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The Purchase of the Past
Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c.1790–1890


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  • Date Published: June 2020
  • availability: Available
  • format: Hardback
  • isbn: 9781108478847

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About the Authors
  • Offering a broad and vivid survey of the culture of collecting from the French Revolution to the Belle Époque, The Purchase of the Past explores how material things became a central means of accessing and imagining the past in nineteenth-century France. By subverting the monarchical establishment, the French Revolution not only heralded the dawn of the museum age, it also threw an unprecedented quantity of artworks into commercial circulation, allowing private individuals to pose as custodians and saviours of the endangered cultural inheritance. Through their common itineraries, erudition and sociability, an early generation of scavengers established their own form of 'private patrimony', independent from state control. Over a century of Parisian history, Tom Stammers explores collectors' investments – not just financial but also emotional and imaginative – in historical artefacts, as well as their uncomfortable relationship with public institutions. In so doing, he argues that private collections were a critical site for salvaging and interpreting the past in a post-revolutionary society, accelerating but also complicating the development of a shared national heritage.

    • Offers the first broad survey of the development of the culture of collecting over the long nineteenth century, from the French Revolution to the Belle Époque
    • Demonstrates how the French Revolution triggered the emergence of the modern market in collecting art, books and antiques, centred in Paris
    • Analyses the frictions that emerged from the parallel growth of public and private collecting over the period, which shaped the politics around cultural heritage
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    • Winner, 2021 Gladstone Prize, Royal Historical Society

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Creatively conceptualized, deeply researched, and elegantly written, The Purchase of the Past provides an original and convincing account of the crucial role of material culture and private collecting in negotiating the past and constructing historical narratives in nineteenth-century France. Beautifully-wrought case studies of the 'private patrimonies' assembled by individual collectors detail how the practices and meanings of collecting changed in this period.' Leora Auslander, University of Chicago

    'Stammers immerses the reader in the fascinating world of the nineteenth-century Parisian collector, with a huge array of sources and a lively prose style. His historical approach usefully emphasizes the links between private collectors and French political and social life, notably their role in the rise of public museums and in the shaping of national memory.' Colin Heywood, Emeritus Professor of Modern French History, University of Nottingham

    'This outstanding work emerges from the intuition that the French Revolution, and its aftermath, can provide a historical framework for the analysis of diverse collecting practices as they come to acquire social and political significance, as well as illuminating their aesthetic dimensions. Through vindicating this precious insight, Stammers has produced a model of cultural criticism that will stand the test of time.' Stephen Bann CBE FBA, Emeritus Professor of History of Art, University of Bristol

    'A magisterial and highly original study exploring the world of nineteenth-century French collecting from three interlocked vantage points: the political upheavals of the 1790s, the collection of the material culture emerging from that era and the wider development of a historical consciousness that sought to make sense of it. Erudite but written with brio, The Purchase of the Past will durably impact on the way we think about French national and cultural identity.' Colin Jones CBE FBA, Queen Mary University of London

    'Focusing on revolutionary Paris through the 19th century, Stammers (Univ. of Durham, UK) contends that art collectors significantly fashioned French and Western modernity … The author argues that post-1789 dispersals of objects and Jacobin disregard for the past crucially impressed collectors, who often identified order, taste, values, and heritage with old regime material culture … Highly recommended.' L. A. Rollo, Choice

    'The Purchase of the Past thoroughly explores how both private collectors and the general public can be understood to have profited from the disarray generated by the events of the French Revolution, with Stammers doing an excellent job of identifying and interrogating the ways in which the former might have benefited more overall than the latter. Stammers's chapters are simultaneously expansive and meticulously researched, and his book will serve as a productive resource for historians for many years to come.' Caitlin Doley, University of York, The British Journal for the History of Science

    'This book, by one of its most dynamic champions, is an indispensable and highly readable volume for anyone interested in French nineteenth-century history and collecting.' Kate Heard, Journal of the History of Collections

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    Product details

    • Date Published: June 2020
    • format: Hardback
    • isbn: 9781108478847
    • length: 370 pages
    • dimensions: 240 x 142 x 25 mm
    • weight: 0.81kg
    • contains: 30 b/w illus.
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction. Collection, recollection, revolution
    1. Amateurs and the art market in transition (c.1780–1830)
    2. Archiving and envisioning the French Revolution (c.1780–1830)
    3. Book-hunting, bibliophilia and a textual restoration (c.1790–1840)
    4. Salvaging the gothic in private and public spaces (c.1820–70)
    5. Royalists versus vandals, and the cult of the old regime (c.1860–1880)
    6. Allies of the Republic? Inside the sale of the century (c.1870–1895)
    Conclusion. The resilience and eclipse of curiosité.

  • Author

    Tom Stammers, University of Durham
    Tom Stammers is Associate Professor in Modern European Cultural History at the University of Durham. He is a historian of modern France, specialising in visual and material culture; he works frequently with museums and heritage organisations, including collaborating on exhibitions, and is a regular contributor to arts reviews like Apollo.


    • Winner, 2021 Gladstone Prize, Royal Historical Society

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