The Art Market and Collecting

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The art market and art collecting, while distinct phenomena, are closely interlinked in the early modern period. The fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries witnessed the creation of a number of social institutions related to both, including the professionalization of art critics and art dealers, an international art market, large-scale private collections, and the first institutional museums.


The art market, as distinct from art patronage, involves the sale (or resale) and distribution of works of artincluding but not limited to antiquities, paintings, sculpture, tapestries, works on paper, ceramics, and metalworkindependent of direct commissions. The nascent early modern art market operated alongside a preexisting patronage system, with the result that many artists produced works both by contract and speculatively, in anticipation of future sales. Similarly, many early modern collections held works acquired by a variety of means, including direct commission, market purchase, inheritance, and as gifts.

The rise of humanism in the late fourteenth century, with its strong emphasis on the revival of classical culture, was a spur to the creation of an art market. Princes, prelates, and scholars avidly collected antique statues, architectural fragments, coins, and other Roman or Greek artifacts. As demand for such objects increased, a class of brokers and dealers arose to facilitate acquisition. The rapid rise in prices for antiquities in the fifteenth century attests to the establishment of effective market mechanisms. Humanism also facilitated the growth of a market for contemporary works of art. Historical and critical literature based on classical models, beginning with Petrarch and Boccaccio, praised artists such as Giotto di Bondone or Simone Martini on stylistic grounds, promoting an interest in individual artistic personalities and a desire to own works by celebrated artists. In turn this led to the practice of signing works or employing signature styles or techniques. More specialized books on art, such as De pictura (1435; On painting) by architect Leon Battista Alberti (14041472) or Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (commonly referred to as Lives of the Artists ; 1550) by painter Giorgio Vasari (15111574), addressed the needs and interests of collectors and amateurs at least as much as they did professional artists.

In the north, the fifteenth-century Burgundian court provided a similar impetus for the production, sale, and collection of works of art. The Burgundians, especially under Dukes Philip the Good (13961467) and Charles the Bold (14331477), set a standard of magnificence and splendor for all of Europe. Courtiers, diplomats, merchants, and bankers who wished to participate effectively at court were obliged to become patrons of its material culture. The high nobility particularly favored tapestries, precious metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, and jewelry. For others, painting was a more affordable option. It is noteworthy that court artist Jan van Eyck appears to have produced paintings only for middle-class clients, with Philip the Good requiring his services for more ephemeral projects.

Although the art market often deals in elite objects produced or procured for an elite clientele, it also encompassed more prosaic and functional objects. Antwerp, a major artistic center during the sixteenth century, already had in the late fifteenth century an established site (Our Lady Pand convent) for the sale of ready-made devotional and liturgical paintings and sculpture. Annual fairs, especially the Frankfurt book fair for works on paper, offered another venue for artists to hawk their wares. Paintings, tapestries, and illuminated books formed a substantial component of luxury goods produced in Bruges, Antwerp, Brussels, and Amsterdam for the export market. Such objects were distributed as far away as Turkey, India, and New Spain.

Artists producing works for the market inevitably attempted to secure market niches through specialization, which could take different forms. One approach was to create works to be sold to clients of different means. Thus seventeenth-century Dutch artist Jan van Goyen (15961656) developed a technique for quickly producing landscape paintings that could then be sold at comparatively low prices. Countrymen such as Gerrit Dou (16131675) or Jan Vermeer (16321675) commanded the art market's highest prices for their very finely crafted paintings. Dou is an interesting case in this regard. Through the royal agent Pieter Spiering, Dou was affiliated with the Swedish crown. He continued to produce paintings speculatively, but received an annual stipend from Sweden for the right of first refusal. At the end of the seventeenth century, painter Adriaen van der Werff (16591722) stood in a similar relationship to the Düsseldorf court. Another competitive strategy was specialization in subject matter. From the mid-sixteenth century onward, artists throughout Europe developed reputations as practitioners of individual genres. Their areas of specialization could be highly particularized. The painter Pieter Aertsen (15081575) for example, was renowned for his paintings of kitchen interiors, while Dutch artist Paulus Potter (16251654) concentrated on landscape scenes with cattle.

By the end of the seventeenth century, professional art dealers appeared to cater to the needs of a diverse range of clientele, especially in Paris. There the marchands-merciers offered paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and furniture for sale. One dealer, Edmé-François Gersaint (16941750), brought the sale of art to a form recognizably similar to the modern market through the publication of sales catalogues and catalogues raisonnés for individual artists. The shop sign that Antoine Watteau (16841721) painted in 1720 for Gersaint shows the range of art works and clients to be found in such establishments.


The phenomenon of art collecting had diverse origins. Medieval churches and monasteries accumulated considerable numbers of sculpture, paintings, metalwork, and jewelry. As indicated in the accounts of Abbot Suger (c. 10811151), these objects were prized for their aesthetic qualities as well as their functionality. Princely houses in the late medieval period also assembled vast collections of artworks, including tapestries, paintings, metalwork, armor, and jewelry. Until the sixteenth century, most of these artifacts were either in daily use within the household or held in the treasure rooms as items of sumptuous display that could also be converted into ready cash should the need arise. The market for antiquities spurred by humanism, mentioned above, provided another stimulus to the collecting of art.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, an international court culture promulgated art collecting as an index of political, economic, and cultural status. The sumptuous visual culture of the Burgundian courts set a model for the rest of Europe. The Medici in Florence placed more specific emphasis on the collection of paintings, while Pope Julius II (reigned 15031513) commissioned works on a virtually unprecedented scale, from masters such as Bramante, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Humanist culture also promoted an ethos of collecting. The new practices of historical archaeology and philology respectively encouraged gathering classical statuary and coins (valued especially for their inscriptions).

The primary type of collection in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) in northern Europe, known as the studiolo in Italy. These early collections contained a diverse range of objects, including naturalia ('natural objects'), artificialia ('things made by human hands'), technologia ('mechanical devices'), and mirabilia ('wondrous or monstrous things'). They contained objects gathered from the farthest reaches of the globe and aspired to the representation of the world at large. Works of art served a variety of functions within the curiosity cabinet since they could represent the myriad things of the natural and human worlds and could also provide aesthetic pleasure through their supreme craftsmanship. As microcosms, these collections, especially those of princes, were simultaneously displays of wealth and erudition, active research laboratories, sites for constructing familial, institutional, or state histories, and repositories of practical technologies. The curiosity cabinet was thus the ancestor of the modern museums of art, natural history, history, and technology. Both the Habsburg collections in Vienna and the Romanov collections in St. Petersburg were converted in the nineteenth century into modern institutional museum complexes.

See also Aristocracy and Gentry ; Art: Artistic Patronage ; Class, Status, and Order ; Habsburg Dynasty: Austria ; Marvels and Wonders ; Museums ; Romanov Dynasty (Russia).


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Mark A. Meadow

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The Art Market and Collecting

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The Art Market and Collecting