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  Collectors and collections—Various kinds—Meaning of the word curieux—Various types of collectors: the artist, the scholar, the eclectic and the specialist—A large class of collectors as defined by La Bruyère—The ultra-modern collector—The art and curio market—The three stages of the collector’s career—The collector’s touch—The elasticity of prices and an opinion of C. T. Yerkes—Gersaint’s advice and Schlegel’s opinion—A Latin saying re-edited by Edmond Bonnaffé.

“La collection c’est l’homme,” a well-known French lover of art and first-rate connoisseur used to say. Nowadays this transformation of Buffon’s threadbare saying is only partially true. It would, perhaps, be more correct to put it in the past tense, as a new type of virtuoso has arisen. A collector of the most recent brand prefers to buy collections “ready-made.” Such collections all gathered in good order in the houses of these new collectors speak very eloquently of the owner’s financial power, but say nothing of his taste, ability, or love for the artistically fine and beautiful.

However, this being somewhat of a recent change brought about by casual circumstances with hardly any claim as an artistic phenomenon, this study can be confined for the present to that normal period, barely past, when the art and curio collector was really a “collector” and above all a lover of art as well as a passionate hunter after fine things. From the study of this semi-past world of art it will be easy to136 proceed to a comparative analysis of the up-to-date one, to the new species of collector who in no way comes under the definition “La collection c’est l’homme.”

In the foregoing review of collectors and collections, it has mostly been a question of art collectors, with only incidental reference to other kinds of art lovers. Curios, however, imply many other things. The French word curieux, which has often been used for lack of a better expression, has a wider meaning. The word curieux, which might be translated by the English word “curious,” without losing much of its meaning, may have originated in the Latin curiosis, though it is doubtful whether the Romans ever applied this word to connoisseurs of art or other collectors. The fact that the artistic world was then divided into lovers of the beautiful and faddists or fools, that erudites had not yet appeared, may have rendered new words of definitions useless. When speaking of his friend Statius as a connoisseur and virtuoso, Pliny uses the Greek word φιλόαλος (friend of the beautiful), a word that might really be used to define the true and genuine collector.

The French word curieux appears for the first time in a dictionary by Robert Estienne (1531) and is defined ung homme curieux d’avoir ou sçavoir choses antiques but later on, presumably from its probable Italian origin, the word acquires a wider sense, a sense that even finds an echo in Shakespeare, and so also the old meaning of gentilezza as used by Lorenzo Medici has a resonance, according to Lacroix du Maine, in the French gentillesses ou gentilles curiositez.

A Child.

By Ferrante Zampini.

San Giovanni.

By Ferrante Zampini.

Notwithstanding this limitation, for many the word curieux has the widest meaning and includes all kinds of collectors. Trevoux’ definition “res singulares, eximiæ raræ” with Millin’s broadening comment “tout ce qui peut piquer la curiosité par la singularité des formes ou des usages” (all that may excite curiosity in strangeness of form or use), is the proper one, regardless of Mme. de Genlis, who as late as 1818 goes back to the old meaning and includes under curiosité the entirely scientific Natural History collections.

137 It must be said that the distinction between scientific and artistic pursuits is not always clearly defined. Science mingles with art with undisputed right, and scientific pursuits at times have artistic interest. The two seem either to alternate their rights or share them in the fields that lie between.

In the artistic field, or rather in that which tallies with Millin’s definition of la curiosité there are two quite typical classes even though they cannot be separated by a sharp line of delimitation on account of linking subdivisions. The one includes the art collector alone and the searcher for the beautiful, the other those gathering the rest, things which for “strangeness of form or use” present a certain interest to the collector.

There is no doubt that those of the first class possess the impulsiveness that generally characterizes intuitive and non-learned experience in art, and those of the second combine artistic and scientific interests. The one has a tendency to consider and value objects in a different manner from the other: the artistic temperament has a penchant for synthesis, the scientific is inclined towards analytic methods.

While the collector of the first class has a direct purpose—the search for what is artistically fine, the other is less absolute, and for him objects have what may be called a relative value, the value of the series. In collecting coins or medals, the latter more especially, art plays an undisputed part, but science claims the right of classification, thus placing a relative value of no secondary importance. As a consequence, for instance, a medallist is likely to speak of the rare in place of the fine, or at times use one word for the other. It may be that in the eyes of a numismatist a sample of inferior art acquires great value through its rarity and through the place that it may occupy in the series of his collection.

There are some collections consequently in which the best artistic samples are forced to play a secondary part, the object of the collection being classification, just as shells,138 minerals and other purely scientific gatherings would be arranged.

This peculiar tyranny of science may even find scope for action in expressions of art, where science and erudition should have no claim. In museums of painting and sculpture the history of art demands that the objects should be classified according to epochs, schools, etc. The man intent upon such classification often becomes so engrossed in this one scientific side as to grow indifferent to those artistic considerations which give the painter and the real lover of art the joy art is intended to give. Even connoisseurship is often too tainted by erudition, and the curators of museums are very rarely æsthetes. At the sight of a fine work of art, a connoisseur is very often so intent upon discovering the name of its author, the probable school and the epoch—all forms of classification—that he forgets he is before a work of art, that is to say, an expression of human sentiment, which whether good or bad was created solely to arouse artistic emotion in the beholder. The artist, while creating it, had certainly not in mind the history of art and all its erudite paraphernalia.

