This is an age in which Achilles gives way

Blessed is the man who has a hobby! declared Lord Brougham; and of all
the hobbies it is doubtful if any are more blessed than those of the
collector of antiques and curios, old prints, coins and medals, rare
books and bindings, and the like. “God never did make a more calm,
quiet, innocent recreation,” good old Isaac Walton said of angling. But
that is true, too, of collecting, which, figuratively speaking, is in
itself a species of the art of angling, of dipping into the quiet pools
of unfrequented places, there to angle for quaint curios and interesting
mementos of bygone days, conscious that though the bait may be small,
the catch may be large–besides, there is the fun of fishing!

In “Le Jardin d’Epicure,” Anatole France has written: “People laugh at
collectors, who perhaps do lay themselves open to raillery, but that is
also the case with all of us when in love with anything at all. We ought
rather to envy collectors, for they brighten their days with a long and
peaceable joy. Perhaps what they do a little resembles the task of the
children who spade up heaps of sand at the edge of the sea, laboring in
vain, for all they have built will soon be overthrown, and that, no
doubt, is true of collections of books and pictures also. But we need
not blame the collectors for it; the fault lies in the vicissitudes of
existence and the brevity of life. The sea carries off the heaps of
sand, and auctioneers disperse the collections; and yet there are no
better pleasures than the building of heaps of sand at ten years old, of
collections at sixty. Nothing of all we erect will remain, in the end;
and a love for collecting is no more vain and useless than other
passions are.” Anatole France might well have added Sir James Yoxall’s
observation, that “good for health of mind and body it is to walk and
wander in by-ways of town and country, searching out things beautiful
and old and rare with which to adorn one’s home.” Indeed, collecting has
aspects other than the one of discovery, of acquisition, of
entertainment, or of furnishing a pastime: it has its utilitarian one as
well.

There is an undeniable and oftentimes indefinable charm about a home in
which well-chosen antiques and curios form part of the decorative scheme
and become part of its furnishing and adornment. Many collectors have
become such through an increasing interest in old furniture, rare china,
early silver, and other classes of antiques and curios, inspired in the
beginning by the acquisition of some object of the sort, personal
contact with which has served as an example of the pleasure which
collecting holds in store for one. The true collector is not merely “a
gatherer of things,” indifferent to the guidance of a discriminating
taste. Rather, when he finds an object at hand, he considers it from
many points of view–its historical value, its significance in the
development of the arts, its anecdotal interest, its worth as a work of
art, and its workmanship.

The intuitive sense will carry the _amateur_ a long way, but
connoisseurship will depend upon knowledge. Those persons who are
absolutely indifferent to the whys and wherefores of things,
uninterested in any effort to discover the “story” of an object, bored
by its history or unappreciative of its beauty, are hardly likely to
become collectors, though accident and the chances of fortune may throw
interesting things into their possession. Neither are they likely ever
to become as Thackeray, who, in “Roundabout Papers,” said of a certain
antique and curio shop: “I never can pass without delaying at the
windows–indeed, if I were going to be hung, I would beg the cart to
stop, and let me have one look more at the delightful _omnium
gatherum_.”

Now, it often happens that we find a collector-in-embryo–one who has a
desire to start a collection, but fancies it an undertaking requiring
very special qualifications–asking: “How could I hope to become a
collector when I know so little about the subject I think I should be
interested in? Then I fear good things cost too much, and that real
bargains have long ago vanished from the mart.” To such a one the reply
can truthfully be made that it is by no means difficult for the beginner
to acquire definite and valuable knowledge on any subject in the
collector’s field that may chance to interest him.

The way one learns to collect (and that means the way one learns about
the things worth collecting) is by collecting. Contact with the objects
themselves is necessary to connoisseurship, just as it is one of its
pleasures. The collector learns more about Oriental porcelains, old
English china, Dresden figurines, French enamels, Russian brass, Italian
laces, or Bohemian glass by having a few representative pieces of them
at hand for study than he could learn, so far as helpful knowledge
fitting him to judge is concerned, from volumes on the subject. While
this contact with actual objects is necessary in developing a
connoisseurship (one may have it visually in museums or have access to
private collections; the shops, too, will teach one much), all the
accessible writings on the subject should be consulted, as comparative
study increases the interest and confirms or corrects one’s personal
deductions and opinions.

Supremely fine examples of old furniture, china, silverware, bronzes,
miniatures, and the like, have not often been “picked up for a song.”
The collector must remember that the pastime of collecting is not one of
recent development. Indeed, the ancients were collectors of the rare,
curious, and beautiful. The Medici were renowned for gathering in their
places _objets de virtu_, and few collectors of note of to-day could
outvie the enthusiasm of Horace Walpole, who turned Strawberry Hill into
a veritable museum. All this goes to show how keenly sought for have
been all art objects of unusual importance. Naturally, when rare
occasion brings them to the mart they command high prices. However, it
is not for one to despair because he cannot collect museum pieces, to
cry for those things which have little to do with the pleasure of
collecting beyond the interest their contemplation affords. That the
by-paths which the collector may tread are literally bristling with
bargains _is_ true. Certainly the small collector need not become
discouraged. For instance, the author continually finds within the
boundaries of New York city alone numerous objects that any collector of
limited means could acquire with rejoicing heart. One day it is a yellow
Wedgwood mustard-pot for two dollars, another day a _genuine_ Paduan
medal for fifty cents; then a Persian lacquer mirror-frame for a dollar,
and a Japanese sword-guard by Umetada, signed, for half as much! It adds
to the interest of collecting that while the collector soon learns where
to look for things, he constantly meets with them also where they are
least expected, and the country holds as many treasures hidden away for
the keen collector as does the metropolitan stronghold.

