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

Biographical article

The son of Gaston Jessé (1847–1876) and Nathaline Curéli (1850–1931), Gaston René Jean Napoléon Jessé-Curély was born on 3 October 1876 in the maternal family Château de Jaulny (in the Meurthe-et-Moselle département). He grew up at 20, Rue de Provence in Versailles, in the private mansion belonging to his father’s family, and went to school at the Lycée Hoche, very close to the family home. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts with honours in history in 1897 at the Faculty of Literature in Paris, he graduated from the diplomatic section of the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in 1900, and completed his training at the Faculty of Law in Paris with a BA in Law in 1900 and a degree that he completed in 1902.

An ambitious diplomat

Gaston Jessé-Curély joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April 1902 and was posted to the Direction des Affaires Politiques as Vice-Consul, then to the Direction des Consulats et des Affaires Commerciales (‘Division of Consulates and Commercial Affairs’) in 1904 (Archives diplomatiques, 395QO/377). That year, he began his career outside France at the French legation in Tangiers, where he was a representative at the control mission of the Moroccan Customs Service. Promoted to Acting Consul in August 1905, he began his diplomatic career as an embassy secretary a year later. In charge of the diplomatic corps and the health board, he carried out the preparations for the Act of Algeciras, and then ended his stay in Morocco with a mission with the Sultan in Rabat, in the context of a crisis of increasing resistance against the establishment of a French protectorate. Appointed to the European branch of the Direction des Affaires Politiques et Commerciales (‘Department of Political and Commercial Affairs’) upon his return to France in 1908, he worked as an embassy secretary at the French Legation in Peking in 1909, where he seems to have been responsible for drafting the administrative letters of his superiors (Archives diplomatiques, 513/PO/A/474). He left Peking to return to France in February 1912 and was posted to the communications department of the Direction des Affaires Politiques et Commerciales; he was subsequently appointed editor in April 1913. Gaston Jessé-Curély was appointed assistant head of the personnel office the same year, then ran the personnel department as of 1920. He joined the 100th infantry regiment as a lieutenant at the beginning of the First World War, and was then placed at the disposal of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs ‘for the organisation of the Telegraph Information Agencies abroad’ in 1915 (Archives diplomatiques, 395QO/377).

Promoted to embassy counsellor in 1921, Gaston Jessé-Curély fulfilled the functions of his rank at the high commissariat of Constantinople in 1922. While he was granted leave to celebrate his marriage in Paris on 10 January 1923 with Madeleine, née Parmentier (1884–1963), he subsequently became manager of the high commissariat of Constantinople and then worked in the post of Acting High Commissioner of France in Constantinople when his superior officer died in 1924. His handling of the tensions between France and Turkey, which was widely publicised, brought him a measure of recognition in the public opinion and the respect of the various diplomatic corps. Gaston Jessé-Curély was rewarded with the title of Plenipotentiary Minister in 1925 and was then ordered to stay in France, placed at the disposal of the minister, then reintegrated and his services were temporarily dispensed with the same year. He was in fact appointed as the French representative at the Commission of Evaluation of the Damages Suffered in Turkey by the Nationals of the Allied Powers, in collaboration with the Finance Ministry, and subsequently continued his activity working with the Office des Biens et Intérêts Privés (Office for Private Goods and Interests), which required his input in a consultative commission responsible for granting funds to French victims abroad. Lastly, he was appointed Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Minister in Lisbon in 1931 and ended his career in Buenos Aires as Ambassador to Argentina; he was accredited to Paraguay in 1935 and 1936.

It was in the context of a large-scale reorganisation of the highest echelons of French diplomatic representation that Gaston Jessé-Curély, insisting on his service being accomplished outside France, was entitled to retire according to a decree issued on 25 December 1936. His primary activity as a diplomat was complemented by occasional functions, such as his participation in an internal disciplinary board and chairing the selection board for admission to the posts of Embassy Attaché and Acting Consul at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, Gaston Jessé-Curély was given numerous decorations throughout his career: the Chinese decoration of the fourth class of the Order of the Golden Grain, in 1912, the rank of Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur (AN, 19800035/1326/53602), the award of the Palms with the rank of Officier de l’Instruction Publique in 1914, the Italian decoration of Officer of the Order of Santi Maurizio e Lazzaro in 1920, the Serbian decoration of the Royal Order of St Sava in 1927, the rank of Officier de l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur in 1925, then finally that of Commandeur in 1933 (Archives diplomatiques, 395QO/377).

