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.