Only Collect

Le Géant, La Licorne et La Tulipe: Collections françaises au XVII siècle

by Antoine Schnapper
Flammarion, 415 pp., fr255

Les Frères Goncourt: collectionneurs de dessins

by Elizabeth Launay
Arthena, 552 pp., fr680

Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice, 1500–1800

by Krzysztof Pomian
Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers, 348 pp., $44.95

Pricing the Priceless: Art, Artists, and Collectors

by William D. Grampp
Basic, 290 pp., $19.95

The Return of Cultural Treasures

by Jeanette Greenfield
Cambridge University Press, 361 pp., $44.50

Books and articles about collectors and collecting have now been popular for nearly a century and a half—the vogue seems to have started during the second Empire and to have gathered pace over the next few decades—but, with only a few exceptions, their contribution to history, and even to art history, has been negligible. This seems an ungrateful response to a literary genre that has provided generations of readers with unrivaled offerings of nostalgia, sycophancy, and amateur psychology—not to mention some very enjoyable anecdotes, and the often great importance of art collections themselves: but it would surely be hard to contest.

Moreover, as Antoine Schnapper emphasizes in his important and fascinating study of collecting in France during the seventeenth century, even the most scholarly research has usually been seriously flawed because those engaged in it have scoured inventories and other valuable sources only in order to track down works of art and artefacts (such as pictures by well-known painters and important medals) that were of interest to them. Those “curiosities” which were once prized so highly, but which by the nineteenth century had come to seem merely childish, were either neglected or treated in passing with bewildered condescension.

The reappraisal of the subject that has taken place during the last decade or so has been stimulated first by the willingness to study collections with respect to their values in their own times rather than to those that prevailed later. In this respect the history of collecting has followed the example of historical writing in many other fields. The readiness to do so is clearly laudable and often rewarding—but it is not always convincing. For example, attempts to connect just about every aspect of the Wunderkammern of the Middle Ages to a fairly rigid set of medieval beliefs and conventions about the nature of the universe have surely been exaggerated, however great an improvement they are no those theories which used to see such accumulations as being merely haphazard and frivolous. Similarly, the fact that European sovereigns in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries delighted in showing off their wealth and power in the most ostentatious manner does not necessarily imply—as has sometimes been suggested—that their art collections were assembled and appreciated only with this purpose in mind.

Elizabeth Launay’s excellent account of the Goncourt brothers as collectors of drawings, which is accompanied by a very thorough catalog of their collection, shows how valuable studies of a traditional kind can still be when informed by real judgment and scholarship. To read it in conjunction with some of the other books noted here is particularly rewarding because it was the Goncourt brothers who did more than anyone else (except, perhaps, Balzac’s fictional Cousin Pons) to establish an image of the collector so powerful that it has often been looked upon as a norm: the collector, that is, as a man of limited resources but extreme sensibility, who spends his life obsessively searching in junk shops …

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