John and Joséphine envisaged a museum of enormous scope, dedicated to European fine and decorative arts from the Middle Ages into their own time. In the age of the great international exhibitions their project would cover pictures, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, sculpture and items of historical interest. In many ways they were trying to rival the great national museums that were being formed in London and Paris, albeit with the means of private individuals.
From 1861 they employed an art dealer, Benjamin Gogué, to identify acquisitions, and act as curator and conservator. Two other dealers, M. Lamer and Mme Lepautre, were also engaged to hunt for suitable purchases. John or Joséphine approved every object. They themselves purchased over two hundred items at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, and about eighty at the London International Exhibition of 1871. In Paris they frequently bought from the jeweller M. Briquet and the dealer M. Bassett, whose daughter, Amélie, took over as curator of the collections in 1874.
John and Joséphine made many outstanding purchases. They were willing to take their agents’ advice and often bought against personal taste. In 1862 the collection of Spanish pictures of the Conde de Quinto appeared on the Parisian art market. Whilst Spanish paintings were in vogue in Paris at the time, they were hardly recognised in England. Their dealer Gogué wrote to them ‘Although these two masters do not appeal to you, I think you might well take one of each of them for your collections’. The Bowes thus became the owners of paintings by Goya and El Greco.
The Bowes Museum continues to acquire objects and works of art to this day, through gift or by purchase.