The Sordid History of Antiquities Collectors

From sexual dalliances with statues to imperial looting, they “can never entirely shake off an air of impoverishment and depleted humanity.”

Dylan Martinez / Reuters

The year was 1625 and Sir Thomas Roe was stumped.

England’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire had recently waded into the murky world of antiquities collecting. He decried the “sordidness of barbarism” that led to the destruction of ancient artifacts due to the construction of new mosques. But in truth, he knew little about the classical remains in the Turkish lands. However, despite this lack of knowledge, he set his heart on obtaining a group of twelve ancient reliefs from the fourth-century triumphal arch erected by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius the Great, known as the Golden Gate of Constantinople. He admitted he was moved more by “the glory” of taking them than for their beauty, which he thought faded. The fact that they happened to be embedded in a fortress may have made them a particularly intriguing challenge. So he sought formal permission to remove them for two years—but to no avail.

So Roe devised an ingenious stratagem. Denunciations of ISIS as barbarians who destroy antiquities under cover of religious principle are now de rigueur. But in 1625, it was the Englishman Roe who encouraged locals to reject their own antiquities on religious grounds as forms of idolatry. He bribed a local imam to condemn the reliefs as contrary to Islamic law to facilitate his removing them to England.

“There is only one way left,” he observed, “by corruption of some churchmen, to dislike [the reliefs] as against their law; and under that pretense, to take them down to be brought to some private place; from whence, after the matter is cold and unsuspected, they may be conveyed.” Roe reckoned the total outlay for his plan, including bribes and shipping costs, at 700 crowns. But his incitements did not work: he never got the reliefs he coveted.

The guile of the collector is nevertheless unmistakable in Roe’s machinations. Bribery is, indeed, a common tactic in antiquarian subterfuge. Take Lord Elgin of Parthenon Marbles fame. The man who in dubious circumstance plucked and then sold the British Museum its most contentious treasures from Ottoman-occupied Athens. Elgin instructed his agents to employ an arsenal of enticements to pry antiquities from the arms of locals, ranging from telescopes and Wedgwood China to guns and narghile or hookah pipes.

But what do collectors really want? And by what strange power do ancient stones make them, in the words of the antiquarian Charles Townley, “marble mad and very extravagant”? These questions animate Erin Thompson’s timely and immensely enjoyable book Possession, a cavalcade of history’s most ardent lovers of the antique.

Collectors have long been pegged as creatures of passion if not perversion, perhaps most memorably by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who caustically remarked that the collector “can never entirely shake off an air of impoverishment and depleted humanity.” They are people who seem to identify more with things than other people and whose behavior has often prompted diagnosis more than analysis. Now more than ever in fact: in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association listed “Hoarding Disorder” (or “Extreme Collecting”) in DSM-5, the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Meanwhile, the global art market has become the playground of the super-rich from New York and London to Beijing and Abu Dhabi, although the jet-set tends to get labeled eccentric rather than insane. In an era bulging with mental disorder, big money and rampant looting, the time to reassess collectors has come.

Thompson tells some fabulous stories about antiquities collectors as she ranges back to the ancient Attalids and Romans’ love of Greek art, forward to the fashion for classical antiquarianism that erupted among eighteenth-century British Grand Tourists and, finally, to their twentieth-century American heirs through such figures as J. Paul Getty. Many are love stories. What happens when boy meets marble? According to mythology, Pygmalion fell in love with a statue of his own carving. But statue-love was quite real in the ancient world. One Greek fell for a nude Aphrodite by Praxiteles: he left it stained with the mark of his passion after spending the night in its shrine.

The Roman Emperor Tiberius was likewise smitten by a statue of Apoxyomenos and had it moved from the public baths to his bedroom. Britain’s ambassador in eighteenth-century Naples Sir William Hamilton took the whole Pygmalion thing very seriously. He willfully styled his wife Emma like one of his statues (small wonder That Hamilton Woman took up with Lord Nelson) and delighted in the erotic possibilities of antiquarian possession. He was tantalized by the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, including the “remarkable … tit bits” of a marble Venus, and trained a pet monkey who amused guests by fondling both antique gems and the testicles of servant boys he swam with. Indiscreet jewels indeed.

While some marked statues with their semen, others used a chisel. Before the nineteenth century, collectors had few qualms about refashioning their private property after their own whims. A little genital effacement here for the prudish, a little discreet remodeling there, all to taste. Restoration often meant transformation, as Thompson shows in several expert passages. Hermaphrodites became Venuses, while the statue of an old fisherman came back as Seneca himself. Fakes and forgeries abounded and collectors were often in on the game, pumping up their social capital by telling porkies about provenance.

