Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present by Erin L Thompson - review by Tiffany Jenkins

Tiffany Jenkins

Mad for Marble

Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present


Yale University Press 224pp £20 order from our bookshop

In 1793 Henry Blundell, one of England’s pre-eminent antiquities dealers, faced a little problem. While browsing the sale of artwork from the estate of William Ponsonby, the second Earl of Bessborough, he noticed a large Roman statue of a reclining figure, its head thrown back as if asleep. The marble work was in good shape: restored, reasonably complete and, as it had already been ferried from Italy to England, promising no expensive transportation costs.

The slumbering figure had breasts like champagne glasses, one suckled by an infant. Blundell’s problem was that it also had small male genitalia. The statue was ‘an Hermaphrodite, with three little brats crawling about its breast’, he stormed, finding it ‘unnatural and very disgusting to the sight’. It was Hermaphroditus, the son of Aphrodite and Hermes from Greek mythology. Nonetheless, Blundell swallowed his feelings of revulsion and bought the statue. ‘I shall be thought marble mad and very extravagant,’ he remarked, insisting ‘money is better spent so, than at new markets’. The visitor catalogue to his main residence, Ince Blundell Hall, reveals how he solved the issue of the unwanted tissue and appendages: ‘By means of a little castration and cutting away the little brats, it became a sleeping Venus, as pleasing a figure as any in this Collection.’

In her insightful history of the private collectors of Greek and Roman antiquity, Erin Thompson, America’s only full-time professor of art crime, explores how collectors’ desires dramatically changed the fate of antiquities, altering their sex, identity and meaning. Blundell’s ‘castration’ was one of many brutal restorations executed from the Renaissance

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