Monday, July 19, 2010

Researching the history of collections: America forges ahead as the UK lags behind

An article by Suzanne Muchnic in this weekend's Los Angeles Times — American art collectors ripe for study — focuses on the fertile research resources open to those interested in the modern history of collecting in the United States.

Muchnic's piece makes clear that researching the history of the art market — who bought what, where, when, and why — is now viewed by American scholars as a noble pursuit that interlocks constructively with the established discipline of art history. The number and range of significant archives available to scholars is expanding all the time. Well-heeled foundations like the Getty Research Institute and the Center for the History of Collecting in America at the Frick Collection in New York, to name just two, offer increasingly rich opportunities to mine historical auction catalogues and the manuscript and business archives of former dealers.

As questions of provenance and due diligence become ever more important within the art trade and among collectors, so the importance of these archives grows accordingly.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the great American industrial and financial barons began drawing on the services of British über-dealer Joseph Duveen (above left), to help them build their art collections. With his assistance, they went on to amass extraordinary holdings of the finest art Europe had to offer, which provided the foundations of some of the greatest art museums in North America.

In recent decades, American institutions have hoovered up a host of business archives of important dealers and collectors in an approach that mirrors the art-collecting activities of Frick, Morgan, Mellon, Stotesbury, et al, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Back then, the rich craved art; today, as Google has shown, information is an equally prized commodity and many of the institutions that now collect art business archives are digitizing them as well. Indeed there is a delicious irony in the fact that the Getty now holds the vast Duveen archive, which is in keen demand as scholarly interest in the history of collecting grows.

Duveen's brilliant insight was that America had money but wanted art and Europe had art but wanted money. He exploited that simple equation with staggering success. As a result, if today you want to see many of the great paintings Duveen transacted, you will need to travel to America to do so. However, the same is not true of the digital information relating to those transactions, much of which is being gradually made available to scholars via the internet.

Given the increasing accessibility of that information, there is no excuse for Britain to lag behind the US in developing the history of collections into a scholarly discipline. Sadly, however, with the exception of Sotheby's and Christie's Fine Art courses — which chiefly serve their own business interests — few UK universities look positively on the history of the art market, instead treating it with sneering disdain. This is all the more lamentable given that the vast majority of young art history graduates will go on to work in the art market in some form or another, be it in a museum, an art dealership, an auction house, or even an archive.

Having just returned from my annual stint teaching a course on the history of the art market for the ARCA Masters Course in International Art Crime Studies in Italy, I can vouch for the keen interest in the history of collecting shown by the many graduate students and established art professionals who enroll on the course each year. The vast majority of those students, however, are North American.

If we want a better understanding of how today's art market evolved — to say nothing of clearer insights into what motivates collectors and indeed art criminals to do what they do — we need a more scholarly approach to the history of collecting. America is lighting the way.

Useful archives and other resources
Durand-Ruel (The archives of 19th century French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel)

The Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance (PSCP) (The Getty Research Institute's Provenance Database)

Center for the History of Collecting in America (Frick Collection, New York

Smithsonian Archives of American Art (Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC)

Journal of the History of Collections (Oxford University Press)

The Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art (Yale University)


David Packwood said...

Excellent post Tom.

The Duveen archives were used brilliantly by Brown and van Nimmen in their book on Raphael's 'Bindo Aloviti' portrait, which I read recently.

Sadly true about UK universities attitude to collecting studies. The passing of Francis Haskell, nearly a decade ago,hasn't helped either. There are still people like Giles Waterfield, but I can't think of many more.


Duveen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
iesa MA said...

Dear Tom
its great to read that you are interested in the history of collecting but sad that you don't know there is a centre in London at the Wallace collection, which is the UK centre for the study of collecting, Also I have run and MA at the Wallace called the History and Business of Art and Collecting which has been going for 5 years and I have 3 students working on PhDs on the subject at British Universities. you may say that as the institution that set it up is a French one, it is not a UK course, but it is validated by the University of Warwick.
We don't have the Getty Archives but the National Gallery, with Nick Penny, who surely is one of the most important figures in this field, is very keen on the study of collecting.
Not only do we have an MA, there are monthly seminars held at the Wallace and the Institute of Historical Research, London. also publications- 'auctions, agents and dealers' studied the art market at a conference 2003 at the Wallace.
I could go on- centres in Lille and in Antwerp are really important for example
but I will stop and just say
look at our website and you will see we are also beginning a new MA in the History and Practice of the Contemporary art Market at Whitechapel, validated by Liverpool John Moores University who are really excited about the study is alive- it needs more of course, but there is a lively interest in it over here too.

Best wishes
come to the Wallace and check us out
Adriana Turpin
Academic Director
MA in the Hiistory and Business of Art and Collecting

Tom Flynn said...

First of all, apologies to Henry Joseph Duveen, whose comment I accidentally deleted while moderating comments earlier today.

Henrique wrote to ask whether I knew of any ancestral connection between one of his own relations, a Denis Ian Duveen, who lived to the great age of 90 in Brazil, and the illustrious art dealer Joseph Duveen, to whom I referred in the above blog post. I see from Henrique's own postings on his Duveen blog that he has already researched much of the Duveen genealogy, including the family of Joseph Duveen, so I can only conclude that he is in a better position than I to pursue the family tree back into the early years of the twentieth century.

He may, however, find that some enquiries at the Wallace Collection may draw fruit. I'm grateful to Adriana Turpin for writing to tell me that the Wallace Collection runs a Masters course in the history of collecting, of which I was unaware.

I did not, however, say in my post that there were NO courses of that kind in the UK, but rather that when compared with the progress made in the US in this field, the UK lagged behind, which I believe is indeed the case, the Wallace MA and one or two other similar courses notwithstanding.

I'm also well aware that National Gallery director Nicholas Penny is interested in the history of the art market, and so he should be. He's the director of one of the UK's most important museums. But he is not a one-man MA course. My comments were informed by my own experience of having worked across both the academic and commercial sectors of the art world over the past twenty years. Yes, progress has been made and the suspicion and disdain I frequently heard expressed towards the art market in the groves of academe may finally be dissipating. I'll be most interested to look closer at the Wallace Collection MA to which Adriana refers, but I maintain that much is still to be done. And once again I am referring to the UK, not to continental Europe.
Thanks for the comments, Henrique and Adriana,
Best wishes

Eburnant said...

During the 1970's, I seem to remember that Michael Jaffe employed two researchers who sat day after day in the stacks of the old British Museum Library systematically working their way through the picture catalogues of the major auction houses and preparing a hand-written card for every picture that they came across. As a member of staff of the Museum at that time, I would occasionally stumble across these poor souls while looking for a book that I myself wanted. This, of course, was in the pre-digital era and it may be that their efforts were binned when it became possible to document individual sales electronically. Still, it would be interesting to know what became of the cards that they so laboriously wrote out while hidden away in the stacks. Primitive as their system may have been by current standards, it does at least indicate that British interest in the history of collections and collecting is of fairly long duration. Richard Camber

Tom Flynn said...

Thanks Richard,
That's fascinating. I wonder whether an enquiry to the British Library might throw some light on what became of their Sisyphean endeavours.

Richard said...


If they have survived, I suspect that the Fitzwilliam might know more about them than the BL. Jaffe was Director there at the time.


Tom Flynn said...

Thanks Richard,
I'll enquire on my next visit to the Fitzwilliam in October.