This is an age in which Achilles gives way to Douglas Fairbanks, Helen
of Troy to Mary Pickford. At least Homer in the original is unpopular
and to confess to a liking for Virgil in the Latin is to be frowned upon
by those who have persuaded certain of our universities to turn their
backs on the very cultural presences that have given structure to
civilization. As for myself, I shall continue to be old-fashioned. Only
this morning I have been dipping into good old Pliny’s “Letters.” Now
more than ever I am convinced that those who cried most loudly against
the classics were those who knew nothing about them. Where, I ask, in
all literature will there be found more things of human interest than in
the writings of those old masters of antiquity?

It is Francesco Petrarca’s chief title to fame that he was an inveterate
collector of classical writings, that he devoted himself with an
unending enthusiasm to the recovery of the literature of the Ancients.
And yet he knew naught of Greek, little enough of Latin from the point
of view of scholarly attainment in the language. What he did realize,
did sense, was the value to intellectual development of these bygone
literary Titans, and at Padua he warred against the medievalism which
was, after all, nothing more than a warring against the complacency of
his own times, just as the attitude of those of to-day who fight against
such of the finer things of life as are to be reached only through
contact with the original writings of Homer, Euripides, Aristophanes,
Sophocles, Horace, Virgil, Cicero, Cæsar, Ovid, Plato, Pliny, and the
rest is, in effect, smugly complacent in its acceptance of cultural
things as they stand.

Renan called Petrarch the first modern man; if only we could be as
modern! And what a debt the world owes to his collecting proclivities,
an instinct connected with an intelligence!

Of course, there were hundreds, one may venture to say thousands, of
collectors who were his contemporaries; for the love of beautiful and of
interesting things is seldom separated in the normal person from the
desire to own them, a desire that has produced more history and more
romance than one would dream of.

There are those who dissolve pearls in wine, those who treasure them in
necklaces; these two sorts are in the world. To Petrarch each scrap of
writing was as precious as a pearl to be added to a necklace to adorn
the fair throat of Learning, and his accomplishment, his devotion to
this hobby, marks him as the very Prince of Collectors of Yesterday.

I suppose there have been collectors ever since things were discovered
to be collectable. Every object of human creation seems eventually to
fall within the collecting class, Father Time saying when. _C. Plini
Caecilii Secundi Epistularum_ sounds somewhat formidable to the ears of
a foe to the classics, but it lately yielded this morsel from the eighth
letter of Book VIII, a letter from Pliny to his good friend Rufinus:

You have now all the town gossip; nothing but talk about Tullus. We
look forward to the Auction Sale of his effects. He was so great a
collector that the very day he purchased a vast garden, he was able
to adorn it completely with antique statues drawn from his stores
of art treasures.

Ancient Domitius Tullus! would that we knew how your sale came out! Did
you turn in your tomb that some Eros from Praxiteles’s own hand, some
Amor chiseled by great Phidias himself, fetched but a hundredth of its
value? Or did you rush off to Dis and to Proserpina with the gleeful
tale of how friend Pliny, who thought to get something for nothing, was
forced up to a prince’s ransom by Lucanus in the matter of that little
sardonyx gem, engraved by Pyrgoteles, finer, the auctioneer declared,
than the Perseus by Dioskourides? How human it is to wish to know!

Those old Romans were great collectors. Even when the creative spirit
had degenerated they were appreciators of the fine things which the
Greeks had produced. Petronius, that _arbiter elegantiarum_ of Nero’s
court, amassed thousands of remarkable art treasures that even the
emperor longed to possess. Incurring Nero’s displeasure, and dying under
the Emperor’s orders, he disdained to imitate the servility of those
who, under like penalty, made Nero heir to their possessions and, as
Suetonius tells us, filled their wills with encomiums of the tyrant and
his favorites. Petronius broke to bits a precious goblet out of which he
commonly drank, that Nero, who had coveted it, might not have the
pleasure of using it. Incendiary, violinistic Nero, Nero who on shaving
off his beard for the first time put it in a golden box studded with
precious gems! What would not collectors of a lock of hair of this great
one, and of that, give to discover the beard of Nero!

