toulousain architect Jules Calbairac (1857–1935) to construct the building. Inspired by his stays in North Africa and by the fashion for oriental inspired villas, the collector decided that the building’s architecture should be in the Moorish style (Lefèvre, G., 1994, pp. 133–134).

An article published in the Revue Mensuelle Illustrée by the Association des Étudiants de Toulouse in 1894 sheds light on the museographic approaches adopted. A first curator was recruited: Louis Darbas was entrusted ‘over several months’ with organising the collections. The article’s author, Demeure de Beaumont, stated that ‘the collection is constantly being transomed and enriched. Any objects, initially added to fill out the collection, must be removed and replaced by real collector’s pieces’ (BnF, 1894/07, FOL-R-271).

Accounts of the original layout are provided by the museum’s general catalogue (MGL, several photographs dating from 1895 (MGL,, and a report published in L’Illustration on 8 August 1894 (BF, L’Illustration, 1894/08/8, PER X1 Fol). On the basis of the building’s square plan, the different cultural areas were arranged symmetrically around a central area over two floors. The ground floor comprised a room with models in its centre, several weapon rooms, and an earthenware and regional furniture room (MGL, pp. 26–30). The first floor had four rooms devoted to Chinese and Japanese collections: a room for paintings, a study, a library, a bedroom, and a hallway devoted to the arts of the Mediterranean basin (MGL, pp. 2–25). Inspired by the most up-to-date museographic layouts of the nineteenth century, the architect adopted an open-plan layout: the lateral lighting provided by wide windows was complemented by overhead lighting (Pistre, C., 1994, p. 28). A large glass roof covered the central area, transforming it into a covered patio. In a Middle-Eastern atmosphere, the collections were exhibited in a rich decor, which reflected a universal curiosity that was particularly present at the end of the nineteenth century. Every possible area was filled, sometimes up to the ceiling, in order to exhibit the largest number of objects, even though the curator, Louis Darbas, acknowledged in the general catalogue that not everything was displayed ‘due to a lack of room’ (MGL, p. 22).

Visitors entered on the first floor, where they were received in a hall with a Mediterranean decor (MGL, pp. 2–6). Most of this floor was devoted to the arts of Japan and China (MGL, pp. 7–17). The axis of the exhibition was reinforced by the highlight of the collection—the carved wooden statue from Jizo (inventory no. 69.10.7)—, which stood out in the background. In the densely packed central room, various artefacts (costumes, tools, weapons, bronzes, earthenware, furniture, and religious sculptures) were exhibited, attesting to the religious traditions and craftsmanship of these two Far-Eastern countries (MGL, pp. 7–11). The right and left wings of this room were devoted to the exhibition of Japanese objects (paintings on silk and on paper, masks, musical instruments, and weapons), some of which were displayed in contextual scenes. Fourteen showcases housed small objects (netsuke and okimono, smoking accessories, and table sets) (MGL, pp. 11–17). The presentation of the Asian collection continued on the ground floor, which was reached via a staircase decorated with seven kakemono and weapons, and a model of a Japanese warrior (MGL, p. 25). The ground floor was less densely packed and organised in a typological fashion. In the centre, the models room comprised a total of twenty-nine life-size models, with a section devoted to the Far East, and contained models of scenes from Japan (a tea house), Korea, and China (a mandarin meeting out justice) (MGL, p. 26). These displays of real scenes highlighted the daily practices of the represented populations and replicated the principle of contextualisation developed by the Musée d’Ethnographie in the Trocadéro in the provinces room (Labails, M.-D., 1994, p. 40). The weapons and earthenware room also housed several items from collections of Asian objects (MGL, pp. 27–30).

Inaugurated on 11 November 1893, the Musée Georges-Labit was open to the general public for free upon request. When it was created, it was one of the rare provincial museums devoted to Far-Eastern cultures. It also housed French regional, Mediterranean, and Scandinavian collections, paintings, and copies of famous works, all of which were collected by Georges Labit. The Musée Guimet, founded in 1879, was probably the inspiration for this museum. Several documents attest to the contacts between Georges Labit and the Lyonnais collector, who was invited in 1890 to a conference given by Georges Labit at the Société de Géographie in Toulouse (Labails, M.-D., 1994, p. 41). Émile Guimet visited the recently established museum on 19 September 1893, one month before its official inauguration (BnF, La Dépêche de Toulouse, 1893/09/20, A24, N9172). In a letter sent several days later, on 28 September 1893, Georges Labit thanked Émile Guimet for the ‘gracious gifts’ he had so generously made to the museum (MGL

Georges Labit’s premature death in 1899 brought the museum’s development to a sudden halt. When Antoine Labit died in 1912, the establishment was bequeathed to the City of Toulouse, which accepted the property in 1919 (municipal archives (AM), Toulouse, PO1/1919/9). After a period of escheat and deterioration, the museum was returned to its former glory under thedirection of Dr Albert Sallet in 1935, and Jeanne Guillevic in 1969. Thanks to many donations, permanent loans from the Musée Guimet, and several renovation campaigns, the Musée Georges-Labit is still enriching its collections, more than 100 years after it was founded (Labails, M.-D., 1994, pp. 45–49).