ON A HOT JUNE DAY THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, Dominique de Menil flew to Munich to meet a Turkish businessman named Aydin Dikmen who wanted to sell her two Byzantine frescoes. Mrs. de Menil was a charming and elegant woman with a large fortune and social connections that stretched around the globe; Dikmen had a sketchy background, was neither charming nor elegant, and would later figure in a scandalous trial that would capture the attention of the art world. But Mrs. de Menil didn’t know anything about Dikmen at the time, and that afternoon, she and several of her associates piled into two Mercedes that he had arranged for and set off to look at the frescoes. Based on photographs that she had been shown, Mrs. de Menil anticipated that the Turkish businessman was going to show her work of unusually fine quality.
Dikmen led the caravan from the center of Munich to a shabby working-class neighborhood on the edge of the city. The members of Mrs. de Menil’s party were nonplussed by this, as they had expected a more fashionable destination, but Dikmen explained that he was using an address in the neighborhood as a cheap place to store the frescoes temporarily. He then led Mrs. de Menil and the others up a flight of stairs and into an apartment where they encountered an extraordinary scene: The only illumination in the place came from two candles (Dikmen explained that the apartment had no electricity), and by their dim light, the group could make out two segments of plaster, propped against a wall. One featured the image of an angel, and the other depicted John the Baptist. The priceless frescoes had been crudely broken into several dozen pieces—the rest of them were packed in a huge crate. Mrs. de Menil was sickened by what she saw. “The pieces were too much chopped up to derive any impression of beauty,” she said recently. “It was like a miserable human being that has to be brought to the hospital.”
And so she decided to rescue the frescoes. Over the last decade, Mrs. de Menil has subsidized a painstaking restoration of the works, and she commissioned her son, Francois, who is a 51-year-old architect, to design a chapel in Houston to house them. When the Byzantine Fresco Chapel opens to the public in February, she will unveil what is perhaps the most significant example of Byzantine art to be found in this country.
But she doesn’t legally own it. In the months that followed her strange trip to Munich, Mrs. de Menil learned that Dikmen had lied to her about the origin of the frescoes—and that in fact they had been stolen. When she decided to buy them anyway, the issue of where they belonged became a dilemma. Because of the care she has lavished on the frescoes, many people in the art world view Mrs. de Menil as the savior of the works and see no harm in her wish that they remain in Houston. In culturally sensitive times such as these, however, the purchase of another country’s stolen patrimony is a touchy issue, and she has been subjected to an uncomfortable degree of scrutiny from people who believe that the art should be returned to its homeland. Mrs. de Menil, who took care not to break any laws by acquiring the works, deeply resents any criticism of her actions. When asked why she felt it was important that the frescoes remain in Houston, she said, “The Byzantine tradition is a great tradition. You cannot see such an important example of the Byzantine tradition in America or in most parts of Europe.” But while the other parties with a claim to the frescoes have gone along with her wishes for the time being, the question remains: When the moment comes to settle the frescoes’ fate permanently, will everyone agree that Francois’ chapel is their rightful home?
THE UTTER INCONGRUITY OF THAT AFTERNOON IN MUNICH—OF someone like Dominique de Menil meeting with a fly- by-night character in such a seedy setting—was driven home to me when I visited her at her airy, modern house near Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood in October. Mrs. de Menil is 88 years old, white-haired and fragile, but age has not diminished her strength of character. When we met, she was dressed in a cream silk blouse, black cardigan, checked wool pants, and brown leather sandals with socks, and she eased herself gingerly into one of the chairs in her living room.
Mrs. de Menil was born in Paris into the Schlumberger family, which had built a fortune in the textile business; in the twenties her father, Conrad Schlumberger, invented a tool that tested the contents of newly drilled oil wells, leading the family to amass an even greater fortune. As a child, she collected stamps, matchboxes, and fossils; later on, with her husband, Jean de Menil, a Parisian banker who eventually became an executive with the Schlumberger companies, she began collecting art.
First the couple collected modern art, then they got into African artifacts, and then objects from other parts of the world. “I’m interested in everything,” she told me. “I was born curious.” Most of the art Mrs. de Menil owns (her husband died in 1973) is now housed in the Menil Collection, a stark, minimalist gray building on Sul Ross Street that was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The museum is small, but the work it contains is of international stature.
Although her family was Protestant, Mrs. de Menil converted to Catholicism after her marriage, and eventually she became absorbed in the art of the Eastern Orthodox church of Byzantium. With her purchase—through a London art dealer named Yanni Petsopoulos—of the private collection of a British real estate dealer named Eric Bradley in the early eighties, she became the owner of one of the finest collections of Byzantine art in this country. Highlights of her Byzantine holdings are displayed to the public on the ground floor of the Menil Collection,