The Louvre's Newest Exhibit Explores the History of Luxury

From left: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris/Christophe Dellières; The Musée des Arts Décoratifs/Jean Tholance

A new exhibition of precious objects from across the globe, set in rarely seen spaces in Paris, seeks to answer the question: what is luxury?

"Luxury is not only a Louis Vuitton bag or an Hermès sweater,” says Olivier Gabet, director of Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, of “Luxes,” a sweeping new exhibition of rarefied objects from around the world and throughout the centuries. “Luxury has a connection to power, to money, that, particularly today, could be seen as a provocation. But these days, to have time is a real luxury. And the history of luxury is more subtle than is widely known. The idea is to no longer see it in the same way once you leave this exhibition.”

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“Luxes,” which runs until May 2, 2021, does make a bold case for rethinking the very concept of luxury. Held in the museum’s main hall, the soaring Marsan Pavilion of the Louvre, the exhibit showcases more than 100 objects. The sense of ambition is announced with the first object, a Marc Newson–designed hourglass made in Basel, Switzerland, blown from a single piece of borosilicate glass and containing millions of tiny spheres of stainless steel coated with gold. Made in 2015, it is presented entirely on its own, in a semicircular enclosure, like a sacred relic. “It is such a beautiful object of design,” explains Gabet. “It reminds us of the essential: that time is the measure of everything.”

The exhibition begins in a dramatic space known as the nave. It is a massive room, much like the great hall of a cathedral, with mosaic floors, carved-stone walls, and skylights ringed by circular balconies. In a city of grand public spaces, this has to be one of the most spectacular. The galleries outside the nave, running along the great lawn of the Louvre, hold a dizzying selection of objects: an alabaster vase, depicting a hedgehog, from 3300 b.c. Persia; a remarkable gold and silver table service from ancient Rome; a full-length jacket worn over body armor, lined with red silk and covered with peacock feathers, from Edo period Japan; and a pair of stunning 18th-century Delft porcelain vases, in the form of stacked pyramids, for holding tulips. It juxtaposes slices of periods and cultures, from 18th-century men’s embroidered riding coats to 20th-century burlap headdresses from New Guinea.

The first section of the exhibition culminates in a real treat: access to the Salon du Bois, the wood-paneled pavilion that was built by the museum for the 1900 world’s fair in Paris. Not seen by the public in almost two decades, the oversized room was built to showcase all of the best examples of the decorative arts of the Belle Époque.

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The next space is even more unexpected: a wood-paneled gallery, the Salon des Boiseries, that has three floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the Tuileries Gardens. The room, rarely open to the public, is reserved for special occasions. For “Luxes,” it contains a massive Venini chandelier from 1925 and some sofas and armchairs. “Just a few armchairs, and taking the time to sit there and look out at the Tuileries,” Gabet says. “Could anything be more luxurious than that?”