In his introduction for The English as Collectors, Frank Herrmann writes:
What I have always hoped to find, in reading through the literature on collecting, is the dispassionate description of the moment in time when a collector found something he wanted to own; his detailed inspection of the piece; the moment he realised that he could afford to buy it; his hesitation whether to plunge or not; his doubts as to whether his wife would ridicule the purchase-or welcome it; the actual instant when his hesitation hardened into a positive decision; and, finally, the moment when he pulled out his cheque book and pen. It is this concatenation of events that makes a man a collector; they, as much as the subsequent delight of ownership, are what gives collecting an edge. (p.20)
The following is an attempt to address this need, to show my collecting habits by examining each object in the order of their acquisition, and especially the research that took place before and after each purchase. If there is any information that I am failing to provide that you would like to know, please leave a comment below. With one exception, all of the objects came from eBay. Why? Experience has proved my suspicion correct that a sleeper can regularly be found somewhere on eBay due to the vast number of listings involved (to create opportunity, as well as to provide cover), and also because the objects listed for sale are not screened as they would be at an auction house.
I should note that oil paintings on wood or on masonite panels and sculptures in marble were the original extent of my collecting interests, but, upon finding that this was too narrow a scope to meet my standards on a monthly basis, I explored other options and found certain sculptures in bronze, wood, and terra cotta suitable, as well as oil paintings on copper.
The collection officially began with the arrival of the Zhou Dynasty style ritual censer. Its arrival took me by surprise, because at $250 the price was too good to be true, and after three months of waiting I had lost hope of it ever arriving at all. I knew it was probably a fake (after two years I found an exact copy), but to my eye it was such a good fake that I had no difficulty pretending that this vessel really did come from the 11th century B.C. Accordingly, with the utmost care I brought it to my room for closer inspection. This vessel fostered a sincere interest in Shang and Zhou bronzes, so much so that I printed out every article I could find on JSTOR, looked at every Chinese bronze on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and was ecstatic to discover that George W. Weber, Jr. had written an entire book on the subject called The Ornaments of Late Chou Bronzes: A Method of Analysis. Armed with new-found knowledge, I was hungry to collect more.
This brings us at once to a major miss-step: The Portrait of a Cavalier, by Maurice Ingres. After extensive searching, this was supposed to be the centerpiece of the collection, and my first major purchase of an original oil painting. It had a mysterious glow of light obscuring the face, evoking the self-portrait of Rembrandt in the Isabella Stewart Museum. I was overcome with excitement, only to be robbed in plain sight of $1,000 to a deplorable scammer who refused to send the painting or refund the money after responding to his deceptive e-mails for months. It was a harsh lesson that could have been resolved with urgency, but my naïveté just happened to meet with a criminal over an artwork that I was desperate to receive at any cost. I took the loss in stride and it helped jump-start the idea to collect one artwork per month, in part to avenge myself. I vowed never to make such a mistake again.
Instead I purchased the anonymous Interior of a Monastic Chapel. Soon after visiting The Frick Collection and falling in love with Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl, I couldn’t help but notice the similarly careful attention paid to light effects in this church interior, particularly the way in which light emerges from the right side of foreground elements. It betrayed the eye of a perceptive student of light, and I had to have it, thinking, as I still do, that this quality is rare. Ebay was very buggy at the time, and this listing, as well as many others, was not displaying a thumbnail image in the listings until a bid was placed. The price was therefore unusually low for a painting of this quality. While searching for more church paintings two years later, I ran across a published etching of this painting, which identified the artist and subject.
I found the next painting, the Portrait of Leona Hladik, because I was still looking to see if the Cavalier would reappear. In any case, Maurice Ingres had a very distinctive style and this painting was the next best introduction to the artist. I find it very probable that this painting would not have appeared on eBay had I not purchased the Cavalier (thus showing what I was willing to pay for the artist’s work). At this point I also recall searching for alternatives to the Cavalier, and being impressed by a Musketeer by Frank Duveneck that (unfortunately for me) already sold at Christie’s for about $3,500.