Collections also transform collectors—or so they hope. Rebelling against the monarchical future prescribed for her, Queen Christina of Sweden absconded to Rome where she hoarded marble with abandon at the residence she rented in the eternal city, the Palazzo Riario. Here she even arranged her throne so that she occupied an empty slot in a series of statues of the Muses, taking the place of Melpomene—the muse of tragedy often depicted holding a sword or club—to embody the masculine virtues she had craved since youth.

J. Paul Getty imagined himself in communion with the likes of Hearst and Hadrian, both of whom also “liked things on a grand scale.” He fancied himself Caesar reincarnate. Rather more knowledgeable than most of today’s elite hoarders, the self-confessed collecting “addict” bought many pieces using his own judgment rather than relying on experts, wrote stories about them and—unlike his successors at the museum he created—was scrupulous about provenance. To J. Paul, the joys of collecting (the title of his 1965 apologia) were frankly imperial: here was an American oil tycoon taking possession of Europe’s ancient past—the ultimate cultural status symbol. The Getty Villa in Malibu pays testament to this modern colossus strutting his ancient style.

Getty nonetheless expressed guilt, as Thompson points out, at the thought that so much private pleasure might serve little public purpose. Yet Possession’s stories about private collectors downplay both their public legacies and political contexts. Beyond Getty’s spectacular example, numerous connoisseurs like Elgin and Townley bequeathed collections to major institutions like the British Museum. Private possessions have public consequences. At a time when the art market is warped by deepening income inequalities, the absence of mainstream cultural debate about the relationship between collecting and corruption in our own society is striking. The ancient Romans had one, but we do not. The issue that preoccupied them, which should resonate powerfully today, was public versus private collecting. In the early Roman Empire, most spoils paraded on triumphal marches were put to public and religious purposes. But after the third century BCE, “Catonians” debated “Connoisseurs,” claiming that the rise of private collecting in particular exposed Rome to vice, luxury, and corruption, raising the specter of decline and fall. Such was the potential power of things over people—the power to consume the collector and his society in the process.

Possession rightly urges that we understand the motivations of private collectors who continue to encourage looting with their appetite for antiquities. But the political question “who owns antiquity?” is left hanging. This question forms the title of a 2008 polemic by James Cuno, current President and CEO of the Getty Trust. Cuno is well known for his advocacy of deregulating international antiquities trading. Against a background of repatriation claims, he has asserted that the interests of encyclopedic museums outweigh those of national collections because the former serve a global public rather than a merely local one. Arguments, however, that non-Western artifacts are better off in Western museums with large publics cannot avoid the question of how they got there, not to mention the role Western powers have sometimes played in making the parts of the world they come from less safe. Otherwise, the argument simply becomes museological might makes right. The case of Iraq provides a vivid counter-example. It was the American and British armed forces’ removal of Saddam Hussein that made possible the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in 2003 (“stuff happens,” Donald Rumsfeld barbarously declared) and created the preconditions for the establishment of ISIS—and its destruction of antiquities. The question “who owns antiquity?” has a political history that must inform present debates.

In claiming possession of antiquities on behalf of all nations, Cuno fails to recognize that such custodial universalism is the vestige of an imperial past in which Europeans claimed superior knowledge of ancient civilizations and thus objective rights to their patrimony. But as Wendy Shaw has demonstrated for Ottoman Turkey in her book Possessors and Possessed (2003) and Elliot Colla for Egypt in Conflicted Antiquities (2007), Western claims to antiquities in the name of safeguarding the “heritage of civilization” have in fact been hotly contested as far back as the nineteenth century. Ottomans and Egyptians sought to define their own relationship to the ancient past without subordinating themselves to European claims to embody the apex of historical progress. Both studies raise fascinating and often overlooked questions about the very categories we use today. Just what counts as a “prized antiquity” and who determines its value? How, for example, did Greco-Roman artifacts come to be identified with the origins of classical civilization by Europeans and their American heirs through a celebratory Hellenism that anchored Western modernity while defining the Oriental (and its artifacts) as undesirable and backward? Understanding antiquarian possession requires a reckoning of the political stakes in valuing some antiquities, and some narratives of civilization, more than others and assessing how such judgments have shaped not only class sensibilities but national and racial identities as well.

Thompson’s brilliantly told tales create a sparkling tableau that invites further reflection on the politics of even the most solipsistic collectors. It was something more than private ambition alone that led British gentlemen to style themselves heirs to Rome as their own empire rose and more than a cloistered narcissism that led Getty—and his successors—to see Caesar in the mirror.