England was once hugely prosperous and possessed an extraordinary share of the world's great art. In the years following the French Revolution, political turmoil in Europe brought a number of superb works of art on the market, and English collectors avidly bought them. Even earlier, young aristocrats returned to England from their grand tours with a keen appreciation of the aesthetic achievements of the continent and the means to acquire any works that pleased them.
With few exceptions, these treasures entered the collections of individuals as their private property. In its scope, this was a unique experience in privatization, unlike both the past and the future. In an earlier time, Europe's great art was generally publicly displayed in churches, public monuments, or held in royal and aristocratic collections where it was displayed to serve political purposes A gallery of pictures was an indication of princely worth; nobles acquired such galleries to demonstrate their wealth, power, and dignity. In the Middle Ages, the "site for works of art was ...the church, that is, a public place, freely accessible to all who came and worshiped.' On the European continent, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the museum in its essentially modern form came into being. Much artwork that had resided in noble collections, and some that had been displayed in churches, was moved into a new sort of public setting viewed as national property. This new setting was part of the nation's cultural patrimony and was made increasingly open to a broader public in accordance with Enlightenment values.
Joseph L. Sax,
Imaginatively Public: The English Experience of Art as Heritage Property,
38 Vanderbilt Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vjtl/vol38/iss4/8