As a summer intern at the Frick Art Reference Library, I researched several New York auction catalogs in preparation for the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) online exhibition Gilding the Gilded Age: Interior Decoration Tastes & Trends in New York City. I found myself drawn to the catalogs with annotations of prices and buyers. This prompted me to reflect on society’s fascination with the money others pay for their belongings. It is a curiosity that is seen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is still seen today in mainstream media. An example of this continued fascination is the 2012 headlines across entertainment magazines reporting that pop singer Rihanna purchased a Swarovski portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Claire Milner for $160,000 (Mendoza).
My interest in this phenomenon heightened when I read the Mary J. Morgan auction catalog of 1886. The sale featured an “Amphora shaped vase” (lot 525) in the color of “Ashes of Roses” once owned by “I Wang-ye,” a Mandarin Prince. Its catalog entry is annotated with a selling price of $1,200 to “Mr. Brayton Ives.” Ives was a Yale University graduate with family ties to the settlement of New England. His ancestor William Ives led the seventeenth-century migration that founded New Haven, Connecticut (Gen. Brayton Ives Financier, Is Dead).Securing his fortune through his presidency of the New York Stock Exchange, Western National Bank, and the Northern Pacific Railway, Ives amassed an expansive collection of art and rare books. This included the Gutenberg Bible and the 1488 edition of Homer, both of which currently reside in the Rare Book Collections at Princeton University (Ferguson). Periodically, he sold portions of his collection. I theorize that this was to make room for more accumulation of objects. In 1891, the New York Times reported that Ives sold a collection of artworks and ceramics for a total of $150,000 (Gen. Brayton Ives Financier, Is Dead).
An interesting inventory of Ives’s collection exists in the 1915 American Art Association auction catalog for his “Art Treasures” held a year after his death at age 74 (American Art Association). Items included in the sale were paintings, ceramics, sword guards, and metal works from the early seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, as well as Renaissance tapestries and ecclesiastical banners delicately embroidered in gold threads and silks (American Art Association).The sale was so immense as to warrant a “De Luxe” edition of the catalog, a copy of which is preserved in the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives.
I find that there is an intimacy in reading the contents of someone’s collection and exploring his tastes and quirks. These records become a reflection of a collector’s personal standards. Perhaps this is why the public continues to be intrigued by the large purchases of celebrities and public figures. Many people have their own cache of prized possessions such as favorite books, jewelry, and/or articles of clothing. These items reflect what they find worthy of investment. What’s more, people often indulge by passing judgment on others’ possessions and the price they pay for them.
This was certainly the case during the time of Ives. In a diary entry from 1883, the American painter of the Hudson River school Jervis McEntee wrote of a visit to the New York gentleman’s club the Century Association. McEntee stated, “Brayton Ives had a small landscape [at the Century Association] by Rousseau which I understood he paid $7,000 for. It was good enough but not striking in any particular and a half a dozen of [American] artists might have done it as well (McEntee).”
That such items were displayed and discussed in social clubs during the Gilded Age emphasizes the motives underlying collecting at the time. Yet, it seems unfair to imply that Ives’s collecting was primarily fuelled by social incentives. The variety and scope of his collection are a testament to his passion for the cultural objects he accumulated. Ives, himself, likened his collecting to a syndrome, “I got into the way of frequenting booksellers’ shops and thus became inoculated with the disease which, in its development made me a collector (Mr. Brayton Ives’s Books).”Indeed, many American cultural collections are indebted to such “diseases” of collecting including NYARC partners the The Frick Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Brooklyn Museum. It is with thanks to collectors like Ives that significant cultural pieces remain preserved and accessible today.
April Thompson, Intern, Frick Art Reference Library