OffCourse Literary Journal

To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting, by Philipp Blom. Woodstock & New York: The Overlook Press, 2003. 288 pages. 53 black-and-white illustrations and photos.

Reviewed by Judy Kramer

Brian Lamb on C-Span's Book Notes invariably asks his guests to talk about themselves briefly. Where do they live? What do they do? Where did they live and what were they doing when they wrote this book? Are they married? Children? At first, his guests seem startled, even a bit put off, but nonetheless they respond, some quite openly, others with their guard up. Why does Brian Lamb do this? After all, the main focus of the interview is the content of the book, not the biography of the guest. What Lamb has discovered is that when his guests answer these questions, they also reveal, inadvertently perhaps and only partially to be sure, why they wrote this particular book at this particular time.

In his acknowledgments, Philipp Blom declares that he has always been fascinated by the "[t]he idea of collecting," wondering "what drives people to amassing things." At the same time, he says, he "did not think that many people would be interested in a closer look at this strange and beautiful obsession." So why did Blom write To Have and to Hold, an engaging but quirky study of collections and collectors throughout the ages? He provides the answer himself in his six-page prologue, "Three Old Men," where he introduces us to the three collectors he admires most.

Willem Eldert Blom, his great-grandfather on his mother's side, is the first of these "three old men." Willem Blom lived in Leiden, Netherlands, and was a carpenter by trade. By the end of his life, however, he had learned seventeen languages, had collected thirty thousand books, and had opened an antique shop in Leiden that was filled with sixteenth-century bibles, Russian oil paintings, and gramophone records, among many other items.

Georg Moritz comes next. Philipp Blom, who was born in Hamburg in 1970, met Moritz while he attended secondary school in Westphalia, Germany. The school was housed in a castle once owned by Moritz's father. Georg Moritz, then in his eighties, befriended the young Blom, regaling him with stories of an era long gone. He also gave him the run of his personal library, where Blom spent many hours reading and dreaming.

Philipp Blom met his third mentor, Wolf Stein, at a synagogue service in Amsterdam. Wolf Stein was a German Jew whose family had fled to Amsterdam in the hope of a safe haven. He and his family had gone into hiding during World War II, but were discovered and deported. A survivor of Bergen-Belsen, Wolf Stein began collecting books, thousands of books.

With these three quick portraits, Philipp Blom has deftly established the source of his fascination with collectors and collecting. He is now ready to take us through an extraordinary world. His knowledge is wide, his observations thought-provoking.

We learn that collections of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries were universal in scope and filled with the curious, odd, and scientific, as well as with paintings and artworks. The profiles in Part I are illustrative: Rudolf II, the Habsburg emperor, in his quest for universal knowledge, filled his palaces with antiquities, exotica, and works of alchemy and magic; John Trandescant, gardener to the Duke of Buckingham, collected botanical specimens that changed the English landscape forever. In Leiden, corpses were turned into a collectible art form through the creative embalming techniques of Dr. Frederik Ruysch.

Blom's historical gaze continues in Part II. With the Enlightenment came specialization, a division into disciplines, and a desire to classify and describe. Blom brings this mindset to life in his descriptions of Sloane's butterflies, Peale's mastodon, and Dr. Gall's collection of human skulls and plaster casts.

The nineteenth century saw the arrival of state-owned public museums, whose goal was to inform and teach. For Blom, the Louvre is a case in point. The Revolution had opened the Louvre to the public, the spoils of the Napoleonic wars had enriched its holdings. Dominique Vivant Denon, Napoleon's inspired choice to be director of the Louvre, arranged its displays in new and bold groupings: chronology, schools, and styles. The modern museum was born.

In the early twentieth century, collecting was dominated by wealthy Americans, like J. P. Morgan, William Randolph Hearst, and Henry Clay Frick. Blom gives an amusing description of Joseph Duveen, the British art dealer who cleverly managed the art tastes of these collectors. Duveen's goal? To shift these millionaires away from French and Victorian landscape painting toward the masterworks of the Italian Renaissance. His reason? In a nutshell, to make more money and have more fun.

In Parts III and IV, Blom becomes philosophical. He discusses the age-old veneration of relics, both sacred and profane, which leads him to speculate about collecting as a search for immortality. He comments on the democratization of collecting, made easy by mass-produced relics and kitsch. Ultimately, he concludes, all collectors seek to dodge oblivion and death.

Part IV takes us back to Blom's first interest, the collecting of books, with a sidebar about the erotic component of collecting. He ends with the sad truth that most collections are dispersed after their owner dies.

For me, however, there is another ending. In Part IV, Blom returns to autobiography, if only for a moment. On pp. 199-200, he embellishes and rewrites the story of his great-grandfather in Leiden:

One thing that Willem Eldert Blom was not, however, was my real great-grandfather. I have adopted him in the same way that my mother did before me when she moved into his house as a girl of eight just after the war, the daughter by a previous marriage of his son's new wife, a German girl in Holland, a little enemy. While the local children and her teachers, some of whom had been tortured by the Gestapo, took their revenge against the Third Reich out on an eight-year-old with bullying, dog shit and segregation, Willem read her stories, translated prima vista from Greek, Latin, French and English, in his book-lined front room. When he died, aged ninety-four, a few books of his library found their way into our house. Everything wonderful seemed to stem from him, be connected with him and with that country in which I spent my school holidays, that wonderfully unGerman country of contented people who lived by canals and beaches swept by savage winter storms, of large, curtainless windows and long bicycle rides hard on the heels of my much faster cousins, of windmill biscuits and cheese and different smells all conspiratorially connected to that language which I learned almost as fast as my mother had done, and with the same intent: not to be noticed, not to be different, to belong. He was my great-grandfather all right, if perhaps not by the reckoning of those who think along blood lines so much more pettily than he did. A child who had not met his father, far less his grandfather or great-grandfather, I fervently made him my own, and with him the family legends that surrounded him. He was that mythical patriarch, Abraham, or Moses maybe, and his was the Promised Land.

To Have and to Hold is a hats-off tribute to all collectors past and present. It is also an affectionate and affecting homage to the author's "mythical patriarch" and very real great-grandfather.

Judy Kramer, now retired, worked as an in-house editor for the publisher of the Dewey Decimal Classification..

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