9 Famous Antiquities Collectors from History

Ancient art and artifacts have entranced collectors for centuries. This article explores nine of the most interesting collectors of antiquities, from Renaissance noblemen to Hollywood actresses.

Apr 2, 2021By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
antiquities collecting
Statues in Sir John Soane’s Museum with Napoleon Bonaparte at Cairo


Defined simply as objects from the ancient world, antiquities span a vast range of places, periods, and media. While the Western trade is primarily dominated by artistic and cultural objects from the Classical era and Mediterranean civilizations, cultural relics from Eastern, Islamic and Mesoamerican cultures are also popular with antiquities collectors. 


Antiquarian artifacts are a testament to the enduring importance of beauty, creativity, and art, as well as provide a lasting reminder of humanity’s most ingenious innovations in technique and style. Ancient relics have certainly captured the imagination of interesting people throughout history and engendered controversy, adventure, and some of the most magnificent collections ever formed.


Read on to discover how Napoleon Bonaparte raced to collect Egypt’s finest relics, how Sir John Soane transformed his house into a treasure-trove of classical goods, and how one Hollywood celebrity has a penchant for ancient coins. 


Here Are The 9 Antiquities Collectors Worth Knowing:


9. Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449 – 1492)

lorenzo de medici arts patron
Lorenzo de’ Medici was a great patron of the arts, via Cova


Known as Lorenzo the Magnificent within the Republic of Florence, the first collector on this list was head of the most powerful family in the Italian Renaissance. As well as being embroiled in the scheming and machinations of contemporary politics, Lorenzo de’ Medici was one of the most passionate art patrons of the day. His court of artists included such figures as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, whom he often used as pawns in his alliances and power struggles.

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Lorenzo was also an artist, writer, and scholar himself, significantly increasing the number of books in the family library established by his grandfather, Cosimo. Lorenzo added a large number of classical works, sending his agents to retrieve manuscripts from the East and commissioning copies to be made in his own workshop. 


palazzo medici
The Medici Palace in Florence is filled with antiquities and art, via Tuscany.co 


This endeavor reflects his zeal for the ancient world: Lorenzo was known to study the work of Greek philosophers and had developed an early interest in relics from the Classical civilizations. He acquired a vast collection of coins, vases, and gems from ancient Greece and Rome, primarily through Giovanni Ciampolini, one of the first antiquities dealers.


Lorenzo housed his collection in the magnificent Palazzo Medici in the heart of Florence. Michelangelo is believed to have taken inspiration from many of the ancient objects and artifacts on display in the Palace.


8. Sir Thomas Roe (1581 – 1644)

thomas roe
As part of his diplomatic duties, Sir Thomas Roe spent many years at the courts of various rulers around the world, via Art UK


Although not as well-known as Lord Elgin and his infamous removal of the Parthenon friezes, Sir Thomas Roe’s actions to kick-start his own collection of antiquities were just as questionable. 


An Elizabethan diplomat who traveled across the globe from the Americas to India, Roe served as English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1621 to 1627. By the end of his appointment in the East, he had accrued an extensive collection of antiquities, including 29 Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic manuscripts which he presented to Oxford’s Bodleian Library upon returning to England. He also took in over 200 ancient coins, also donated to the Library, and a selection of marbles, which he brought back for his two patrons, the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Arundel.


This was the first time that Greek marbles had been imported to England. They soon ignited a mania for all things antiquarian that would never disappear. But how would Roe attempt to remove such culturally and materially valuable objects? 


In one instance, when attempting to appropriate a particular frieze, Roe convinced an imam that the sculptures’ pagan themes were forbidden forms of idolatry, insisting that they must be taken away for the spiritual good of the locals. He also spent 700 crowns bribing officials and arranging undercover shipping. 


In the end, these attempts were fruitless, and the frieze in question remained in place. However, his duplicitous and exploitative methods highlight the darker side of collecting. Although the majority of antiquities collectors now consider the preservation and safeguarding of ancient goods as one of their fundamental duties, relics have been used at some points in history as bargaining chips and status symbols, as is clear from the next collector and his infamous deeds. 


