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Researching antiquities collections through auction catalogues: potential and pitfalls

Anna Reeve, Early Career Research Associate at the ICS writes about a workshop which she organised.

One great advantage of being an Early Career Research Associate at the ICS is the supportive environment in which to share ideas and bring people together to explore themes of common interest. Historic auction catalogues offer a fascinating source of data on the antiquities market of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and can be used to investigate categories of objects, individual collectors and collections, and wider trends. Auction catalogues annotated with details of purchasers and prices give insight into a significant point on the itineraries of ancient objects, as they are defined, valued, and change hands, heading for new destinations. 

On 22 September 2023 twenty researchers and a sizeable audience got together via Zoom for a seminar to discuss work in this area and share ideas on methodologies, challenges and findings. The online format enabled an international line-up, though the timing was less than ideal for some participants, whose commitment to the event was very much appreciated! A wide variety of ancient material culture was discussed, from coins and inscriptions to sculpture and gold-glass, with a geographical spread covering Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Rome.

Annotated auction catalogue

As well as the uses of auction catalogues for research into collections and types of object, contributors discussed the market behaviours they reveal, and the importance of approaching them as historical documents in combination with other records and ephemera. A reflective approach to methods and approaches was evident throughout, with discussion of what auction catalogues can and cannot contribute to our understanding of the historic movements of ancient objects. The results shared by participants fully demonstrated the potential of research using auction catalogues, while discussion of the pitfalls will help us to develop robust approaches.

Catalogue heading

With a packed programme, the seminar covered a huge amount of ground yet went by in a flash. I hope it is just the start of an ongoing conversation, and would like to thank all the participants for sharing their research and insights, the audience for their presence and contributions, and the ICS for hosting the event.