Beginning in the 17th century, a tradition sprang up among the aristocrats of Britain and the nations to take what became known as "The Grand Tour". The concept was straightforward: in order for the sons of wealthy families to gain knowledge and culture, they would take a trip through the cultural centers of Western Europe. This would expose them to the elements of classicism and the Renaissance as well as foster important aristocratic contacts.
The "tour" could last months or even years and while it did indeed provide cultural benefits, it also afforded opportunities for risqué partying and often became merely a pleasurable extended journey. By the mid-19th century, however, technological advances in transportation had opened the world to far more that just the wealthy and the Grand Tour subsequently diminished as a rite of passage for the wealthy.
Picking up the baton in the late 19th century, however, were Americans. With trans-Atlantic travel increasingly accessible, wealthy American families began making their own "Grand Tour" since at the time, Europe was still considered culturally superior. Many of the affluent American patricians were self-made in humble industries and an extensive travel throughout Europe was perceived to confer a desirable veneer of sophistication.
The impact of the Grand Tour on the antiques and art markets was considerable. Early on, it helped to inspire artists, architects, and other creatives. Later, it became an opportunity for the enterprising class, who sold antiquities and art to wealthy travelers or marketed their services as cultural experts and advisors. This reached a crescendo during the Gilded Age, when the so-called "robber barons" such as Frick, Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, and others began to amass important art collections sourced from Europe. Skilled artists in Europe copied museum works for collectors of lesser means, and today even those works can bring substantial sums.
Unfortunately, it also sparked a lively trade in forgeries, especially for works by popular, easily copied artists such as Corot. A running joke in the art world is that Corot painted two thousand works and all three thousand are in the US. Even some of the most storied galleries of the day were complicit in this trade but at the time, the rivalries were fierce and the gallery owners saw money to be made.
No figure loomed larger in this than Lord Joseph Joel Duveen, arguably the greatest art dealer in history. Abetted by a shady art scholar named Bernard Berenson, Duveen sold art literally by the train car load to the robber barons. It was one of the most fascinating times in Western art history and two good books are recommended. The first, "Duveen" by S. N. Berman, is a lighthearted treatment of Duveen and his career. Less flattering is "Artful Partners" by Colin Simpson. Both are excellent and offer wonderful insights into the final peak of the "Grand Tour" era.
Bryan H. Roberts is a professional appraiser in Sarasota, FL. He is a member of the Florida State Guardianship Association, the Sarasota County Aging Network (president), and is certified in the latest Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practice (USPAP) Equivalent