Alessandro Contini Bonacossi, antiquario (1878-1955): the art market and cultural philanthropy in the formation of American museums
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This thesis aims to document and discuss the role and legacy of the Italian antiquario Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955) in the international secondary art market for Old Master paintings during the first half of the twentieth century. Grounded in the discovery of primary archival evidence and set against the major historical events that unfolded during his lifetime, this work presents its findings by following a research process adopted to answer the following research questions: who was Contini Bonacossi, what was his business network (where was he buying paintings, at what prices, and who were his clients), what was his modus operandi for selling and marketing his work, and what is his legacy. To answer these questions, I made extensive use of primary sources, the vast majority of which are unpublished or have never been used before in this context, framed by a contextualized analysis of their historical background. The archival investigation has brought to light, for the first time, documentary evidence of Contini Bonacossi’s transactions and business ties with other European dealers such as Duveen Brothers, Heinemann Galleries, Colin Agnew, Colnaghi, Böhler, Steinmeyer, and Kleinberger Galleries; with scholars such as Wilhelm von Bode, Roberto Longhi, and Bernard Berenson; as well as previously unknown connections Contini Bonacossi had with members of the Harvard museum community and the Boston cultural elite such as Paul Sachs (1878-1965), Edward W. Forbes (1873-1969) Denmann Ross (1853-1935); and offers new details regarding his relationship with the Kress Brothers, their gifts of artworks to the new National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the Kress Foundation’s Regional Program that endowed museums across the US. Ultimately, this work adds to our knowledge important sources for the study of the history of private and public collecting during its crucial years in the formation of American museums. More broadly, in documenting Contini Bonacossi’s case, this study strives to rethink the role of art dealers, to look at them not solely as market professionals engaged in the dynamics of supply, demand and profit, but first and foremost as bearers and sellers of culture, whose activities were fully embedded in the socio-political environment of their time and so to acknowledge and extend knowledge about their active role in the international dissemination and interpretation of cultural heritage.