An Introduction to Collecting by Ivan Lindsay

Feb 2nd, 2010 | By | Category: Essays

Collecting art dates back to classical antiquity. The Romans collected Greek sculpture and, when no original was available, commissioned copies of famous works. Paintings, too, were collected but none have survived except for Egyptian Mummy portraits and Roman wall decoration.

In the Dark Ages the concept of the individual artist was lost, but not the idea of collecting. Precious illuminated manuscripts were collected in monastic libraries and collections of jewellery were often interred with their owners – the most spectacular example being the Sutton Hoo burial now in the British Museum.

Collecting as we know it today began in the Italian city states in the Renaissance. The ruling families, such as the Medici, were fastidious in their collecting and tended to commission artists to follow specific programmes of subject matter or decoration.

The current art market evolved in the seventeenth century, beginning in the Dutch Republic, and to a lesser extent, in Rome. This brought about a great change in that artists could paint for the open market rather than always responding to a particular commission.

Almost all the great collections formed and dispersed in the seventeenth century were in some way related to particular change. As his personal power grew, so did the art collection of Louis X1V of France; the invading Swedes looted Prague during the Thirty Years War, dispersing the collections of Emperor Rudolf II.

By the seventeenth century many of the Italian city states were in decline and the Sforzas, d’Estes, Medicis, Farneses etc. were sometimes inclined to disperse family heirlooms, thus releasing pictures which had never been sold before. This is how many of the great collections of the eighteenth century were built up from the debris of earlier Collections.

The greatest upheaval of all was the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars which followed. Much was either confiscated, looted or forced onto the art-market; hence the great changes in taste and market forces in the years just after 1800.

Collecting the old masters in the nineteenth century tended to be a more bourgeois affair with a few remaining old families increasing their possessions. An example was the duc d’Aumale (son of Louis Philippe of France) whose collection remains intact in the Musée Conde at Chantilly.

Once again the Europe-wide catastrophes of the World War I altered the old patterns of collecting. Families from both the winning and losing sides sold off their possessions mostly to American moguls through Joseph Duveen.

World War II brought this period of intense activity to an abrupt end, witnessing at the same time an unparalleled destruction of old masters all over Europe. This ranged from losses through air raids of whole museum collections to the continuous looting of private collections in Central and Eastern Europe. Only in the last decade of the present century has restitution begun, with American museums to the fore, returning old masters to their rightful owners even though they had been bought in good faith.

For the present day collector the old masters are often valued mainly for their decorative qualities – hence the high reputation of Canaletto. Few ‘great’ names are collectable as they are all in the public sector. Indeed the number of famous names before the nineteenth century where pictures remain in private hands is small indeed.

The present day collector has one advantage however. This is the availability of increasingly reliable documentation. Some countries, especially Italy, France and the Netherlands, have embarked on the serious study of their less well-known masters. Often this has meant carefully researched exhibitions accompanied by full catalogues raisonné, enabling the enthusiastic collector to identify which painters remain as possible subjects for acquisition.

The more adventurous will investigate those paintings rarely considered even by the specialist. Those artists tend to be ‘local’ painters whose work is unrepresented outside a particular area, or in some cases painters who are nationally esteemed but unknown elsewhere.

There is therefore enormous scope for the intrepid collector, but the timid will be disappointed to find that there is but little available from the hands of those painters who are highly esteemed.

Tags: art buying, art market, Introduction to collecting, Ivan Lindsay

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