Next was the Sketch for a Banquet at the Palazzo. This painting was intriguing for incorporating so many people and leaving so much to the imagination. And what it left to the imagination was realized by several paintings by Donato Giancola that I was able to see in person, so it reminds me of the storytelling found in Donato’s work. This acquisition was notable because I neglected to look at the listing closely and was disappointed to find that this was painted on paper and then glued to stretched canvas. I was expecting it to be painted directly on stretched canvas, and this caused me to never buy oil paintings on stretched canvas again, which I estimate to be over 75% of all paintings available on eBay. This was a major reason why I began to branch out and look for sculptures in materials other than marble.
The next purchase, John Linnell’s Portrait of Thomas Hill, Esq., more than made up for my previous mistakes and losses. This was truly a sleeper, and one that has proved beyond any doubt to me the value of art collecting and connoisseurship. This painting and its subject both have an extensive documented history that the seller didn’t know about, including a published etching of the portrait. The only thing provided in the listing was the Wikipedia entry for the artist, John Linnell. I am convinced that the information that I found after receiving the painting, along with better quality photographs, would have at the very least doubled or tripled the price of the auction had it been disclosed. Charles Dickens wrote fondly to him. Coleridge wrote a poem about him at the urging of Thomas’ friend, Theodore Hook. All of the documentation can be found in the link at the beginning of this paragraph.
The next painting is the only one that didn’t come from eBay: the Portrait of Robert Hunt (?). This was my best attempt at finding another painting by John Linnell after enjoying so much excitement from the previous month. Unfortunately the painting was much smaller than I thought, which all but killed the hopeful attribution. I’ve returned to eBay ever since for three main reasons: to avoid buyer fees, to have more options from a much larger market base, and to take advantage of the eBay Bucks program. Several months after this I did see an authentic collection of Linnell’s letters for sale, including a small portrait drawing, but the price was almost as much as the oil portrait! I couldn’t justify the price, and had to move on.
Next was my second attempt to find a real Zhou dynasty style bronze vessel. This one was very unusual in that it came from outside China, in the UK. The confirmed fakes were coming from mainland China, including, as I would find out later, the ritual censer that I purchased. This one still has a chance, as I haven’t been able to find a duplicate of this design anywhere, and the forms are unique all the way around.
The next three objects were purposely less than $300 each in order to stay under my means. These were The View of Mallorca, Spain, the Calliope in Reverie, and the Copy After David Slaying Goliath. The latter was so bad that I have removed it from the site (I was attracted to it by how unusual it was to find a sincere copy after Rubens, but upon closer inspection it wasn’t beautiful on its own so it didn’t belong). The first two really impressed me by how much quality they offered for the price. The View of Mallorca was an unusually good plein air painting that had all the fresh spontaneity and bravado of a landscape by John Singer Sargent. The Calliope in Reverie was elegantly painted and composed and in approximately the same ratio of figure to background as John Linnell’s portraits, which was my gold standard. The subject matter calls to mind Bouguereau. The Calliope was also one of two paintings that I have intentionally purchased frames for. I purchased the frame later on, because I love tabernacle frames and occasionally look for them, and when I saw that this frame was the same size as Calliope in Reverie I couldn’t resist.
And then another miss-step: Harold Speed’s Self-Portrait at age 70 (See “Failures” on the front page). Although I was able to get my money back without any issues, I learned that Italy forbids the export of any original works of art outside of the European Union over 50 years old. I remember this causing me to begin monitoring alternative markets in the EU, especially Austria, Belgium, Spain, and Poland. It is worth noting the lengths that Isabella Stewart Gardner took to bypass these same restrictions, all documented in her correspondence with Bernard Berenson.
