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The History of Collecting: Around the World, In 4 Ways

Imaginary Gallery of Ancient Roman Art, Giovani Paolo Panini, c. 1756
Imaginary Gallery of Ancient Roman Art, Giovani Paolo Panini, c. 1756

The world of collectibles today is as boundless as it is wondrous, including everything from trading card games and comic books to fine wines, and even swords. Equally as vast, however, is the reach that collecting has. A prevalent interest in all cultural communities, collecting is universally indulged-in, and has been for centuries.

We explore some of these fantastical historic collections from across the globe:

The Library of Alexandria, c. 323-283 BC
The Library of Alexandria, c. 323-283 BC

Library of Alexandria

One of the first, and most sizeable collections of books the world had ever seen, the library was founded in 300 BC, by Ptolemy I, successor of Alexander the Great, as a global hub of learning. A sanctuary for the curious, the library is thought to have boasted approximately half a million papyrus scrolls, carrying invaluable knowledge belonging to ancient civilisations; Greek and Egyptian manuscripts, and Hebrew and Buddhist texts. The collection may, in part, owe its size to the controversial manner in which copies were acquired. Ingenious yet immoral, all visitors, and travel vessels that arrived at the mainland were searched, and manuscripts found on them were seized.

The library not only housed an impressive range of books, but also people from all walks of life. Scholars, poets, philosophers and researchers took up residence in adjoining rooms, leaving their mark within its hallowed halls.

Immeasurable rows of shelves unfortunately succumbed to one of several fabled disasters, the most famous of which was a fire lit by Julius Caesar, originally intended to burn down the Egyptian naval fleet. Retaining its status as a stronghold of knowledge, the Library remains a legendary collection, with several institutions attempting to emulate its design through the years.

Queen Mother Crown with Kohinoor Diamond.
Queen Mother Crown with Kohinoor Diamond.

Mughal Gem Treasury

Labelled the ‘Golden Bird’, India pre-colonisation was a country teeming with wealth; the sole source of diamonds in the world until a 1725 discovery of diamond mines in Brazil. Connoisseurs of fine stones and intricate ornamentation they believed fit for the gods, Indian rulers were amongst the best-known early collectors of jewellery. The power of Indian emperors was often weighed in terms of the riches they had amassed, as these were won in conquests.

Exemplifying such power were the Mughals, who invaded sovereign India, assuming rank as monarchs. Their treasuries contained emeralds, rubies, topaz, sapphires, diamonds, pearls – organised into different classes according to size and clarity. This very collection housed the famed Kohinoor diamond, which today sits in the Queen Mother’s crown jewels. Other exquisite pieces of note include the Timur Ruby, a gigantic 361-carat gem, and the ‘peacock throne’, adorned with a whopping 230 kg of precious stones. Regarded ‘the greatest jewel treasury of all times’ by the Smithsonian, the gilded marvel was the product of the finest Indian craftsmanship, designed to satisfy a haughty king’s desire for a lavish seat to commemorate his coronation .

The Moghuls’ dazzling opulence eventually incited rivalry, and attracted colonists, who seized and added these riches to their collections. Although scattered far and wide across the world today, the brilliance of these jewels remains unmarred by colonial actions.

Medici family of Florence, Italy, c. 1389-1737
Medici family of Florence, Italy, c. 1389-1737

Mesopotamian, Ancient Roman, and European art

Infatuation with decadent plaques and statuettes, religious sculptures, and engravings first emerged amongst Mesopotamian royals, as early as the 3rd millennium BC. The monarchy’s objective of putting together such collections seemed to be to call attention to their elevated social standing.

Similarly, in ancient Rome, philosophers and statesmen enamoured by Greek artistry, advocated for, and collected various forms of Greek art, particularly bronze statues of deities. The Romans were also infamous for erecting buildings to publicly display sculpture collections, which often included pieces of religious significance looted during sieges.

Preoccupation with art pieces eventually spread to Europe, where enthusiastic members of ruling social classes started to competitively build impressive collections of Renaissance pieces. The Medici family of Florence was one such aristocratic group, who developed personal relationships with prominent artists from the period, such as Michelangelo, and acquired a number of specially commissioned works from them. Such portraiture, capturing classic Renaissance style, not only shot Italy to fame as an art centre, but also doubled as symbols of the family’s political power and elitism.

The credit for our continued ability to experience and appreciate these pieces even today may fall directly to the rich patronage provided by such individuals.

Cabinet of Curiosities, Domenico Remps, c. 1690, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure
Cabinet of Curiosities, Domenico Remps, c. 1690, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure

Eclectic collections – ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’

Following the Medieval Period, the value assigned to different arts skyrocketed- which meant European collecting interests were no longer be limited to just one category. Individuals began collecting miscellaneous objects of different kinds, and organising them in varied categories. This extensive collection of antiques came to be known as ‘wunderkammer’, or a ‘cabinet of curiosities’.

The first documented examples of these collections arose in 15th century Vienna and Paris, belonging to royals such as Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol. What began with jewels, soon expanded into the realm of carvings, insignia, ivory and brass sculptures, books, coins, clocks, suits of armour, and art. The interest in assembling such collections demonstrated by rulers, encouraged aristocrats and other noblemen to start collecting as well. This gave rise to a widespread assembly of niche, eccentric collections that were inclusive of naturalistic objects, such as preserved insect specimens, and animal bone and teeth. In the Victorian era, a number of these collections included solid miniatures, and luxury textiles, reflecting common interests and trends typical of the era.

Today, an interest in collecting is just as global, with people everywhere not just engaging in the art, but also collecting across several categories. At Showpiece, we strive to ensure that we can offer collectors an opportunity to add rare and unobtainable items to their very own collections.

Find out more about how we do it here

-Rhea Guruswamy