Art collecting is a serious business. But would you die for it? King Charles I of England’s uncontrollable spending on art and artists helped to create the political disquiet that resulted in his overthrow and eventual death. But there were other casualties, too.
In the summer of 1640, Charles asked his surveyor of pictures, Abraham van der Doort, to fetch one of his paintings, a miniature by the English artist Richard Gibson. Van der Doort took his stewardship of Charles’s collection seriously, as his meticulous inventory of the king’s art, taken in around 1638, shows. (The inventory, complete with dimensions and provenance notes, can be seen in London in the Royal Academy of Art’s (RA’s) exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector (until 15 April). But Van der Doort was aghast to discover that he could not find Gibson’s miniature. Unable to cope with the shame of losing one of the king’s precious pictures, Van der Doort killed himself.
A German poet then in London, Georg Rudolf Weckherlin, wrote a rather unkind epigram about the affair:
‘Anxious to do his duty well,
Van Dort there, conscientious elf,
from hanging up his pictures, fell
One day to hanging up himself.’
Happily, Van der Doort’s tale is a rarity (except, incidentally, for the similar fate of the French maitre d’hotel who killed himself in 1671 because the king’s fish was not ready). But suicidal curators aside, there are more similarities than you might think between the way Charles I collected art in the 17th century and the way collectors operate today. There were even cultural export laws back then.
At the heart of every transaction, as now, were concerns over authenticity; was the proffered “Raphael” really by Raphael? Charles and his fellow English collectors (such as the Earl of Arundel) were on constant guard for “scandalous tricks” as they hoovered up vast quantities of art from mainly Italian collections. Dealers were deemed thoroughly untrustworthy. Optimistically attributed paintings were sold to unsuspecting buyers unable to check the goods themselves until it was too late. Sometimes copies would be inserted into crates at the last minute, and the originals retained. Read more