How Did Art Collecting Begin?

About people wearing clothes for warmth, only a certain kind of American sociologist would ask: “Why on earth do they do that?” But it is not silly to ask the same question about the practice of stretching the lobes of pierced ears to make pendulous loops, and then using the loops to carry enormous ear plugs like the gold ones that were a caste mark of the Incas. And the human cultures that have had “Orejones”—“eared ones” as Pizarro’s band called the Incas—have been rather more numerous in history than the cultures having art collectors.

To see that this is true, it must first be understood that true art collecting differs fundamentally from normal patronage of the arts and immemorial treasure gathering. These activities began, approximately, when art began on earth; and their results can be confusing, too, for they are often easy to mistake for art collections. For example, commissioning leading artists to provide works dedicated to the gods in temples was one of the commonest forms of public patronage in Greece in the great centuries. Thus the more famous temples eventually came to look very like modern art museums—but solely as a consequence of haphazard accumulation by patronage of the arts.

True art collecting is different because it always has two ingredients. One ingredient is the aesthetic sense, which is of course shared by patrons like Cosimo di Medici and the more inspired treasure gatherers like Abbot Suger. This sense was earliest manifested in men’s tendency to add beauty to things they made. In fact the Paleoanthropologists now hold that the aesthetic sense is a hominid trait, dating long before the emergence of Homo sapiens. All late Acheulian hand axes, from about 200 millennia ago, look very rough to us; but the Paleoanthropologists consider much trouble was taken to make some hand axes elegant as well as useful by late Acheulian standards.

As to art collecting’s second ingredient, it is the tendency to collect, first indicated by cave assemblages of odd shells, quartz crystals, and the like. These cave assemblages are identical with the assemblages that magpies make, but perhaps the men of the Paleolithic caves thought the shells and crystals were pretty as well as rare. It is clear, however, that the tendency to collect is quite separate from the aesthetic sense. Holy relics were the great collectors’ prizes of the Middle Ages. Besides stamps, early barbed wire, vintage Coca-Cola bottles, and God knows how many other things are ardently collected in America today. The mark of all collectors is that they want their prizes—whether relics of the Passion of Our Lord, Renaissance paintings, or specimens of the first barbed wire ever made—to be genuine, or “right,” as they say on the art market. Here is the only rational solution of the aesthetically insoluble problem of art historical authenticity. A costly faked work of a great master is not shown to be one whit less beautiful when the fakery is detected by subtle scientific tests of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.