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)