Instead I purchased the Portrait of Helen Greene. This was my first foray into collecting impressionist paintings, and it was a conservative style of pointillism that I had never seen before outside of Van Gogh’s self-portraits. Up close it has by far the most interesting surface texture and color relationships, but I feel that it needs a much better frame to bring it all together. I remember hoping that it might be as significant to my collection as Degas’ Portrait of Joséphine Gaujelin was to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Berenson, in a letter to Gardner, thought it one of her very best acquisitions). I think this one falls well short of the mark.
Next was the Unidentified Austrian Portrait. This portrait was just spectacularly well-painted. It didn’t matter that the artist and subject were unknown, or that the canvas was cut on all sides and was not attached to the wooden panel, suggesting that it was once a larger canvas painting. A fierce bidding war caused this to become the most expensive purchase so far. Part of the expense was my insisting on using PayPal rather than sending the seller a check.
Next was the Bacchante marble sculpture. This was, as far as I could tell, a once in a lifetime event. Here was an original and elaborate sculpture by an artist who has an entire room dedicated to him in a museum in France, carved from a single block of white marble, being sold only a few miles from my house, offered at auction with no reserve. I will never forget the ordeal of laying this sculpture horizontally onto couch cushions in the backseat of my parents car, and, upon arriving home, lugging this 60 lb. sculpture in my arms up two stories to off-load it onto my desk. It was at this point that I discovered that sculptures deserved to make up 50% or more of the collection. I now spend most of my time searching for sculptures.
Next was the Satyress. This was my first acquisition of a terra cotta sculpture, so I did a lot of research while the auction was live to make sure it wasn’t a reproduction. Luckily I already had Bruno Lucchesi’s book, Terra Cotta, which informed me that the underside and holes like the belly-button are commonly pierced to allow air pockets to escape during the kilning process. I then compared the Satyress with confirmed reproductions of Descomps’ work and was satisfied that I was looking at a real one. It was perplexing, because fake Descomps are a fairly common sight on eBay.
Next was the Mater Dolorosa. I had been looking at hundreds of examples of the Virgin Mary since I started collecting, and with so many Old Masters tackling this subject it took something really great to make me drop everything and buy one. This one really met the highest standards that I could hold it to, because it sincerely and convincingly represented divine sorrow, whereas most depictions came off as worldly and technically flawed in an obvious manner. I looked at it as a far superior version of the Calliope in Reverie. This would stand out on the walls of any museum that I’ve been to.
Next was the Infant Hercules. This was an astonishing find, and far superior to the terra cotta Satyress which inspired its purchase. I was struck by its utter strangeness, and strangest of all it was exquisitely beautiful. I was deeply inspired by Bernini’s bozzetti at the Fogg Art Museum when I first saw them in 2007, and in this sculpture I feel like I have one of similar quality to his Model for the Fountain of the Moor (1653).
Next was the Vishnu Riding Garuda. Upon finding this object, my research involved learning about how widespread this wood-carving tradition was, because it was very easy to find inferior examples of this everywhere online, but comparable ones were in museums in Bali. So in a very abbreviated sense I learned what constituted museum-quality for this type of Hindu art and felt like I couldn’t go wrong for the price, which was $285.
Next was the L’infant Marie Dupont (tête en bas). Not knowing what I was going to purchase next, I casually searched for one of my bread and butter keywords, “oil on wood”, and this strange painting showed up. My prior experiences had taught me that this was a highly unusual portrait, not only because it was upside-down, but also that it was a very realistic painting at a time (the 1950’s and 60’s) when everybody was into abstraction and modernism. The series from which this came was called “Endotique”, as opposed to exotic, and was deliberately reacting against abstraction for its own sake. Further research showed that Matton was heavily influenced by Rembrandt, going so far as to make an entire film depicting his life. This was a no-brainer, and twenty minutes later, this fascinating work, which was only on eBay for an hour, was mine for a considerable $2,015. It demonstrated a very appropriate time to use the Buy-It-Now button, because I felt that the auction would have exceeded $2,015.