I dare say, in no time was human nature more perfectly understood than
in Roman days. Even Augustus Cæsar was wont to amuse himself by a device
explained by gossipy Suetonius as follows: “He used to sell by lot
amongst his guests articles of very unequal value, and pictures with
their fronts reversed; and so, by the unknown quality of the lot,
disappoint or gratify the expectation of the purchasers. This sort of
traffic went round the whole company, every one being obliged to buy
something, and to run the chance of loss or gain with the rest.” How
many of us who have frequented the art sales in American cities, from
the old Clinton Hall auction days to the present, would have imagined
that Pliny took such things as seriously, Augustus Cæsar such things in
jest? How old the new world is, how new the old!

From the time of the ancient Athenian vase shops, and even from long
before that, to our own day, when we may browse in the realms of
antiquarians at home, the bazaars of the Far East and the quaint
inglenooks of Europe when we are traveling, collecting has been a
passion with the many as well as a mania of the few. But we, ourselves,
are more prone to collect the things of yesterday than were the
collectors of yesterday to collect the things of the centuries before
their time.

Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent, found time when steering
through the perilous channels of endless family feuds to immortalize
himself as a collector. To the efforts of Cosimo, his grandfather, are
due those priceless classical and Oriental manuscripts which formed the
nucleus of the Laurentian Library in Florence. The grandson was worthy
of his forebear. Through Joannes Lascaris he procured from the monastery
of Mount Athos two hundred manuscripts of greatest importance for the
Laurentian, an incomparable collection, which, together with other works
of art, disappeared at the sacking of Florence during the rule of
Lorenzo’s wretchedly incompetent son, Piero. Lorenzo, notwithstanding
his love for ancient works of art, was a ready patron of the art of his
time. Lorenzo’s daughter, Catherine de’ Medici, had all the Medici love
for art, and she, too, patronized living artists lavishly, as her
husband’s father, Francis I, had done in France before her. She it was
who took such constructively active thought for the planning of the
Tuileries, and her interest in books, manuscripts, and other things led
to enriching the collections of the Bibliothéque Nationale.

What a remarkable list of collectors France can write in her Golden Book
of Art-Lovers–Jean Grolier, De Thou, Pierre Jean Mariette, Cardinal
Mazarin, Comte de Caylus–to name but a few of literally thousands! Nor
must we forget Madame de Pompadour, whose library and marvelous
collection of works of art were sold after her death. There is no
question that Madame de Pompadour took a constructive interest in art
and literature, an interest which led Voltaire to assert that without
her patronage the culture of her time would have found itself in sorry
plight under the rule of a king whose thoughts had little or nothing to
do with the finer things of life, that king who stood at the palace
window looking forth as the cortège of the Pompadour passed by in a
drizzling rain and remarked: “It is a wet day for the Marquise!”

Charles I of England was a king whose art-collecting proclivities
produced rich spoils indeed for the Cromwellians. In the quaintly worded
old catalogue recording his possessions we find noted among other
things, “Item, a landscape piece of trees, and some moorish water,
wherein are two ducks a swimming, and some troup of water flowers, being
done in a new way, whereof they do make Turkey carpets, which was
presented to the King by the French Ambassador, in an all over gilded
frame 1 ft. 10 x 2 ft., 5 wide.”

Some of King Charles’s treasures in the century following passed into
the hands of Horace Walpole, who housed them in his villa at Strawberry
Hill, that “Gothic castle” which revived the English eighteenth-century
taste for Gothic design. Austin Dobson’s “Horace Walpole” says of the
master of Strawberry Hill:

As a virtuoso and amateur, his position is a mixed one. He was
certainly widely different from that typical art connoisseur of his
day,–the butt of Goldsmith and of Reynolds,–who traveled the
Grand Tour to litter a gallery at home with broken-nose busts and
the rubbish of the Roman picture factories. As the preface to the
Ædes Walpolianæ showed, he really knew something about painting; in
fact, was a capable draughtsman himself; and besides, through Mann
and others, had enjoyed exceptional opportunities for procuring
genuine antiques. But his collection was not so rich in this way as
might have been anticipated, and his portraits, his china, and his
miniatures were probably his best possessions.

We must not judge Walpole’s virtuosity by all that accumulated in his
house–Wolsey’s hat, Van Tromp’s pipe-case, King William’s spurs, and, I
dare say, some chips of stone from the Parthenon and a vial of water
from the Jordan! But let it be remembered that these things were gifts
to Walpole, and as such were necessarily within reach, just as the
cut-glass wedding-present pickle-dishes of our own time must be given
shelter against the sudden appearance of their donors. Perhaps there is
merit in the discipline of such tender-heartedness.

Well, gone is Master Horatio, gone the wits and beaux and belles of his
day, but he remains in our thoughts as the Georgian master of Chelsea
china pseudo-shepherds and shepherdesses, the most elegant of
collectors, the most brilliant of subjects in the sovereign realm of
precious bric-à-brac. We are glad that he lent his presence to our
ranks.

So, you see, collecting is not merely a fad of recent generations. In
that which has gone before there is ever a peculiar fascination. The
field is unbounded, its possibilities limitless; things which to us of
to-day are commonplace, by reason of their niches in our every-day life,
will be treasures to posterity a hundred years hence. Thus will the love
of collecting go on from generation to generation, with new converts
always ahead.

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