Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Letters of the Art Raiders

I have long been fascinated by the cultural and political activities of the American Progressives, operating in an era not only when there was supreme confidence in reforming and managing society but when these efforts translated into the founding of great institutions (libraries, museums, archives, universities) and disciplines (history, political science, economics, anthropology) necessary for staffing these institutions. Cynthia Saltzman, Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures 1880-World War I (New York: Viking, 2008) interested me because it analyzed the imperialistic collecting that laid the foundation for great institutional and personal art collections that we enjoy and marvel at today.

What we learn in reading her book is that the dealers, collectors, and others involved in amassing these collections left behind their story in rich archival holdings that have not been fully told. Peering at the museums of today, Saltzman muses that the “stillness and beauty of the museum galleries reveal of the rough and tumble involved in the very worldly pursuit of pictures.” She then argues, “That aspect of the story unfolds in written records. Letters and cables, penned and typed out a century ago by dealers, experts, and collectors reveal the tangle of motivations and circumstances behind each art purchase. Large leather sales books document the canvases that went in and out of galleries and the details of every transaction – dates, prices, sellers, buyers, investors, and middlemen. . . . These documents unveil the combination of ego, idealism, and ambition that fired America’s Old Master collecting, and they suggest the complexity of the process by which a nation acquires its culture and art” (p. 7).

In Saltzman’s capable hands, we can read interesting stories about the chase after particular paintings, the wheeling and dealing engaged in by an intriguing array of characters, and how people who believe they can shape society to their own ends often leave behind wonderful documentation about their exploits.