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Frederick August-albums

During his lifetime King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony (1797-1854) amassed a substantial private collection of prints and drawings: more than 120,000 sheets kept in 750 albums. Most of these albums were taken to pieces at sales at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thirty have survived in the museum’s collection.

Frederick Augustus II of Saxony (fig. 1) began collecting in 1817. His goal was to put together a complete overview of European art by means of prints – printed images on paper that include woodcuts, engravings, etchings and lithographs. After purchasing these prints at auctions or from dealers he had them mounted in albums. Each print was given a number and a stamp. Since he was reigning as king of Saxony between 1836 and 1854, he would most probably not have been able to do all this himself, so he appointed a curator, Johann Gottfried Abraham Frenzel (1782-1855).

Frenzel writes about the collection in his book 'Die Kupferstichsammlung Friedrich August II. König von Sachsen, beschrieben und mit einem historischen Überblick der Kupfersticher-kunst begleitet' (Leipzig 1854). The way the collection was organized is clear from this catalogue. The albums were arranged by technique, country and artist. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was customary to classify artists on the basis of national schools, so that prints by Italian printmakers, for instance, would be grouped together. The result was a number of albums for each national school. The arrangement within them was based on each artist in chronological order. An unusual aspect was that Frederick Augustus chose a system based first and foremost on technique. This was different from his contemporaries’ practice.

1. Franz Hanfstängl, 'Friedrich August König von Sachsen', 1842, lithograph, 422 x 328 mm, British Museum, London (inv. 1852,1009.352). © The Trustees of the British Museum

"Es wird selten vorkommen, einen Sammler von Kupferstichen zu finden, welcher mit gleicher Begeisterung und mit gleich tiefer Kenntniss für die bei einer grösseren Sammlung so vielfach verzweigten vorkommenden Einzelnheiten in unausgesetzter Aufbau als ein wahres kunstgeschicktliches Denkmal zu hinterlassen."
- Frenzel 1854, p. IX.

"It will be rare to find a collector of copper engravings who, with the same enthusiasm and with the same profound knowledge, can leave behind a true monument to art history in the form of the individual pieces found in such a large collection and branched off in so many ways."
- Frenzel 1854, p. IX.

On his death, Frederick Augustus left 750 albums. They suffered the fate that many albums underwent in the past: they were taken to pieces. The greater part of Frederick Augustus’s collection was sold at C.G. Boerner’s auction house in Leipzig between 1926 and 1938. Prints often fetch more when they are sold individually rather than as part of an album, and the collection has consequently been dispersed worldwide. Thanks to the collector’s mark stamped conspicuously on the front, the prints are still always recognized as having belonged to Frederick Augustus (fig. 2).

2. Frederick Augustus II of Saxony’s collector’s mark stamped on the front, Lugt 971

Fortunately not all the albums were dismantled. Today 105 albums are known to have survived, seventy-five of them in Dresden (Kupferstich-Kabinett) and thirty in Rotterdam. The collector Johan Bierens de Haan (1867-1951) seized his chance at the sale in Leipzig. For relatively little money he bought thirty albums, among them fourteen containing prints by the Rubens school – made by artists from the school or circle of the painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Bierens de Haan’s bequest to the museum in 1951 added these albums containing around 4,000 prints to the museum collection.

Make accessible

The albums are large (on average 75 × 57 × 4.5 cm) and heavy (10 to 16 kilos). They are awkward to handle and difficult to present as a museum object. When they are exhibited, the album is shown open at a single page. In the past, prints were taken out of the albums for exhibitions and were usually not put back after the exhibition ended. Admittedly all the separate prints can be better handled, conserved and displayed, but at the same time they have been removed from their historical context. As a result, the album no longer functions as an integral art object in its nineteenth-century manifestation. In the future, the museum will have to weigh up what has priority – the condition of the individual prints and exhibition practice, or the artistic and cultural historical value of the albums.

The condition of the albums is an important factor in such decisions. There is an interesting phenomenon happening in the paper of these albums. What are known as ‘shadow prints’, impressions of the prints on the facing page (figs. 3-4), can be seen on the empty pages. The paper in the albums dates from the early nineteenth century and has probably undergone a chemical reaction with the printing ink in the much older prints pasted into the album. Exactly how this has come about is not clear and the phenomenon consequently requires further investigation. In any event, the prints themselves do not appear to have been affected.

3. Album number 61
3. Album number 61
4. Album number 61
4. Album number 61

With the arrival of digital registration systems, the museum is working to make the collection accessible by putting it online in conjunction with other forms of digitization. This means that the present appearance of the album can be recorded and a digital reconstruction can be attempted. The prints taken out of Album 51 have been digitally replaced to provide an insight into the way the album looked in its original form.

If the digital reconstruction is not clearly visible, click here

Making the collection accessible is an ongoing project and more and more works on paper can be seen in the collection online on the website. Have you seen a work that you would like to see in reality? You can do this via: Art by request. Researchers can make an appointment for the reading room in the Depot.


Text: Mireille Linck
Translation: Lynne Richards