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The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present

Erin L. Thompson

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A riveting account of private art collectors' passion from Roman times to the present

Whether it's the discovery of $1.6 billion in Nazi-looted art or the news that Syrian rebels are looting UNESCO archaeological sites to buy arms, art crime commands headlines. Erin Thompson, America's only professor of art crime, explores the dark history of looting, smuggling, and forgery that lies at the heart of many private art collections and many of the world's most renowned museums.
Enlivened by fascinating personalities and scandalous events, Possession shows how collecting antiquities has been a way of creating identity, informed by a desire to annex the past while providing an illicit thrill along the way. Thompson's accounts of history's most infamous collectors—from the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who stole a life-sized nude Greek statue for his bedroom, to Queen Christina of Sweden, who habitually pilfered small antiquities from her fellow aristocrats, to Sir William Hamilton, who forced his mistress to enact poses from his collection of Greek vases—are as mesmerizing as they are revealing.

Erin Thompson is assistant professor in the Department of Art and Music at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.

"With elan and insight, Erin Thompson delves into the fascinating history of the human obsession to personally own physical relics of the past. Possession illuminates the complex psychological and social motives that drive individuals to collect antiquities, from ancient Roman emperors and Renaissance popes to modern connoisseurs and today's looters (and destroyers) of archaeological treasures."—Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons and The Poison King

"Erin Thompson advances the study of the art world by taking on the hard work: the examination of the motives behind those who take the leap into the world of collecting. Possession is an essential study of collecting throughout the ages, whether the art be precious or illicit, by a leading scholar in the field."—Anthony M. Amore, author of The Art of the Con and Stealing Rembrandts

"This slim volume is just bursting with read-them-to-a-friend anecdotes of collectors who'd stop at nothing. . . . Art is passion; Thompson understands. . . . The marvelous Possession offers a savvy history of passion as politics, a delightful collection of collectors and a love of art that might just send you to a museum."—Genevieve Valentine, NPR Books

"Timely and immensely enjoyable; . . . a cavalcade of history’s most ardent lovers of the antique. . . . Thompson’s brilliantly told tales create a sparkling tableau that invites further reflection on the politics of even the most solipsistic collectors."—James Delbourgo, The Atlantic Online

"Riveting. . . . [A] treasure trove of a book."—Willard Spiegelman, Wall Street Journal

"A thought-provoking historical study by Erin Thompson, whose writing style is approachable and compelling. . . . Possession is not only a significant contribution to the scant literature focused on collectors and collecting of ancient art, but also a possible catalyst for change in the tastes and habits of present and future collectors of antiquities."—Molly E. Dotson, ARLIS/NA Reviews

"A fine and entertaining account."—Jas Elsner, Times Literary Supplement

"All the best art history books carry the sense that they're telling secrets, and Erin Thompson knows it; reading Possession feels like sneaking through a dark museum late at night. . . . A delight."—Genevieve Valentine, NPR

An NPR Best Book of 2016

Shortlisted for the 2017 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
ISBN: 9780300208528
Publication Date: May 24, 2016
232 pages, 6-1/8 x 9-1/4
17 b/w illus.