A unique figure

The annual assessment notes of the personnel in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs portray a dry, cold, distant, and severe man. Several professional and personal disputes illustrated his rigidity, even intransigeance, complemented by his wife’s inflexibility. An imposing moustache drew attention to him with his chestnut hair and blue-grey eyes and a height of 1.71 metres. With his unique appearance and his excellent upbringing acquired in the socialite milieux of Versailles, Gaston Jessé-Curély had no trouble fitting in with aristocratic societies around the world. The receptions he attended also highlight the diplomat’s deep involvement in cultural life: he frequented artistic circles—he knew, in particular, Saint-John Perse (1887–1975), Jean Giraudoux (1882–1944), and Paul Morand (1888–1976)—and the milieu of the collectors; he benefitted from the protection of the diplomat Philippe Berthelot (1866–1934), who was also a collector of Asian arts. Hence, there was ambition in the personal history of this individual, who cultivated a distinctive appearance, had close relations with well-known figures, and had at his disposal prestigious possessions that served his interest in art and culture.

The collection

Benefitting from a significant family heritage, Gaston Jessé-Curély spent his life enriching a collection of multicultural objets d’art, which had its finest showcase in the Château de Chamerolles (in the Loiret département), acquired by the diplomat in 1924. Disrupted by the Second World War and a conflictual relation with the administration of the Monuments Historiques, he still persisted with his ideals of preservation and conservation of the cultural heritage.

Jaulny and Chamerolles

The primary proof of Gaston’s love of heritage and culture, as well as the family’s transmission of the family’s passion for art, the Château de Jaulny was acquired by Gaston Jessé-Curély’s great grandfather, General Jean Nicolas Curély, in 1815 and 1818, then jointly managed with the family Collignonas as of 1871.

Gaston Jessé-Curély also acquired part of the estate of Chamerolles, sold in auction on 13 November 1924, thereby acquiring ownership of a building of major historical importance (AD 45, 1J1999). Insisting that he had bought the château ‘to save it from ruin’, he had various elements of the building classified as historical monuments in 1927. Described as a ‘demanding owner’ by this organisation, he thoroughly involved himself in the mission of heritage conservation that he attributed to himself, supervising the works carried out on his estate with great care and claiming: ‘My wife and I have turned Chamerolles into a veritable museum’ (AD 45, 179W35438).

