The Altman Collection of Chinese Porcelain
A brief look at the collecting habits of Benjamin Altman of not only Asian works of art, but many other categories as well.
Altman began collecting art in 1882, when he purchased a fine pair of Chinese enamel vases that reportedly cost only thirty-five dollars (worth approximately $770 in 2010). However, according to the New York Times, by the time of his death Altman’s estimated fifteen million dollar (worth approximately 340 million in 2010) art collection comprised “one of the finest private collections of paintings and porcelain in existence.” Altman acquired most of his collection through the services of prominent art dealer Joseph Duveen. He made an almost weekly habit of visiting with Duveen at his art gallery on Saturday evenings after the close of business, and Altman helped Duveen relocate his business to 302 Fifth Avenue around the turn of the century. Altman eventually bequeathed all of his thirteen Rembrandts and paintings by other renowned artists such as Holbein, Botticelli, Hals, Velazquez, van Dyck, and Giorgione, a total of seventy-five old masters, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also left a monetary legacy of $100,000 (worth approximately $2.3 million in 2010) to the National Academy of Design to support American artists. In addition, the Metropolitan received his rare collection of ivories, jades, carved crystal vessels, sculptures, Renaissance tapestries, and silk Persian and Indian rugs. Altogether he left around 1,000 items to the museum. A few days after Altman’s death, the director of the Metropolitan called Altman’s magnanimous art bequest: “The most splendid gift any citizen has ever made to the people of the city of New York.” The Altman collection of Chinese porcelain was one of the greatest gifts to the Metropolitan Museum throughout it’s history.
In 1914, the Metropolitan published an illustrated catalog titled The Handbook of the Benjamin Altman Collection that included over 150 pages of information about the artworks. Altman’s collection was described: “Whether from a pecuniary or an educational standpoint… the greatest gift ever made by an individual to the Museum, notable alike for the wide range of interest it embraces and the uniformly high quality of its contents in whatever branch of art they represent… It was Mr. Altman’s ambition to leave to the people of [New York] with which his success in life had been identified, for their perpetual use and enjoyment, a collection of works of art of the highest possible standard.” Altman relied on experts like Duveen for advice in purchasing his art works, but never bought anything that didn’t appeal to him personally, no matter the piece’s reputation. He shied away from publicity about the collection and never discussed what he had paid for works, but many of the works were considered priceless treasures. Some thought that Altman paid one million dollars (worth approximately $25-$28 million in 2010) for two important portraits by Velasquez and a similar amount for four of his later Rembrandts, a very considerable sum at the time.
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