The donation of the Villa to the Belgian State in 1937

It was in this state of mind that in the summer of 1937 he gave up his sumptuous Brussels villa, donating it to the Belgian State. The aim of this exceptional gift was to turn the villa into a royal museum of contemporary decorative arts, under the guidance of a foundation that was to bear the name of Louis Empain.

As indicated by an article that appeared in the newspaper Le Soir on 17 September 1937, Villa Empain, converted into a museum, was to extend the activities of the Institut supérieur des Arts décoratifs de La Cambre, by presenting collections that were yet to be created and temporary exhibitions on contemporary works.

Louis Empain’s affinities with the École de La Cambre, founded in 1927, are obvious when one remembers that the creator of this higher education institute was none other than the architect Henry van de Velde, also the founder in 1901 of the Weimar Institute of Decorative and Industrial arts which, in terms of its principles, prefigured the first Bauhaus school founded by Walter Gropius in 1917. From 1912 onwards, Henry van de Velde worked with the Belgian government to create a similar institute in Brussels. Camille Huysmans, minister for sciences and arts, agreed to his requests four years later, entrusting to him the site of the former Cistercian abbey of La Cambre, located in a hollow terrain running down from avenue Louise. The teaching staff, gathered for the first time in May 1927, comprised remarkable figures from the Belgian avant-garde, who were to teach theatre, drawing, decorative arts for industrial applications, textile art and architecture.

In 1936, the poet and playwright Herman Teirlinckx took over the leadership of the school from Henry van de Velde. It was thus with the former that Louis Empain negotiated the founding principles of the museum that was to be created in his villa. The donation of his villa, which the press unanimously described as extremely generous, had an express condition attached to it, set out in the royal decree of 14 April 1938, concerning its exclusive use as a museum. The museum’s management was entrusted to Herman Teirlinckx, with Camille Huysmans as president.

From the German occupation…

Unfortunately, the war brought a premature end to the activities of the Museum of Decorative Arts that Louis Empain had intended to create, even though several exhibitions were put on there up until October 1943.

The villa was requisitioned on 9 November 1943 – the date the order was signed by the German authorities – for the Brussels Ortskommandantur .

It is difficult to say precisely what the Germans did with the house until the end of the war. Some people say it was occupied by the Gestapo, but no official document has so far reached us that would confirm this with certainty.


…to the installation of the USSR Embassy

Once the war ended, the minister Paul-Henri Spaak, denying the existence of the Louis Empain Foundation and the express clauses of the baron’s donation to the Belgian State, took the decision to turn the villa into a foreign embassy and handed it over to representatives of the USSR.

The move did not meet with the approval of the Empain family and, not surprisingly, it was challenged until the villa was returned to Louis Empain in the 1960s.

The return of the villa to the Empain Family and its occupation by the RTL

For some years, Louis Empain presented exhibitions there that were primarily devoted to kinetic art and op art, forms that he particularly liked.

In 1973, in order to devote additional funds to his foundation, Louis Empain sold the villa to Mr Tcherkezian, a tobacco manufacturer of Armenian origin resident in the USA. He in turn rented the property to the Luxembourg television channel RTL, which had established itself in Brussels and was looking to raise its profile.

RTL occupied the villa until the end of the 1980s without causing too much damage, despite intensive use that was ill suited to its architectural and decorative characteristics.


A dark period then began for the villa. Deprived of any real function, rented for one-off events and resold again, it was gradually abandoned, partially destroyed and vandalised, despite having been placed, in 2001, on the list of Brussels heritage to be protected.

When the Boghossian Foundation acquired it in 2006, its dilapidated state required total restoration. This was begun in summer 2008, after the site had been listed as a heritage monument by the government of the Brussels-Capital Region on 29 March 2007.