Librarian and art dealer Abbé Luigi Celotti was born on 12 August 1759 in Treviso in the Veneto region. His name appears as an art dealer after the Napoleonic invasion of Italy in 1796 when he was active in Paris. His contact with the British art market was evident in November 1828 when he sold Titian’s Portrait of Two Boys (said to be members of the Pesaro family) to James Irvine on behalf of William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo.
His presence on the British art market is significant not for the paintings or antiques he sold, but for his dealings in illuminated miniatures. During the Italian campaign of 1798, French troops looted the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Library. Soldiers were dealing in priceless books and liturgical manuscripts. Celotti took the stolen goods from their hands. He was particularly interested in illuminated miniatures. Having acquired the volumes, he removed the leaves. London was his prime commercial market.
In March 1825 he sold a set of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin manuscripts at Sotheby’s. The sale was recorded as the first specialist auction of a collection of medieval manuscripts. Two months later, Christie’s announced the sale (on 26 May) of more than two hundred miniatures. Such a sale had never occurred before in London.
The title of the catalogue indicated the rarity of that occasion: A Catalogue of a Highly Valuable and Extremely Curious Collection of Illumined Miniature Paintings taken from the Choir Books of the Papal Chapel in the Vatican during the French Revolution; and subsequently collected and brought to this Country by the Abate Celotti. London, Mr. Christie, May 26, 1825. A precedent was set. Collectors realised that the best medieval painting survived between the covers of manuscripts rather than on panels or walls. It stimulated large-scale vandalising of volumes and manuscipts and the disposal of the body of text. The miniatures were preserved as ‘monuments of a lost art’ and framed like small panels. The print departments of the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, hold many leaves that had been handled by Celotti. The dealer himself died in October 1843 at the Palazzo Barbarigo, Venice.