7. Napoleon Bonaparte (1789 – 1821)

napoleon bonaparte emperor france
Napoleon Bonaparte ruled as the Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814, via Penn State 


From 1798 to 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army undertook a campaign in Ottoman Egypt and Syria. Although it ultimately ended in military defeat, the years in the East yielded a wealth of cultural, artistic, and historical artifacts and understanding, including the Rosetta Stone. With these discoveries, the field of Egyptology was born, and public interest in antiquity reached unprecedented levels. 


Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt was accompanied by around 170 civilian scientists and scholars, known as the savants responsible for collecting and recording the ancient relics they discovered. From 1809 to 1829, these men compiled and published an encyclopedic work cataloging all the knowledge and objects of ancient Egypt that they had acquired years before, known as the ‘Description de l’Egypte.’


bonaparte at cairo
In 1798, Napoleon led an invasion into Egypt, taking with him a whole entourage to document and collect the antiquities they discovered there, via The National News


The invasion of Egypt was the first stage in Napoleon’s efforts against British India and part of his attempt to rid the French Revolutionary War of British influence. As a subsidiary of this conflict, both Britain and France were engaged in a race to secure the best Egyptian antiquities for their own national museums. 


This competition played out well into the nineteenth century. Both nations harnessed their military and political might and used the wealth and influence of certain individuals to acquire the greatest collection of ancient goods. The legacy of these efforts is still to be found in the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris.


6. Sir William Hamilton (1730 – 1803)

sir william hamilton antiquarian
Sir William Hamilton was sadly better known as the husband of Lord Nelson’s mistress than as an antiquarian, via Compton Verney Art Gallery


Called a ‘foster brother’ by the future King George III, William Hamilton was raised with all the trappings of an aristocratic boy in the eighteenth century. After finishing his education at Westminster School, he served as an aide-de-camp in the British Army. He was then appointed to a diplomatic post as Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples.


During his years in Italy, Hamilton began to collect an array of antiquarian goods, including gems, bronzes, sculptures, and, most importantly, vases. His enthusiasm for urns even led Hamilton to explore the field of archaeology himself, opening up ancient tombs in attempts to discover more goods to add to his collection.


This passion inspired a wave of ‘vase-mania’ in Britain and gave the artifacts a new lease of life in the contemporary imagination. It also won Hamilton a well-deserved place in the Society of Dilettanti, a group of young men who all shared a love of Roman and Greek civilizations, as well as a Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries.


Although much of Hamilton’s collection eventually found itself on display in the British Museum, he did not publicly exhibit its contents during his lifetime. Instead, they were kept in a private room in his Italian palazzo. Those who gained access to this inner sanctum, including Goethe, described it as a treasure trove of ancient art. 


5. Richard Payne Knight (1751 – 1824)

richard payne knight
Richard Payne Knight was a prominent and interesting English antiquary, via Art UK


Born into an aristocratic family in England in 1751, Richard Payne Knight received the classical training that befitted his elite background. Privately educated until he came of age, Payne Knight then made the Grand Tour to Italy and other European countries. During his travels, he began to collect ancient bronzes, gems, and coins, many of which were later donated to the British Museum.


As an enthusiast for all things ancient, Payne Knight also dedicated himself to the study of Greek texts, particularly those of Homer, and was also accepted as a member of the Society of Dilettanti. Unlike many of his contemporaries who yearned for the biggest, boldest relics of these eras, Knight’s collection of ancient art was made up of smaller objects with deeper meanings: coins, gems, and bronzes that showed symbols or imagery relating to ancient religion.


phallic imagery
Payne Knight’s interest in ancient art took a controversial turn in the 1780s, via Archive.org 


However, his interest and research in ancient religion proved controversial when he published his ‘An Account on the Remain of the Worship of Priapus’ in 1787. The work examined phallic imagery in ancient art, concluding that religion and sexuality were inextricably linked in the Classical world. His discussions of orgies and the bold suggestion that the Christian cross represents a phallus were particularly provocative in 18th-century society. 


