2015 BAC Cataloguing Grant for Business Archives related to the Arts Winner

The Business Archives Council is delighted to announce the winners of the BAC cataloguing grant for business archives related to the Arts, 2015. The Arts grant was launched in 2013 to support an under-represented area of business archives and to complement wider initiatives for archiving the arts by The National Archives and the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives.

As with previous years the judging panel was very impressed with the high standard of the applications that were received from across the country, but ultimately decided to present the award to The National Gallery for the cataloguing of the correspondence of international art dealers Thos. Agnew & Sons.

Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd

The firm, founded by Thomas Agnew (1794-1871) and Vittore Zanetti, an Italian print-seller and instrument, picture frame-maker and gilder, became Thos. Agnew & Sons in 1851.  It was one of the country’s leading print-sellers and publishers, and a major dealer in the international art market, with branches in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Paris, New York and Berlin.  In 2014 the firm passed to new owners who purchased the holding company of Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd. and in recognition of its exceptional importance for business history and the history of the art market, the archive (dating 1817-1983) was acquired by the National Gallery in February 2014.

The grant will specifically fund a project to catalogue in detail the extensive series of correspondence of Thos. Agnew & Sons that resides within the main archive collection.  The correspondence, totalling around 1000 letters, and dating between c.1822 and 1937, gives a unique insight into the firm’s activities and the range of subject matters known to be covered by the series includes: correspondence from contemporary artists to Agnew’s regarding commissions and sales; the purchase of significant works, such as Velazquez’s ‘Venus & Cupid’; commissions, for example, the assignment of Royal privilege allowing Agnew’s to commission Edwin Austin Abbey to paint the King’s Coronation, 1902; letters concerning the authenticity of artworks, valuations and estimates of artworks, and letters regarding the employment of individuals within the firm.  The vast majority of information within these letters, however, remains inaccessible at present due to the uncatalogued and unsorted state that the series is currently in.  Furthermore, about half of the series is in a fragile state, physically, and as such is currently unavailable for public consultation because the constant handling and sorting that is required when looking through an unsorted, uncatalogued collection risks further damage.  The project to catalogue the series to item-level will not only greatly improve access to the information contained within the correspondence, allowing enquirers to identify relevant documents in a manner that would be impossible without detailed descriptions, but will also permit full physical access to the letters as the amount of required handling and searching through the papers will be vastly reduced.

The Agnew’s archive is a research resource of exceptional importance for business history and the history of the art market, and it represents a core resource for the growing academic interest in the business records of art dealers in relation to the history of collecting, authenticity and attribution of artworks.  These records, however, only present a partial picture, and often the key information required to identify the particulars of a transaction and clues to the personal, face-to-face side to the firm can only be found within the correspondence.  Once catalogued the correspondence will offer an extra level of detail and provide a key tool to anyone interrogating the Agnew’s collection.

The extent of the series of correspondence, the level to which it will be catalogued and the degree of professional expertise that will be given to the project cataloguer (the support of two full-time Archivists) also satisfied the judging panel that the cataloguing project will be: achievable, very well-managed and provide excellent value for money.

Read the report