There are two other distinctions in art collecting, distinctions so closely allied to the above classes that they share the respective characteristics in a very similar manner. They are represented by the eclectic collector and the specialist, two distinct orders both useful in a way, both belonging to the artistic sphere. The eclectic is well defined by Gersaint as “an amateur whose passion presupposes taste and sentiment”; the other, the specialist—generally regarded as having perfected his taste by dropping his initial eclecticism—is a collector who has restricted the field of his activity by grafting, so to speak, the purity of his artistic penchant on something that tends to diminish the broad outlook of an eclectic lover of art, and this in order to enlarge the possibilities of research and information. Thus although the specialist has very often passed through an initial period of eclectic wandering, when he becomes a specialist he is139 very apt to forget his past enthusiasm for anything but his chosen speciality. Show a fine Limoges enamel to a collector of medals or a medal to a collector of enamels and you will realize the truth of the statement. Of course he will understand the beauty of the work—though not invariably—but he will take no interest in it. While having perfected his taste in some single branch of art, the specialist has unquestionably atrophied all artistic qualities in other directions. This theory naturally becomes more or less elastic according to the genre and the character of the art lover. A man who is a specialist on certain epochs is hardly a specialist in the true sense, but rather an eclectic who has restricted his pursuits so as to reconstruct in his mind the whole artistic expression of a certain age: the medallist and such like collectors have not such a wide scope and their pursuits generally come to be characterized by method, order and a whole Indian file of historic and erudite considerations. The tout ensemble of an eclectic’s house presents a very decorative appearance, that of the specialist does not always, being mostly encumbered with glass cabinets or pieces of furniture with shelves adapted to his speciality. The eclectic collector will often speak of the beauty of a certain find from a purely artistic point of view, the specialist will grow poetic over the perfect cast, patina, etc. The specialist in medals will often show you two or three specimens of the same medal only distinguished by the colour of the patina or differences of no artistic value, and chronological considerations weigh with numismatists. The specialist must therefore frequently recur to scientific methods.

In Paris there is a loose belief that an art lover who is an eclectic reveals a somewhat provincial sentiment, and that to be characterized as a true Parisian one must be a specialist in some one thing. This belief naturally implies that the specialist has refined his taste and acquired distinction from the grossness and obtuseness with which eclecticism is libelled. Yet this is hardly true, the best French collectors,140 such as Davilliers, Piot and others, were always enlightened eclectics in their various pursuits though having a bent towards specialization.

Nevertheless, we repeat that distinctions cannot be made with mathematical precision. The difference between artist and erudite, eclectic and specialist would seem to have been well defined only by Bonnaffé in his characteristic saying: “The first throws himself upon his knees before Beauty; the other asks her for her passports.”

Neither of the two methods ensures infallibility. The artistic collector, a lover at first sight, may be deceived by an imitation possessing character and general effect sufficient to pass in his eyes for an original; the erudite with his brain in the place of his heart, who demands “passports” before making up his mind, may be duped by a forged “passport,” by an imitation, that is to say, in which the details are respected even to the sacrifice of the totality which so greatly appeals to artists.

There is one more kind of art and curio collector, perhaps the most numerous of all. They have been well defined by La Bruyère more than two hundred years ago. This particular type of art lover is on the look out not for what he really loves but for that which affords him gratifications other than those art is intended to give.

“It is not an amusement,” says the author of Les Caractères in his chapter on Fashion, “but a passion often so violent that it lags behind love and ambition only as regards the paltriness of its object.”

Passing then from the description of the effect to the cause, La Bruyère proceeds:

“La curiosité is a taste for what one possesses and what others do not possess, an attachment to whatever is the vogue or the fashion; it is not a passion felt generally for rare and fashionable things, but only for some special thing that is rare and above all in fashion.”

To this last category, with a few slight modifications, belongs the type of collector who might be called ultra-141modern to distinguish him from his modern confrères of yesterday, a type that can lay no claim whatever to the definition “La collection c’est l’homme,” because he never troubles himself to hunt for works of art or curios, never experiences the joys of discovery, experiences nothing perhaps, but being cheated by dealers, friends and experts. The ultra-modern collector is, of course, amply supplied with money, and relies chiefly on his cheque-book. He is always far from the spot where he might learn wisdom, yet not so far as to be beyond the pale of the deceit and trickery of the market of la curiosité.

This latest variation carries one direct to the modern American type of collector. Not because the type does not exist in other countries, but because America has furnished the champion specimens who through the magnitude of their speculations in art- and curio-hunting have stamped the type. Yet even in America, where art lovers like the late Quincy Shaw, Stanford White, H. Walters, etc., have been known, the ultra-modern type represents a very recent and astonishing novelty.

One conversation on art with this modern collector is generally sufficient to reveal all absence of real passion. These greedy buyers of works of art and curios have often hardly the time to give even a glance at their glamorous purchases. They have certainly not the enjoyment that other collectors have. When they show their collections, a common way of soliciting admiration is to recount the unreasonable and extravagant prices paid.

What are they after? What is their main object in ransacking old Europe for artistic masterpieces to be carried off by the sheer force of money?

Lovesque says one is a connoisseur by study, an art lover by taste, and a curieux by vanity, to which Imbert wisely adds: “or speculation.”

Making every possible exception, vanity and speculation still appear to rule alternately the ultra-modern collector.

We do not deny that many of them may be animated by142 the noble desire to leave their collections to their countries, but yet on closer study the attraction for the greater number of them seems to be either a modification of their financial interests, namely, sport and speculation combined, or an inclination to spend money lavishl............
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