The desire to collect and purchase antiquities might seem like something that is relatively new. However, having an appreciation for the items of the past is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, it is a practice that has roots that are over 2,000 years old! So, we thought today we’d look into the history of collecting antiquities. You might just be surprised…
It’s often argued that the first time we see a real ‘art’ market for Antiquities is in the Roman Republic. This collecting started with the fledgling Roman empire’s military invasions of Greece and surrounding areas. Indeed, by the sack of Corinth in 146 BC there was a great familiarity with the ancient work of their Greek neighbours. By the Roman Republic Greek statues, such as those by Praxiteles, even had a place on the central Capitoline Hill. Some of these statues were over 500 years old and their position at the heart of political and religious Rome shows how important they were.
During the Roman Republic there became a real cultural appreciation and debate around this Greek art. Whether it was to be prized, or dismissed as damaging to the morality of the Romans! Despite those who disliked it, much Greek art became disseminated through public and private Roman collections. We have evidence of Cicero writing impatiently in letters as he daydreams about where he wants to place the new art he’s ordered in his home. In other accounts, we read about wealthy Romans using Greek art in their interior design. When you read examples like that, it doesn’t sound like much has changed at all!
When you think of the medieval period, antiquities collecting might seem unusual. After all, the largest trope of this period is their abandonment of the trappings of classical antiquity. However, this is not completely true. We see classical motifs being used in medieval paintings and classical architecture being built into their buildings. The infrastructure such as roads were repurposed and reused, and there was acknowledgement of the cultural impact their forerunners had. The Byzantine empire has been particular noted by historians as having had an appreciation for classical art and language. For example, the Byzantine church at Skripou has walls made up almost entirely of ancient Greek ‘spoila’ from ancient local cemeteries and temples.
However, you could argue that these people were not necessarily collecting pieces from the past like we collect antiquities today. The next example we see of this in medieval Europe comes with the rise of Christianity. Monks, religious clergy and laymen alike became somewhat obsessed with the collecting of historical relics that related to Jesus Christ’s life. For example, the Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem was known for saying that small fragments of the ‘true cross’ were all over the world by the end of the 4th Century AD.
The Silk Road and Imperial China
Whilst European monasteries fought for historical fragments from the Holy Lands, over in China an appreciation of their own historical objects was beginning to flourish. From as early as the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) an internal market for Neolithic Chinese art was growing. Excavations of burial sites were ordered so that collectors could have access to items like Jade Disks and Bronze Vessels. Scholars and historians were also taking an increased interest in China’s ancient past. For example, the politician and scholar Ouyang Xiu who took rubbings and studied epigraphy of ancient Chinese art.
Under the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 A.D) the practice of collecting historical artefacts and art in China really took off! At the beginning of the dynasty Cao Zhao’s Essential Criteria of Antiquities (1388) is written. Setting a tone for the dynasty to come, it guided its reader as to what antiquities to look out for, how to settle a price with a dealer and how to spot fakes. Collectors would scramble for pottery from the ‘golden age’ of Chinese ceramics and use the pieces in the design of their home. Indeed, the pattern continues with even emperors in later periods taking a close interest in the art of the past. The emperor Qianlong in the mid 18th Century had a great fascination with a Jade Bi from 1,200 BC. He was so mesmerised with the piece that he wrote a poem about it and then had that poem inscribed on the bi’s surface.
Throughout the Song and Ming Dynasty China was connected to the rest of the world’s art market with the Silk Road. A trade route that ran from medieval Italy to eastern China it is said to be a cultural artery that allowed the exchange of ideas, art and materials on a large scale. For example, it is due to this trading route that paper and silk first made their way to Europe. Although there is a limited record of whether antiquities specifically were traded, a lot of cultural art was. It’s highly likely part of this trade was in what we would call antiquities.
Casting our mind back to Europe and the beginning of the ‘Renaissance’ in the 14th Century, there was a renewed interest in the history and art of the classical Mediterranean. You can see the direct influences of classical archaeology and art in the contemporary architecture, paintings and sculpture. Think Roman style columns and ancient Greek style statues.
In order for classical styles to be so heavily included in Renaissance art there first had to be study of the art from this period. Historians and philosophers wrote ancient histories and studied ancient ways of life. However, contemporary noblemen took on their own role beginning to collect that from the past. For example, the Italian poet Plutarch had his own collection of ancient coins which he studied very carefully.
