The Great Hall Christmas shop, as pictured in 1944
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146 Years of Art-Inspired Gifts

Visitors to The Met have been shopping prints, postcards, sculpture reproductions, and other gifts since 1871

Today is Museum Store Sunday, a day to celebrate how museum retailers exist to support museums’ contributions to communities around the country and the world. (We might also to mention it’s a great day to shop The Met Store, with 25% off sitewide through 11:59 ET tonight).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been disseminating revenue-generating reproductions of works in its collection practically since its founding—in part to fulfill a mandate in its original 1870 Charter to be “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts.” Early images of European paintings—etchings were introduced in 1871, followed by then-state-of-the-art photographic prints—were commissioned for archival reasons, with extra copies going on sale to fund the Museum’s operations. (At one of the Museum’s first locations, the Douglas Mansion on West 14th Street, reproductions were on sale in the very galleries in which the original paintings hung!) 

Information desk, September 21, 1927

 

The Museum also showed an early commitment to three-dimensional reproductions. In its first decades, The Met created and exhibited copies of famous sculptures from collections in Europe (even distributing them to other museums in the U.S.), in line with prevailing museum practice of the time—and before the new institution’s own collection came into its own.

An early, major addition to The Met’s holdings, the Cesnola Collection of Cypriot art, assembled by a flamboyant military officer and funded by public subscription, provided ample subjects for reproduction—and the Museum’s trustees engaged a prominent Manhattan jewelry house to take on the job. Tiffany & Company’s 146 facsimiles of the Cypriot pieces won awards at the Paris Exposition of 1878, and were for sale in the company’s famous “Blue Book” for years.

In 1877, The Met appointed Tiffany & Co. to reproduce important jewelry pieces from the Cesnola Collection of Cypriot art; the original version of this bracelet copy was stolen from the Museum in 1887. Electrotype copy of a gold bracelet by Tiffany & Company. Cypriot. Gold, 4 in. diameter,  inches (10.2 cm), 6th–5th century B.C. The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76 (74.51.3552)

 

As The Met grew both its footprint on Fifth Avenue and its audiences, space in the Great Hall devoted to postcards, publications and other reproductions grew in tandem, with the Sales and Information Desk occupying several, progressively larger footprints over the first half of the 20th century.

The Information and Sales Desk in the Great Hall, originally set up in 1910, as pictured in 1921.

 

During this era, The Met found success in developing its own full-color Christmas cards, Advent calendars, and other holiday ephemera. (This tradition is still going strong.) In addition, the Museum’s mail-order business (originally launched in 1907) steadily grew in circulation. This program allowed customers around the country to purchase prints and fine copies of works in the collection, including silver from the American Wing (reproduced by the storied Gorham Manufacturing Company in the early 1950s).

The Great Hall Christmas shop, as pictured in 1944

 

First seen in a full-color print in 1927, a certain miniature hippopotamus from Egypt quickly proved a hit for visitors from far and wide. Dubbed “William” by an English writer (who, having obtained one of the color reproductions, wrote an amusing essay on the figure in the journal Punch), the blue-faience hippo soon became the unofficial mascot of The Met. Versions of the ancient work—in clay, glass, fabric, and other materials—remain a mainstay of The Met Store’s product line today.

Over the decades our blue hippo William has proved irresistible to The Met’s reproduction team.

 

Today, The Met Store continues the rich legacy of reproducing and adapting works from the Museum’s incomparable holdings. Whether you’re shopping for apparel and textiles, jewelry, home decor, stationery, or children’s items, celebrate Museum Store Sunday by discovering the art of gifting.

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