Next was the Portrait of Clare with Arrow. This painting had in spades something that I’ve been looking for in oil paintings all along: that aura of light which brings the figure into high relief (See “A Study of Optical Effects in Oil Paintings”). It gives the surface a crackling energy which dominates the room. Hi-resolution photos also showed that the brushwork was impeccable. The price was steep at $500 for such a small painting, so the next few purchases have been under $300 each to drive the average back down.
Next was the Sogo Bo Hyena. Like the Vishnu Riding Garuda, poor examples were everywhere, but this one instantly felt right. I would never purchase this if it were a painting, but as a sculpture the forms are captivating. It was a must-have.
At this point, after collecting twenty objects, I should like to say that my ambition to follow in the footsteps of Isabella Stewart Gardner is growing even stronger. She has many kinds of objects that are currently beyond my ability to appreciate. These include: etchings, tapestries, bas-relief, antiquities, architectural details, stained glass, tiles, furniture, watercolors, and illuminated manuscripts. I hope to address some of these omissions below.
The next piece is the German Baroque Calendar Stone. This object satisfies a broad range of interests: 16th century ornaments, stone-carving, black-letter typography, and German culture from the Late Baroque era. This is a marvel of intricate stone-carving that I never thought I’d be able to afford, so I gladly paid the $387 for it. The craftsmanship puts most of my earlier purchases to shame. It compares favorably with the best ornament designs of the time, seen in books and in architecture. This set a benchmark for quality and rarity per dollar that will be very hard to beat.
Next was my first watercolor purchase, an unidentified British portrait of a young lady. The outrageously elegant and refined brushwork is comparable to that of the Portrait of Thomas Hill, Esq., by John Linnell. I wouldn’t be surprised if Linnell was responsible for painting this! Having grown up in Boston, almost all of the watercolors that I have ever seen in person have been by John Singer Sargent, so it was refreshing to find a watercolor that relied on beautiful drawing and subtle modelling. There is nothing haphazard here, it is arguably the single most beautiful portrait in the collection so far. Someone suggested Thomas Lawrence, and while that appears plausible by looking at his oil portraits, I don’t have enough evidence.
The next object, an unidentified marble sculpture of a woman holding a snake, was the best value that I could find after an arduous search spanning two months, 300,000 objects and over a dozen candidates. The candidates were largely mediocre and overpriced. This sculpture is, I am confident, much nicer than the seller’s photos show, and a tremendous value for $178.
The next object was acquired quite as unexpectedly as the L’infant Marie Dupont (tête en bas) by Charles Matton. Like many objects I end up buying, this black stone plaque had an instant appeal, which upon further investigation grew into an inescapable need to purchase it. Under unique circumstances, this plaque was at auction, but the seller was willing to sell direct, so I jumped at the opportunity. I felt confident because the object was stone with an aged patina, and heavily worn and jagged around the edges, all signs that this was not mass-produced. I was also impressed that no existing reliefs of Bahram II that I could find were in black stone, which I had previously only seen used in Ancient Egyptian sculpture. Upon closer inspection, it did turn out to be a museum replica, albeit one that had retained more details than the original. Not quite as disappointing as the fake Chinese bronzes, but close.
The next object, an Unidentified Woman by Georges Brasseur, I made sure to be an extremely high-value purchase to make up for the previous object, which was about four times more than I wanted to pay for a replica (this is an arbitrary valuation). Thankfully this beautiful portrait appeared and was obscure enough (I think) to give me the sole bid. It was high-value because the painting had been recently cleaned and re-framed, and those costs did not appear to be baked into the final price. For the size and quality of the painting, it was also below average-most other paintings like this that I have bought or attempted to buy have been $1,000-$2,000. This was $760. I should mention that all of these factors were good enough to override my distaste for round frames and canvases. I am still much more inclined to purchase original sculptures when I can find them.