Gem Collectors

"For a great many people, a single gemstone alone is enough to provide the highest and most perfect aesthetic experience of the wonders of nature."

—Pliny the Elder, Natural History, before A.D. 79

Carved gemstones have captivated connoiseurs of every age, from antiquity to the modern period. This page describes eight of the most avid and influential European gem collectors from the Renaissance to the early 1900s.


Pietro Barbò (Italian, 1417–1471)
The collector Pietro Barbò, who became Pope Paul II in 1464, possessed one of the largest and most completely recorded assemblages of art in 15th-century Italy. The inventory of his collection, written in Latin and divided into 32 sections, catalogues over 3,300 objects, ranging from Byzantine textiles to liturgical silver. Each item was accompanied by a description of its monetary value, iconography, and aesthetic and historical significance. Barbò's 827 ancient gems were organized under four categories: cameos, intaglios with heads of men, intaglios with heads of women, and intaglios with full-length figures. His gems, which he often mounted on rings, fascinated his contemporaries—who asserted after his death that he kept spirits in his rings and had been strangled by one of them. Although he possessed a massive number of gems, Barbò was most interested in numismatics; it was claimed that upon seeing a coin, he could instantaneously identify the emperor or empress represented.

1500s and 1600s

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640)
A prolific artist famous for his Baroque altarpieces, portraits, and paintings of mythological scenes, Peter Paul Rubens was also a humanist scholar and a collector of antiquities. Born in Westphalia (a region of West Germany), Rubens moved to Antwerp, Belgium, after his father's death in 1589 and became a master in the Antwerp painter's guild in 1598. Two years later he departed for Italy, where he spent eight formative years working in Mantua and Rome and studying Renaissance frescoes and classical antiquities.

While abroad, Rubens began to collect ancient gems and marbles, and when he returned to Antwerp, he continued to expand his holdings through agents and friends. The commercial side of collecting appealed to the painter, and he sometimes resold parts of his collection or exchanged objects for others. One noted sale took place in 1626, when Rubens sold 196 of his gems to the first Duke of Buckingham. He was careful to withhold some of his favorites, such as the famed gem of the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche by Tryphon, which he bequeathed to his son Alfred. In general, Rubens was extremely secretive about his gems and was unwilling to show them to visitors, fearing that they would be counterfeited. Read more about the life of Peter Paul Rubens.

Thomas Howard (British, 1585–1646), Second Earl of Arundel
A consummate collector, Thomas Howard acquired a wide variety of objects, ranging from paintings by Italian Renaissance masters to animal pelts and butterflies. Traveling extensively, Arundel came into contact with artists and scholars who helped him build his collections. During a 1613 visit to Rome, a leading art patron arranged for him to visit the Forum, where he "discovered" ancient statues planted there beforehand. These sculptures formed the basis of the antiquities collection at Arundel House. The earl was also keen to obtain ancient gems. In 1637 he purchased 263 cameos that had reportedly belonged to the dukes of Mantua for ten thousand pounds. The group included the famous Felix Gem displayed in this exhibition. Learn more about the Felix Gem on the Web site of the Ashmolean Museum.

At the time of his death, the quantity of Arundel's acquisitions was astonishing. He owned, for example, 40 paintings by Holbein, 37 by Titian, 13 by Raphael, and over 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. Although the earl's collection appears exceedingly complete, he failed to obtain one coveted object: an ancient Roman obelisk. Arundel's agent, William Petty, could not get an export license for it, and the granite monolith was eventually used by the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini as the center of his Four Rivers Fountain in Rome.

William Cavendish (British, 1672–1729), Second Duke of Devonshire
William George Spencer Cavendish (British, 1790–1858), Sixth Duke of Devonshire
The Devonshire collection, which numbers over 500 gems and is still at the family estate at Chatsworth, was begun by William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire, in the late 1600s. He commissioned drawings of his ancient gems to make them more generally available—a rare objective for collectors of his era. One of the duke's most treasured acquisitions was a fragment of a carnelian intaglio depicting a cow and signed by Apollonides, a Greek carver mentioned in the writings of Pliny the Elder, for which he paid the hefty sum of one thousand pounds.

The second Duke's extravagance was surpassed by William George Spencer Cavendish, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, who spent so much on his collections and the construction of his gallery that he fell into debt and was forced to sell off some of his estates. Although the sixth Duke did not add many new pieces to the gem collection, preferring to acquire libraries, coins, and medals, he commissioned a suite of jewelry that framed 88 ancient gems with garnets, sapphires, emeralds, amethysts, and many of the family diamonds. Known as the Devonshire Parure, the jewels were fashioned for the Countess Granville, wife of the duke's nephew, to wear to the coronation of Czar Alexander II.

1700s and 1800s

Baron Philipp von Stosch (German, 1691–1757)
A prominent antiquarian and art dealer, Baron Philipp von Stosch authored a seminal publication on ancient gemstones. Born in Brandenburg, he settled in Rome in 1717, where he collected gems, books, manuscripts, and drawings. His holdings included over ten thousand ancient intaglios, cameos, and glass pastes. Von Stosch financed his collection through rather unorthodox means, working as a spy for the British government of Robert Walpole on the Jacobite Court in Rome. In 1724 he published Pierres antiques gravées, sur lesquelles les graveurs ont mis leurs noms... (Ancient Engraved Gems, on which Carvers Have Inscribed Their Names...) a catalogue of gems he considered genuine, inscribed with proper names he claimed as artists' signatures. From that moment on, there was a great demand from aristocratic collectors for signed gems. When von Stosch's cover as a spy was blown in 1731, he fled the Papal States and took up residence in Florence, living on a pension from the British. He devoted the rest of his life to connoisseurship and to supporting young German artists, such as the gem engraver Johann Lorenz Natter.

George Spencer (British, 1739–1817), Fourth Duke of Marlborough
A learned aristocrat whose interests ranged from civil law to astronomy, George Spencer was also a distinguished art collector. After the second Earl of Arundel died in 1646, his gem collection was sold and eventually ended up, through inheritance, in the hands of Lady Diana Beauclerk, Marlborough's sister-in-law. She then transferred Arundel's gems to Marlborough, who incorporated them into his existing holdings of 300 specimens.

The duke purchased his gems at auctions and through contacts in Rome and Venice, who reserved their best items for him. His methods of acquisition aroused resentment among other collectors, particularly the French, who accused him of bribing and bullying art dealers to obtain the highest-quality works. Marlborough was extremely proud of his gems, which he enhanced with lavish jeweled settings and stored in red Moroccan leather boxes. At the time of his death, he possessed nearly 800 pieces. When the family finances became troubled several decades later, the collection was sold, and in 1899 it was dispersed through separate auctions at Christie's.

Edward Perry Warren (British, 1860–1928)
The collector Edward Perry Warren was born in Massachusetts to a family that made its fortune from a paper mill. After graduating from Harvard, Warren vowed to spend the rest of his life abroad and pursued an advanced degree at Oxford. There he met men similarly interested in studying and collecting antiquities, including his life partner, John Marshall. In 1890 Warren began to lease Lewes House, a historic Georgian estate in Sussex, where he lived with Marshall and six other men in pursuit of scholarship and collecting. Visitors observed that Lewes House was rather odd, "a monkish establishment" where everything was shared and little interest was taken in the affairs of the outside world. Despite the closeness between members, the brotherhood broke up after 12 years. Marshall married Warren's cousin Mary Bliss in 1907—a great blow to Warren—but after her death in 1925, the two men reunited for the remaining years of their lives.