The Rothschilds’ ‘Cabinet of Treasures’ Gleams Again – Wall Street Journal

Ferdinand de Rothschild and Poupon, his favourite poodle, relaxing in the Baron’s Room, 1897.

Curator Dora Thornton at London’s British Museum oversees some of the institution’s most glamorous objects—265 items once owned by the Rothschild banking family, including a gunpowder flask made from an ostrich egg and bejeweled pendants featuring mythical sea creatures.

The collection, which the British museum inherited in 1898, vividly evokes the wider cultural role of the Rothschilds. When they weren’t lending to governments and the nobility, members of the family competed with each other, collecting “cabinets of treasures,” or Schatzkammer in German, decorative rarities displayed in purpose-built rooms.

A glass goblet (late 1400s), part of the Waddesdon Bequest.

While 6.7 million visitors a year flock to the museum to see its Elgin marbles and Rosetta Stone—an ancient key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs—Ms. Thornton had trouble getting tourists to visit her charges, which she says suffered from poor lighting and cramped quarters. She compared the effect to “seeing beautiful women lit with the bad bulbs in the ladies’ lavatory of a pizza express.”

Then the relatives of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, the childless financier and widower who donated the Schatzkammer upon his death to avoid England’s rising inheritance taxes, offered to privately fund a new permanent space. The 12th-to-19th-century pieces went on permanent display Thursday in a refurbished and brightly lighted ground-floor room. Video screens, set off when visitors pass, tell the story of the Rothschilds and the Schatzkammer collection, known as the Waddesdon Bequest after the baron’s palatial country home in England.

Researching the bequest took 25 years, as Rothschild had ripped up his purchase receipts and provenance reports. The new exhibition illustrates how his collecting habits exemplified the desire among newly rich 19th-century Europeans to integrate into a European-American art world.

The Rothschilds had risen from the German Jewish ghettos of Frankfurt. By the time Ferdinand, born in 1839, came of age, the competition to create Schatzkammers was well under way. The concept originated in 16th-century Italy to store objects with high resale value. Ferdinand’s Schatzkammer focused on Renaissance relics, including a 10-inch-high portable Dutch altar from 1511, with human figurines.

“The Renaissance was particularly fashionable among Jewish collectors, because it emphasized the importance of men making their prominence through innovation” rather than through family pedigrees or religion, says Ms. Thornton.

The baron readily bought Jewish, Christian and Muslim relics. These included a 14th-century gold-and-sapphire Parisian altar, storing a supposed thorn from Jesus Christ’s crucifixion crown, and a late 14th-century mosque lamp.

By collecting such objects, Ferdinand Rothschild enticed art enthusiasts from various backgrounds—almost always male—to Waddesdon Manor’s smoking room for brandy, cigars and liberal-minded discussions inspired by the art.

The Rothschild family’s competitive streak drove them to amass 45 collections spread throughout Europe. But only the Waddesdon Bequest survived World War II intact. By that era, assembling a Schatzkammer had long fallen out of fashion among artistic elites, and today only a few galleries deal solely in objects similar to the Waddesdon Bequest.

Despite employing modernist cabinets, Ms. Thornton hopes to call upon the smoking room’s atmosphere of Schatzkammer wonderment by providing ample room for people to circle the objects and discuss talking points from a new book of highlights. Will there be the cigars and brandy that once floated around the collection—and into the occasional chalice? “I’d suggest visitors now enjoy their brandy with the exhibition book at home,” she says.

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