4. Sir John Soane (1753 – 1837)

sir john soane portrait
Sir John Soane put together one of London’s most intimate and beautiful museums in his own home, via Art UK


Unlike many of the other names on this list, John Soane was not born into nobility. He was the son of a bricklayer and was raised by his uncle, also a bricklayer. Soane’s uncle introduced him to a variety of surveyors and architects. He decided upon the latter for his own profession, studying architecture in London and joining the Royal Academy


Soane traveled around Italy on the Grand Tour before establishing his architectural practice. His practice catapulted him to success with a number of important commissions, including from the Bank of England. In addition to forming a network of connections with various artistic and scholarly figures, Soane focused on “the seeing and examining the numerous and inestimable remains of Antiquity” during his Grand Tour. 


sir john soane
Sir John Soane transformed his house into a treasure trove of antiquities, via Sir John Soane’s Museum


His love of the ancient world manifested itself most extravagantly in the massive collection of antiquities he acquired during his lifetime. Some of the most famous objects owned by the renowned architect were the sarcophagus of Seti I and a cast copy of a statue of Diana found in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.


Soane’s collection was remarkable for the sheer number and range of the objects he amassed and how they were stored and displayed. In 1792, he purchased 12 and 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields as his home, and over the subsequent decades, he substantially remodeled and extended the property to house his ever-increasing collection.


He transformed his very own home into a museum of antiquities. This transformation was officialized in 1833 when he won permission from Parliament to bequeath the house to the British people as a museum. Sir John Soane’s Museum is still open today, displaying the magnificent collection he put together over many decades. 


3. The Torlonia Family (18th Century – Present)


The Torlonias are an Italian noble family whose name and fortune were secured at the end of the 18th century thanks to Giovanni Torlonia. In exchange for his administration of the Vatican finances, he was given a range of titles including Duke, Marquess, and Prince. During the following century, the family funds and prestige only increased, as did its legendary antiquities collection.


The Torlonias acquired these invaluable ancient sculptures by a variety of means: they purchased some from dealers, bought artifacts as entire collections from other noble families under financial pressure, and even discovered some on the Torlonia land. Still known as the most important private collection of ancient art, the Torlonia collection includes busts, statues, sarcophagi, sculptures, reliefs, and portraits which all offer valuable insight into the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.


torlonia statues
The Torlonia collection includes hundreds of invaluable ancient statues, via Fondazione Torlonia


In 1875, Giovanni’s son, Alessandro Torlonia, who had monopolized the salt and tobacco trades in southern Italy, set up a museum to house the collection. However, it was not open to all. Following the Second World War, one of his successors placed the entire collection into storage, and it was not until this year that it finally became available to the public. 


2. Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)

sigmund freud
Sigmund Freud was a passionate collector, amassing a large number of antiquities during his lifetime, via Freud Museum London


Renowned for his seminal work in psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud was also greatly involved with the arts and an avid antiquities collector. By the time he left Nazi-occupied Vienna for London in 1938, Freud had acquired over 2000 relics of the ancient civilizations. These items came from not only Egypt, Greece, and Rome but also India, China, and Etruria.


His earliest purchases were plaster casts of ancient statues, but as his means increased, Freud was able to purchase authentic works from the ancient world, including Egyptian funerary dedications, Greek vessels, and Roman statues. Among the latter was a copy of a 2nd century BC bronze statue of the goddess Athena, which was the only material object Freud felt unable to live without.


Freud’s immense and finely curated collection reflects his fascination with human behavior, beliefs, and society, as well as his well-documented interest in classical mythology.


1. Nicole Kidman (1967 – present)

nicole kidman
An unlikely addition to the list, Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman is reported to be a collector of ancient coins, via Encyclopedia Britannica


Collecting is not, however, exclusively the domain of scholars and antiquarians, as the final entry on this list proves. The Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman has been reported by several news outlets to collect ancient coins. The Oscar-winning star has a particular passion for Judean coins. Although Kidman has not confirmed this rumor, she would not be the first celebrity with an interest in numismatics


More On Antiquities Collectors


These nine antiquities collectors demonstrate that antiquities have a timeless and enduring appeal. From the fifteenth century to the present day, the artistic relics of the ancient world have been sought out as valuable additions to any collection. No matter the object nor the region from where it came, be it Mesopotamian coins, Egyptian statues, or Greek friezes, all serve as an important reminder of the cultural heritage we have received from previous civilizations and our essential duty to safeguard and preserve it.


For more on antiquarian art, see the Top 10 Greek Antiquities Sold at Auction in the Last Decade or the 11 Most Expensive Auction Results in Ancient Art in the Last 5 Years.

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By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.