A forthcoming sale announced at Christie’s this week – that of the renowned Hollander collection in October – reminded me of the very origins of collecting.
While the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty collected books from all over the world for the Library of Alexandria, it wasn’t until the Renaissance that the hobby we know and love reached its more familiar incarnation.
It was during this time, when the arts and sciences were flourishing, that prominent families, most notably Florence’s Medici family, began to amass art and unusual objects for storage in what has become known as a cabinet of curiosities, taking control of the market away from the church and nobility.
These cabinets, packed to the brim with oddities and objets d’ art from across the world, were used to display the wealth and power of the owner, giving rise to the world’s first private collectors. Not to mention making them the envy of their peers, parading a world of treasures before their as they entered your home.
Christian I of Saxony was advised that three types of item were indispensable in forming a “Kunstkammer” or art collection: firstly sculptures and paintings; secondly “curious items from home or abroad”; and thirdly “antlers, horns, claws, feathers and other things belonging to strange and curious animals”.
Cabinets of curiosities were the preserve of those that could afford to house such wonders, such as Europe’s monarchy and wealthy merchants. Perhaps the most famous and early is the Studiolo of Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, which is well recorded but sadly dismantled by 1590.
Ever since, it has been something of a rite of passage for those at the very pinnacle of society to own a cabinet. Notable amassments include the Habsburg Imperial collection (containing the feather headdress of Aztec king Montezuma), Sir Hans Sloane as founder of the British Museum, and Thomas Dent Mutter’s remarkable collection of medical equipment, which was one of the first in the United States.
Take a look at some of the examples below for inspiration:
It’s easy to forget that collecting is a hobby that is as steeped in history as the objects collected, and one that is dotted with the names of some of history’s most prominent figures. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a king to collect in today’s market, just an enthusiast with a keen eye for detail.