Early Colonial Collecting
The collecting of not only classical antiquities but also those from all over the world, began in European nations with the exploration and the colonial missions from the late 15th Century onwards. Many European countries fought to ‘discover’ parts of Asia, the Americas and Africa. Upon meeting these new peoples, states and cultures they often acquired historical antiquities that they would bring back to Europe. Some of them were acquired as gifts or through trade. However, as time went on more and more were taken as spoils of war or at least through some sort of coercion or force.
An example of one of the pieces that were acquired in this period are the ‘Afro-Portuguese’ ivories. They were acquired beginning in the 1450s and were seen as highly desirable by Mediterranean nobility. In general, this was just the start of European art collectors wanting to learn more about artefacts from all over the world. Unsurprsingly, as demand grew we start to see the first art and antiquities auction houses. The infamous Christie’s held their first sale in 1776.
Later Colonial Collecting
As the 19th Century arrived there was increasingly a fascination with the ‘antique’. The English upper class took great pride in starting to compile their collections of antiquities. Perhaps one of the most famous is the collection of Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill. It included statues, coins, glass, painting and artefacts from all over the world!
A lot of the increased interest was prompted by the expansion of empire. Either from personal interest, for wealth or in punitive measures, many colonial staff embarked on antiquities collecting. An example of one of these imperial staff based in Java was Sir Stamford Raffles. As a colonial officer in the early 19th Century, he collected many Javanese pieces of art. A stand-out piece is beautiful mask, which like the rest of his collection, is owned by the British Museum. Due to the pristine condition of many of the antiquities he collected, it is thought they were gifts or traded and not forcibly taken. However, having said this it cannot be forgotten he was there on a colonial mission. His main aim was always to keep Java under British control.
Unfortunately, especially in Africa and areas encompassed by Indian Ocean, many antiquities were stolen, often forcibly. Napoleon took artefacts from Egypt as the ‘spoils of war’ and Indian artefacts were frequently taken by the British imperial state. The ‘treasures’ of India filled British entertainment halls in London, including at the famous Great Exhibition. The story of the British acquisition of Indian Antiquities can be told through the Akbarnama. A highly decorated royal biography from the Mughal Empire, it took over 7 years to create. The tome became the property of the British East India Company in the 19th Century and at the end of the period was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it still is. There are more extreme examples still, like the 1897 punitive siege of the Kingdom of Benin in West Africa. The British empire, in a show of force, ransacked the capital city and looted much ancient Beninese art. Most famously are the Benin Bronzes that are also still in the British Museum to this day.
20th Century Collecting to the Modern Day
The antiquities market in the early 20th Century grew substantially. Especially after the turmoil of the two world wars, the art and antiquities market goes from strength to strength. More people had disposable income to buy antiquities. There are some landmark sales that show the importance of the antiquities trade. For example, in 1958 Christie’s host a sale where they sell some of the Metropolitan Museum’s armour and weaponry collection in London.
As we get into the latter half of the 20th Century there starts to be more thought put into where antiquities come from. Individual nations had laws already in place as they began to protect cultural goods. However, the biggest piece of legislation came in 1970 with the UNESCO Convention. Additionally, laws such as the Treasures Act of 1996 still give guidance about what has to be done for those items that have been found in the UK in recent years. Most recently, several laws have been implemented that particularly reflect the risks of looting and illicit trade from conflicts in the Middle East – for example focusing specifically on Iraq and Syria. Increasingly, the antiquities market is separating itself from a history that had some foundations in looting and warfare.
Finally, after over 2000 years of history we get to the modern day! It would be arguable to say that the Antiquities market is now the best it has ever been. People from all over the world are able to purchase antiquities online and connect with their own and other’s ancient past. There is more awareness than ever about the legalities of the trade. Well-respected galleries will now only sell those pieces which they know are safe and legal. They understand that these regulations help keep historic art well documented and available for all. For individual buyers there is more transparency as authenticity can be partially proved by scientific tests.
Here at Pax Romana we’re so pleased that we can be part of this trade. We just want to help you love the past like humanity before us clearly always have!
Additional Reading on the History of Collecting Antiquities
Here are some of the larger references we used in the writing of this article. Through the text specific references are linked. Please let us know if you have any questions about the history of collecting antiquities!