April 5th, 2008

The Pons Collection

Cousin Pons, the eponymous "poor relation" of Balzac's novel, is a haunter of bric a brac shops who has managed to build up an art collection which includes first rate paintings by Sebastiano del Piombo, Durer and Hobbema- not to mention less-regarded works by Van Eyck, Breughel, Gericault and Chardin.  Since Balzac is some sort of a realist I suppose this had to have been possible in the Paris of the 1840s- perhaps (I'm guessing here) because the breaking up of the chateaux at the  time of the French Revolution and all the looting that went on during the Napoleonic wars had released a flood of old masters onto a market that scarcely knew how to value them. The arrangement of Pons' gallery, with its portrait busts in the corners of the room and its glass cases in a line down the middle-  reminds me of the Wallace Collection- a real-life treasure house assembled in the same place and time. The difference is that Sir Richard Wallace was nobody's poor relation.  These days not even a very rich man could hope to replicate the Pons collection- not only because the price of old master paintings has soared, but because the best ones have long since been gobbled up by the Louvre and the National Gallery and the Getty and first rate del Piombos, Durers and Hobbemas simply don't appear on the market any more.