Freud and his Antiquity Collection

I may say at once that I am no connoisseur in art, but simply a layman…
Nevertheless, works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me’. 
- Sigmund Freud

These words are from the catalogue of the travelling exhibition The Sigmund Freud Antiquities: Fragments from a Buried Past which toured America in 1989.  It showcased 67 selected items from a collection which Freud had built up over a 40 year period.

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) began collecting antiquities in 1896 whilst living in Berggasse.  His first purchase was a few months after the death of his father in October of the same year and much has been made of the timing of this emergence into collecting as it appears to have been a way of coping with the grief of loss.  Indeed Freud himself saw this as a turning-point in both his life and work, and he went through a neurotic period of self-doubt which in turn made him undertake self-analysis.

Freud adored archaeology and was fascinated by the work of Heinrich Schliemann.  As Black points out in On Exhibit: Victorians and their Museums: 'both the archaeologist and the psychoanalyst explore the depths below the surface; both insist that the present is founded on the many layers of past existence.  Both collectors retrieve lost fragments that can then be reconstituted into newly presented wholes’. (Black (2000), 19).  Freud's teaching of the importance of remembering and retrieval perhaps gave him a natural leaning towards the pursuit of collecting.

Freud's collecting focused on Egyptian art, but he also acquired Greek, Roman and Asian artefacts.  He bought from regular dealers who would often brings items for him to view and purchase.  Freud would insist on originals, although he is known to have had some reproductions in the collection.  His collection had more than 2000 pieces of ancient art which he housed in two rooms - his study and his consulting room.  He committed every available space to the display of his pieces – cabinets, shelves, tables, mantelpieces, pedestals and desk were all utilised to showcase his collection.

Amongst the pieces he owned there included an Egyptian mummy portrait, a substantial amount of rings and many scarabs.  Freud's preference was however for collecting statuary, whose faces he always made sure were turned to face him and his patients.   His fondness for his pieces was palpable and Freud would say a 'Good Morning' each day to his favourite Chinese statue.  Whilst in consultation, he was known to often rearrange the pieces or pick them up and handle them. 

In 1938, Freud fled from Vienna to London. The contents of his study, including 2000 books from his library and his collectables, were moved to London to avoid Nazi appropriation.  The original study and objects were first photographed before being moved and theses images helped with the foundation of Vienna’s Freud Museum.  The collection whilst still in Vienna was described by the photographer Edmund Engelman:

antiquities filled every available spot in the room.  I was overwhelmed by the masses of figurines which overflowed every surface.  To the left of the door was a large bookcase covered with tall ancient statuettes.  In the corner at the end of the wall facing thiese statuettes, was Frued’s chair, almost hidden by the head of the couch…To the left and right of the door were glass show-cases filled with hundreds of antiquities.  These were set up in several rows; every bit of cabinet space was filled…I was amazed by the unbelievable number of art objects'. 
                                                                                                   Engelman (1976), 137-8.

‘     In The Cultures of Collecting, Forrester points out that it was in no way a systematic collection for it was acquired in a slow and steady fashion; Freud bought each piece on the 'virtues of the piece, on its particular contigencies, rather than its place within a predestined order’. (Forrester, J. (1994), 229).  Though his collection was private, 'it was not 'jealously guarded' and Freud would readily swap pieces or give some away as gifts.

When Freud died, his daughter, Anna Freud, kept his study and collections intact.  Her will stipulated that the house at 20 Maresfield Gardens be turned into a museum and it has been open to the  public since 1986.

The link to Sigmund Freud’s Collection: An Archaeology of the Mind will take you to the touring exhibition catalogue which contains photographs of the objects in the touring exhibition.

Engelman, E. (1976). Berggasse 19: Sigmund Freud’s Home and Offices, Vienna 1938’ in The Photographs of Edmund Engelman: 131-43.  New York: Basic Books Inc.

Black, B.J. (2000).  On Exhibit: Victorians and their Museums. Charlottesville and London : University Press of Virginia.

Forrester, J. (1994).  ‘Mille e tre' Freud and Collecting’ in The Cultures of Collecting ed. By John Elsner and Roger Cardinal.  London: Reaktion Books, pp 224-251.

Pearce, S.M. (1992).  Museums, Objects, and Collections.  Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.


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