CLEARLY the major motivation for collecting antiquities is an interest in past civilisations*. As our own is derived from them, their study can help us put our own world into perspective and teach us that human nature has not changed as much as we might like to think. To be able actually to handle the material culture of our predecessors brings them to life in a way that reading and visiting museums cannot. In addition, many of the objects have highly attractive aesthetic qualities.
Collecting may also, of course, be seen as a form of investment, but in the case of antiquities caution is essential, because of the wide fluctuations of the market. Here it is best always to think long-term. While buying what you like, also spending prudently. Initially, it is very difficult to know what is a good buy and what is not. With antiquities there are perhaps more pitfalls than in most other fields and some will be discussed in this article. So do a considerable amount of homework before making a first purchase. Visit galleries, auctions, fairs and, naturally, museums. Build up contacts with members of the trade, such as those who advertise in the pages of ANCIENT and with local museums. Whenever possible handle objects so as to get a ‘feel’ for them.
I would suggest that the first step is to look at the background of antiquities’ collecting. The whole subject has become quite controversial in recent years and prospective collectors should familiarise themselves with the different aspects of the debate.
Some extremists even oppose the whole idea of private collecting. But humans are naturally acquisitive and collecting is as old as the objects themselves. Prehistoric flints and fossils have been discovered in Roman villas in Britain in contexts which suggest they were prized possessions. The Emperor Hadrian is known to have collected Greek marbles and Egyptian antiquities.
By the sixteenth century monarchs and rich aristocrats were building up fine collections. The taste developed later in England than in much of Europe. This was partly because the main cultural influence was Renaissance Italy and party from a puritanical aversions to acquiring images of heathen deities. A change first began under the Stuart kings. Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, laid the foundations of a coin collection, enlarged after his premature death by his brother Charles, later Charles I, who also acquired gems from the Dutch collector, Abraham Gorlaeus. In 1639, a catalogue prepared by Abraham Vanderdoort, Keeper of the Royal Collection in Whitehall, mentioned 169 statues at St James’s Palace and Somerset House and a further 230 in the Palace of Greenwich, although it is unlikely they were all ancient. During the Commonwealth most of Charles’ collection was sold, though Cromwell managed to hold on to a few of the sculptures.
At this time the leading sculpture collector was undoubtedly Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey. His considerable collection, though not always of the finest quality, was largely dispersed by his grandson, Henry Howard. However, through the wise intervention of a family friend, the diarist John Evelyn, the majority of pieces were donated to Oxford University.
As European travel increased in the seventeenth century so did interest in the riches of the past. By the eighteenth century the Grand Tour was taking the wealthy young particularly to France, Italy and Greece. From this era emerged the founders of many of today’s great collections—men like Sir William Hamilton, Charles Townley, Cardinal Albani and Henry Blundell. It was from the legacy of another great collector, Sir Hans Sloane, that the British Museum was found. A look at the list of benefactors of the British Museum demonstrates that this tradition continues to this day.
Joanna van der Lande is an Associate Director at Bonhams and the head of Bonhams Antiquities Department. She is also deputy chairman of the Antiquities Dealers Association
The Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) 1997-98 Directory available from the secretary: Susan Hadida, c/o Faustus Ancient Art and Jewellery, 41 Dover Street, London W1X 3RB, UK. The International Association of
Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA). Chairman: James Ede, Charles Ede Ltd., 20 Brook Street, London W1Y 1AD, UK.