The Zwenigorodskoi Collection: Exquisite Book for Exquisite Enamels

The Zwenigorodskoi Collection: Exquisite Book for Exquisite Enamels

The Zwenigorodskoi collection is almost as famous for its catalog as it was for its ancient enamels.

Very little is known of the collector Aaron Zwenigorodskoi himself. It is believed that he developed an interest in medieval art during a visit to Spain in 1864. By the end of the nineteenth century, his collection included 43 early Byzantine, Georgian, and Kievan enamels of the highest quality. At the time, his collection was considered the premier collection of Byzantine and related enamels, but now it is recognized that some of the pieces are of questionable provenance.

For the publication of his collection, Zwenigorodskoi chose not to use photographs, although the technology was available; instead, he hired expert illustrators to produce engravings and chromolithographs from photographs or examination of the objects themselves. He also hired renowned Russian art historian Nikolas P. Kondakov to write the text. After 8 years of work, in 1892, the sumptuously illustrated and beautifully bound catalog Histoire et monuments des émaux byzantins appeared, but it was not available for sale. Zwenigorodskoi reportedly paid upwards of $200,000 for a limited edition of 200 copies that he gave to royal and important persons throughout Europe and Russia. Copies that he gave to personal friends include a portrait of Zwenigorodskoi as a frontispiece; the Dumbarton Oaks copy has this portrait and is numbered no. 56 in the series, but its original owner is not known.

The Dumbarton Oaks copy has been fully digitized: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:DOAK.RESLIB:11337459

In 1894, Zwenigorodskoi tried to persuade the Imperial Archaeological Commission to purchase his collection for the Hermitage, but the Commission refused. Eventually, the collection passed to N. V. Miasoedova-Ivanova, and the Russian state was offered the chance to buy the collection yet again. At the same time, American collector J. P. Morgan asked one of his dealers Jacques Seligmann to investigate quietly; Seligmann reported back that the owner refused to sell because of the interest of buyers in Russia. Ultimately, another Russian collector Mikhail Botkin, who is also represented in this exhibition, purchased the Zwenigorodskoi collection, which became the core of his own collection of enamels. But Morgan continued to covet the collection assembled by Zwenigorodskoi, and, with Seligmann’s assistance, he eventually bought it from Botkin. After Morgan’s death in 1913, the collection went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

 

 
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