Frederic Spitzer (1815-1890) was born in Vienna, according to some reports to a father who was a grave-digger. After a career in the army, he returned home and bought his first artwork, an engraving by Albrecht Dürer which he later sold in Paris for a huge profit, the start of his personal fortune. In 1852, he settled in Paris and became one of Europe’s leading buyers and sellers of art, especially known for his passion for medieval and Renaissance art. Upon his death in 1890, his private collection was one of the largest and most coveted in fin de siècle Europe.

A newspaper correspondent in Paris described him in 1893 as “a man of humble, even low origin, who possessed the instinct of the curiosity hunter, the flair du bibelot. He commenced life as a peddling curiosity monger, then established himself as a curiosity dealer in Paris. His artistic knowledge soon became known, and collectors like Baron Adolphe de Rothschild and Sir Richard Wallace confided their interests to him. Spitzer himself stated that he had done business to the amount of over 60,000,000f with these two customers alone. … He had built himself a mansion near the Arc de Triomphe, with galleries in which, as in the Louvre, objects of art were arranged in glass cases and catalogued in order, so as to bring before the eyes of visitors the complete history of the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”[1]

From a modern viewpoint, some of his business practices seem unethical. In 1855, he partnered with a restorer Reinhold Vasters (1827-1909) and set up a shop to sell art in Aachen. It is strongly suspected that Spitzer commissioned Vasters and a number of other artisans to alter objects or create forgeries that would meet the tastes of the ever-expanding art market. Furthermore, letters from some of his associates report underhanded negotiations and trading with various collectors.


Near the end of his life, Spitzer persuaded leading art historian Emile Molinier to collaborate with him on a multi-volume catalog of his private collection. Only one volume appeared before Spitzer’s death, but his will left detailed instructions for its completion.  Alfred Darcel (1818-1893), who collaborated with Basilevsky, was responsible for the Spitzer ivories.

The Spitzer collection was publicly auctioned over 3 months in 1893. In the months before the sale, editorials in American newspapers appealed to institutions or private donors to coordinate to purchase the collection as a whole for a public museum such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite such pleas, most of the collection was bought by the Australian-born but London-based private collector George Salting (1835-1909), who bequeathed his collection to the British Museum, the National Gallery in London, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (see Hollis #4046976).

[1] Jacques St. Cere to The Critic (April 8, 1893): 225.