Through complex nineteenth-century transatlantic exchanges and relationships among dealers, collectors, and art works, many autograph replicas (a version of an art work made by the same artist that created the first version) found their way into American collections and then subsequently into American museums. I will focus on the Winthrop collection left to Harvard's Fogg Museum and the Walters collection left to the Walters Museum in Baltimore. Both collections were foundations of their respective museums, further elevating the importance of the replicas these collectors gathered. I will argue that art works’ transatlantic voyages had a profound effect not only on American art history, then a nascent discipline, and on American public art education through museums, but also on Americans’ understanding of European, especially British and French, art culture, as these autograph replicas were recontextualized from European to American cultural narratives. Crossing the pond, replicas experienced processes of “displacement and resignification” (Dzelzainis and Livesey 3). Works that would have been considered distinct from one another by style or nation were suddenly yoked into one collection and equalized in a new American cultural narrative of purpose and value.
American collectors after the mid-nineteenth century were largely philanthropic collectors, who planned to give their collections to public museums in a manner similar to that of British middle-class industrialist collectors, and unlike aristocratic collectors whose collections went to their heirs or were put up for auction. Autograph replicas collected by Americans were newly networked with other works in these collections and within a new cultural narrative. This narrative was further extended when the collections entered public institutions that in turn historicized origins, motives, public taste, style lineages, and educational functions for these replicas. Replicas participated in the “narrative of transatlantic circulation and identity formation that goes beyond a simple export–import or exchange relation between nineteenth-century Britain and America” to generate “the reconfiguration and relayering that results from transatlantic thinking” by which art works “can be appropriated and given new meanings in the exchange across time, space and viewers” (Dzelzainis and Livesey 4–5).