Wednesday, February 1, 2023

National Museum of Antiquities of the Netherlands purchases world-class collection of cameos

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Acquisitions now on display in new exhibition

The National Museum of Antiquities of the Netherlands (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, RMO) has purchased a unique collection of cameos. It consists of 444 miniature artworks of exceptional quality, ‘carved’ from colourful types of stone. The pieces date from Classical Antiquity through to the Middle Ages and the 17th century. They are from the private collection of Derek Content, an American of Dutch origin. With this acquisition, the RMO’s collection of ‘carved stones’ takes its place among the best collections in Europe. More than 300 of the cameos will henceforth be on display in the museum. The RMO bought almost the entire collection for over 5.4 million euros. Nearly the half of this sum was contributed by the Rembrandt Association, for the purchase of 42 masterpieces from the collection.

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Cameos are small stone ornaments decorated with a scene in relief, often in the finest detail. In ancient times, cameos were popular as jewellery, showpieces and talismans. The depictions range from imperial portraits, gods and animals to symbols, proverbs and personal texts. The Content Family Collection contains many antique cameos, including technical feats of craftmanship, unique pieces in their original settings, and 93 text cameos – the largest collection in private hands. The purchase is an exceptional addition to the RMO’s collection. Both geographically and chronologically, the new cameo collection perfectly complements that of the RMO. Together they show the development of cameo art over two millennia, and offer insight into the private lives of people in ancient times.

42 Masterpieces in the new cameo collection were acquired with major support from the Rembrandt Association, thanks in part to its Eleonora Jeuken-Tesser Fund, its 1931 Fund, its Antiquities and Archaeology Theme Fund, and the annual contribution of the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund. The Rembrandt Association contributed 2.5 million euros, almost half of the total purchase amount. Additional funding was provided by the VriendenLoterij, private donations and private RMO funds: the Elisabet Huss Fund, the Van der Schans Fund, the Asklepios Fund, the Eega van Asklepios Fund and the Gildemeester Fund.

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A place of honour in the museum’s galleries

The elegance and beauty of cameos form the focus of the new exhibition, ‘Cameos. Miniature masterpieces’. More than one hundred pieces are on display in the exhibition. A short film by artist duo Scheltens & Abbenes, known for photographing luxury fashion and design brands, features marble statues from the museum’s collection wearing the cameos like jewels – as they were once intended. The design of the exhibition and the idea for the film are by Anika Ohlerich (Archetypisch), and the graphic design is by Esther de Vries.

In future, the museum will use the new cameos in temporary exhibitions and educational programmes. Some two hundred of the new cameos have already been added to the museum’s permanent display on the Greeks and Romans. A publication (in Dutch) about the acquisition and the masterpieces is available for €10 in the museum shop and web shop.

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Before and after the acquisition

Having started collecting cameos fifty years ago, Derek Content accumulated one of the largest private cameo collections in the world. Part of the Content Family Collection was on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for more than a decade. The collection has been published several times and in full, most recently in 2018.

The original provenance of the stones is nevertheless difficult to determine in many cases. After all, cameos were found throughout the ancient world, and – like coins – their small size made them easy to trade: they were passed from hand to hand for centuries. For this reason, three years were spent documenting the cameos and their provenance history in preparation for the purchase. The acquisitions have since been added to the collection finder on the museum’s website (www.rmo.nl), along with descriptions, known provenance details and high-resolution photos. In this way, the entire collection has been made digitally accessible for interested parties and further research, both at and beyond the museum.

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