Rudolf II Holy Roman Emperor is famous as perhaps the greatest art collector of his age. He was also a great supporter of astrology (Nostradamus wrote his horoscopes), alchemy (he hired the alchemist John Dee to turn metal into gold) and mystics (his lifelong quest was to find the philosophers stone) and his castle complex at Prague featured lions, tigers, an orangutan and a dodo (account books show compensation was paid to survivor of attacks, or in less fortunate cases family members).
Less well known are that his collections formed the basis for the first art auction catalogue to feature photographs. The sale of 1860, just under 250 years after Rudolf’s death, was hosted by Christie’s in London. Put forward by the Frankfurt based art dealers, the Löwenstein brothers, who claimed ownership of the objects it was titled: “Catalogue of the celebrated collection of works of art and vertu known as “The Vienna museum,” the property of Messrs. Löwenstein, brothers, of Frankfort-on-the-Maine.” Held over 10 days the sale featured 1291 lots from sculpture and musical instruments to ancient locks and keys..
The catalogue features features 36 salt print photographs and 4 chromolithographs. 1860 was the last year of general use of the salt print process and the quality of the images are often poor and overexposed. Nonetheless it was an extremely ambitious project. The fully illustrated auction catalogue featuring photographs of every lot did not become standard until the 1980’s. Following this first few continued its ideas in the years to come.
So why did they use photographs? It would seem the decision was the Löwenstein’s rather than Christie’s since each photo includes the photographer’s name, H. Emden of Frankfurt, and the source, the Löwenstein brothers. So the photographs were taken in Germany probably in recognition by the Löwenstein brothers of the potential of this new technology, and maybe more so as the opportunity to attract attention and maximise profits for their historically famous collection.
How much of the collection for sale here is actually of higher value, or directly from the provenance of Rudolf II after so many years we cannot be sure. The sale catalogue states the collection remained imperial property until the year 1782, when the building at Prague, in which the Museum was contained, being required for barracks, it was sold to the Chevalier Von Schonfeld.
However, much before this other sources state the best of the items had already been siphoned off or suffered from looting Swedish troops in 1648. In 1782 what was left was sold off piecemeal by Joseph II and probably went on to make up what exists in this collection. But the provenance, the association with the name of Rudolf, is the potential selling point and makes the use of photographs seem explainable. They could be seen to add authenticity to a collection that despite being titled from a museum had actually never been one. We can’t be sure of the Löwenstein’s reasons but the collection of art auction catalogues housed in the National Art Library allow anyone access to the full historic development of the art auction catalogue.