A Phantom collection

This undertaking was however undermined by the damage inflicted on the château during the Second World War, when the German troops occupied and pillaged the estate from 16 June to 29 September 1940, then from 13 to 16 August 1944. In the same context, Gaston Jessé-Curély’s collection also suffered damage, ranging from the destruction to misuse of objets d’art, and the destruction by fire of certain items of furniture. This destruction was aggravated by the disappearance of heritage items and thefts committed by the German troops stationed in Chamerolles, who subsequently looted objects right in front of the owners, ruining a cultural and heritage project begun many years before. More than sixty-five pictures, objets d’art, and items of furniture were later reclaimed by Gaston Jessé-Curély and feature in the Répertoire des biens spoliés en France durant la guerre de 1939–1945 (‘Repertoire of property looted in France during the 1939–1945 war’) (1947–1948). Many articles of silverware are still missing, numbered cutlery items, and dishes of various forms, some of which are in the Louis XV style, with naturalistic decorations of faun’s heads, leaves, and ribbons. In Volume IV, Argenterie, Céramique, Objects Précieux, Gaston Jessé-Curély also laid claim—amongst other ‘objects’ (bibelots in his words)—to the ownership of a weapons box belonging to Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838), the Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Restauration. A reclamation letter first sent by the owner of Chamerolles to the troops who had set up camp on the estate on 14 August 1940 added items to the list of precious objects that had disappeared: crystals, a collection of fabrics, ancient lace and embroidery, ancient and modern books, and fine wines, brandies, and liqueurs, and even everyday objects (AD 45, 179W35438). His collection of pictures seemed to be on a monumental scale, both quantitively and qualitatively. Hence, the diplomat wrote: ‘In Chamerolles, there were around seven hundred pictures and old drawings set in frames or hanging on the walls.’ Volume II of the Répertoire des biens spoliés, devoted to pictures, tapestries and sculptures, highlights the prestige of these articles whose authors included the likes of Jean-Jacques Henner (1829–1905), Camille Corot (1796–1875), Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867), Édouard Manet (1832–1883), and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903). This taste for nineteenth-century painters was, nevertheless, complemented by the representation of a woodcock by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755) and of a wedding by David Teniers (1610–1690), also reclaimed by Gaston Jessé-Curély. While the collection covered different epochs in the history of art, it also comprised a great variety of themes:  female figures, portraits, religious themes, nudes, genre scenes, and seascapes; drawings represented a significant part of the pictorial heritage of Gaston Jessé-Curély, who particularly deplored the destruction of three or four hundred old drawings, which he claimed were burned by the German army (AD 45, 179W35438). Despite the collector’s personal attachment to these objects, his awareness of the importance of heritage and his financial apprehension about the collected objects, the lack of precision of the descriptions he made seem to confirm the amateur nature of the approach adopted by the owner of Chamerolles. The diversity of the collector’s movable heritage, which included a wealth of exotic articles, seems to accurately reflect the professional trips made by the diplomat during his career (Oriental carpets, Persian miniatures, Portuguese ceramic wares, Argentinian fox pelts, etc.). Hence, the diplomat was also involved on a professional level in the transmission of culture, as well as on an individual basis, with a mission to conserve art and the heritage.

Jessé-Curély’s donations to the musée Cernuschi

The post of embassy secretary that he occupied at the French legation in Peking between 1909 and 1912 enabled him to integrate the milieu of the Sinologists of the era. For example, he was friends with Victor Segalen (1878–1919), a leading figure in this field. Gaston Jessé-Curély’s collection of Asian arts was particularly rich before 1940 (it included Japanese prints, Chinese and Japanese vases, ancient Japanese stoneware, seventeenth-century Chinese vases, ‘Coromandel lacquer’ objects, typologies of objects that corresponded to exported pieces that were popular in Europe at the time); it was also looted, along with the Château de Chamerolles, but the works from the various donations that he made to the Musée Cernuschi between 1912 and 1914 remained there, justifying his status as a collector. A friend of Henri d’Ardenne de Tizac (1877–1932), the curator of the Musée Cernuschi (Segalen, V., 2004, p. 28), Gaston Jessé-Curély donated seventy-nine Chinese stamps (MC, 5331 à MC, 5409) on 14 June 1912 and a Guanyin stamp attributed to Wu Doazi (MC, 5421) on 25 August of the same year at the address of the establishment; this was complemented by an undocumented donation of five Buddhist stamps (MC, 5551 to MC, 5555) made between 25 November 1912 and 15 November 1913 (a manual donation implying an absence of notarised documents) and a last donation relating to a mingqi Tang warrior (MC, 5610), officialised on 5 March 1914. Sixty of the stamps donated by Gaston Jessé-Curély reflect the Wu Liang Ci 武梁祠 stone carvings, matching previous donations and the research carried out by Édouard Chavannes (1865–1918). Due to the lack of vital information relating in particular to the context in which these stamps were acquired, these works can only be dated to some point between 1786, the year of the site’s discovery, and 1912, as the collector departed from Peking on 13 February 1912. Although—despite the lack of contextual information—the collection donated by the diplomat to the Musée Cernuschi had a certain scientific interest, particularly in terms of the study and conservation of Chinese vestiges that it evoked, it had a major historical value as the latest material attestation of the large heritage collection compiled by the collector; the size and the diversity of the collection that has now been lost reflected the extent of his ambitions and undeniably attest to a real interest in art.