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October 2, 2010

"The buying and selling habits of Victorian collectors and dealers are now being exposed online"

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From a story in the September 23, 2010 New York Times:

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The Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have sent about 1,500 pre-1920s auction catalogs for scanning through JSTOR, a nonprofit digital archiving organization, and 100,000 searchable pages are now posted at a beta Web site, auctioncatalogs.jstor.org.

Although the pages are rarely illustrated, they reveal the history of auctioneers’ hyperbole and collectors’ obsessiveness. Christie's described consignors with phrases like “a Connoisseur Who has spared no Expense,” and a portrait for sale would be listed as “a Female sitting, overpowered with sleep and heat of a sultry Summer evening.”

In 1804 Sotheby’s broke up a bankrupt merchant’s museum of oddities, and a single lot contained “Liquid Bitumen or Naptha, Alluminous Schistos, Iron Ores, Gallena, Bitumen in Fluor, Sulphat of Lime, Antimony, Stalactites and Various.”

In the margins of the pages, saleroom observers occasionally scribbled prices, identified buyers and gave critiques of the art. “Sometimes it says, ‘Bad painting,’ or, ‘No way this is by Rembrandt,’ ” said Deborah Kempe, the Frick library’s chief of collections management.

JSTOR is now deciding how to expand the scanning scope and link to museum and library Web sites, and possibly the recent databases of auction houses.

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From the JSTOR auction catalogs beta website: "This prototype site is open to the public through 2011. If you are interested in this content and the importance to art research, we encourage you to try the site and take the brief survey linked below. We will evaluate use of the content and the feedback we have received in order to help determine the future of the resource."

From the New York Art Resources Consortium website:

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JSTOR is collaborating with the Thomas J. Watson Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Art Reference Library in a pilot project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to understand how auction catalogs can best be preserved for the long term and made most easily accessible for scholarly use. Auction catalogs are vital for provenance research as well as for the study of art markets and the history of collecting. Libraries, however, face a range of challenges with respect to their catalog collections, including preservation concerns and shelf space constraints.

This pilot project will digitize and preserve a small set of American and British auction catalogs dating from the 18th through the early 20th century, while examining how best a more extensive effort might be undertaken. To enhance access to content, Jstor is developing new tools for digitization, such as capturing handwritten annotations that document the lots’ buyers and prices. New tools linking resources and allowing authorized users to contribute information will provide opportunities to enhance content.

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Project figures and contributions:

• 106,000 pages scanned from 1,600+ auction catalogs

• Watson contribution: 81,824 pages from 1,203 catalogs

• Frick contribution: 24,807 pages from 425 catalogs

October 2, 2010 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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