"Invaluable Masterpieces": The Price of Art at the Musée Napoléon
In 1810, the French state embarked on a project to systematically register all artworks that had been confiscated since the revolution inside and outside France and declared national property. The extent of the collections of this highly heterogeneous group of objects now accumulated in the French museums since 1793 and the almost entire absence of any prior catalogues certainly presented a challenge. The result leads us to the intersection between art and economic history, where the history of European taste and the market converge, that is, in the price of European art in Paris around 1800. Although the so-called Inventaire Napoléon clearly incorporated and expanded older trends and forms for cataloguing art collections, itsmorphology differed distinctly from previously existing European museum inventories. The Inventaire Napoléon was accordingly ambivalent: it was an instrument of careful description, classification, and location of thousands of works of art: 4400 paintings, 1808 ancient statues and 61 vases, over 6500 drawings and other art objects registered in a total of 17 folio volumes. At the same time, it represented a listing of symbolic and financial assets in the context of national affirmation and a state treasury under great duress. The fact that these assets were also a mirror of cultural historical values makes the “price” column of the Inventaire Napoléon especially fascinating in retrospect. This catalogue was to be about art as capital.
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