Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Catherine the Great as Collector


Cameos from Catherine the Great collection.

Cameos from Catherine the Great collection.

Even the mundane appears fascinating in large numbers. Think of collections of candy wrappers, coca cola bottles, or ticket stubs. Awe-inspiring and overwhelming, large collections speak of power. When the exotic or artistic is substituted for the mundane, the power of the collection increases exponentially.

This Catherine the Great knew well. An avid reader of authors of the Enlightenment, Sophie, the German princess, substituted her magnificent identity of Catherine the Great for that of an obscure German royalty. Her means in aggrandizing her own persona as well as that of her adopted nation, Russia, was collecting. No one today can parallel her collecting habits, not even those who have helped the art market reach excessive heights in contemporary art sales.

Heavily relying on her own intuition, her profound understanding of enlightenment, industrialization, and urban organization, Catherine the Great found a important collaborator in the Scottish nation that unwittingly supplied her with a series of scientific men along with striking opportunities to appropriate significant collections. Under her reign, the Russian nation trusted its medicinal progress in the expertise of the Scotts and embraced modernization through a newly acquired taste in building that transformed the Russian rural and urban landscape. Most importantly, it was the Scotts who allowed Catherine the Great to amass huge collections of hundreds, if not thousands of items at a time.

3000 paintings (including the collection of Sir Walpole), 10,000 engraved gemstones, or 30,000 copies of cameos that reached Catherine via Scott modeler James Tassie, form the exceptional collection housed in the Hermitage today.  Collecting is a means of acquiring knowledge. It is also a means to political power and distinguished presence among nations with longer or more continuous history. Not very different from the motivations of a collector today, Catherine the Great’s impetus in accumulating distinguished works of art served her in defining the profile of her empire as a forward looking and modern state, albeit inaccessible in its grandeur and wisdom.

The exhibition Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress at the National Museum of Scotland ( will be closing on October 21, 2012.

© Thomaï Serdari