The Classics Collection originated in 1901 with the donation of five papyri by the Egypt Exploration Fund. A further five papyri were received in 1922. Other objects of Egyptian origin are believed to have been donated around the same time, forming what came to be known as the Flinders Petrie Collection.
The Classics Collection proper was established in memory of John Hugh Sutton, a student killed in a motor-cycle accident at the end of his second year. In 1926 his parents donated £500 to establish the "John Hugh Sutton Classical Museum" which "shall for all time be properly maintained by the Council of the University of Melbourne at the University of Melbourne" (Reg. LXVIII, later Reg. 7.8). At the time a tutor's salary was £50 per annum. By 1930 Professor Scutt had purchased 21 vases, 16 bronze and other artefacts, 100 coins and 100 electrotype copies, and three display cabinets. A small museum enclosure was constructed in what is now the Old Arts Building.
Scutt was also given, in 1929, a University grant of £100 for reproductions. So far only the Acropolis kore has been positively identified; it is possible that the 109 pin-mounted electrotype copies were also bought from this grant.
Professor A.D. Trendall published the black-figure and red-figure vases in 1951. In 1958 a catalogue was drawn up, which briefly listed 22 vases and 17 artefacts. In 1966 John Carter checked a set of index cards relating to the coin collection and noted which coins were missing.
It was Peter Connor who published the first comprehensive catalogue of the Classics Collection in the University of Melbourne Catalogue of Works of Art 1971 with details of 29 vases (plus a Nolan amphora on loan from Rev. J.S. Drought), 29 bronze and other artefacts, a further 31 objects in the Flinders Petrie Collection, and 257 coins (including twelve Greek and Roman coins in the Middle Eastern Studies Department). In the forty years since the Sutton bequest, the only major acquisition had been a set of five vases and four small bronzes from Pano Dhikomo in Cyprus. One classical vase was purchased in the early 1950s on the recommendation of A D Trendall, another donated in 1962 by Professor T B L Webster.
Connor's curatorship spanned the period from 1968 until his death in 1996. With the vigorous support of Professor Graeme Clarke, he systematically built up the collection as a teaching and research resource, largely with Arts Faculty Equipment funds but also by attracting gifts in kind (Culican, Gellie, McKay, Trendall). At his death there were 78 vases and 46 listed artefacts, while the number of genuine coins had risen to 565. Records were better kept, in part for insurance purposes, and Connor published quite a few of the objects in scholarly journals. Much of what is known about these antiquities and recorded in the Virtual Museum is drawn from his 1971 Catalogue, his publications, and from the catalogues to the many coin and vase exhibitions he mounted.
Deveopment of the Virtual Museum led to the 'discovery' of a number of other objects in the Kaye and Ernst Matthaei Collections and the History Department. The 1995 Chaldjian bequest added 14 items of classical interest, and the virtual museum includes objects on loan from the Vizard Foundation, the Adams family, and Mrs H Jackson. On the other hand, three vases (MUV 16, 40, 55) and one papyrus were stolen in the 1980s (photographs of most are included in the Virtual Museum), and a carton with much of the Petrie collection went missing in the second half of 1996.
For the virtual museum, Peter Connor was preparing a new catalogue of the entire Classics Collection. Upon his death John Burke collected his computer files, and Heather Jackson has revised and supplemented these and his paper files for an illustrated Catalogue of the Greek vases. It will include the krater recently donated in memory of Peter Connor, a classical vase from the Kaye Collection, and two more from the Chaldjian gift. It will not include the five vases from Pano Dhikomo, which have been reunited with the four small bronzes from the same area and transferred to the Cypriot Collection.
Chris Haymes has assisted in cataloguing the remaining 158 Greek and Roman coins in the Bairstow Coin Collection, donated in 1974-5.
The Classics Collection also includes 18 medieval manuscripts (17 Latin and one Greek) purchased by John Martyn, for teaching purposes, between 1960 and 1975. With some help from John Burke, he has transcribed and translated the manuscripts for the virtual museum. Some letters of Gregory the Great contain important early readings, and this has stimulated research towards a new edition of these letters and the first translation into English of the whole corpus of Gregory's correspondance.
A few impressive casts are included in the collection, among them the courtyard full-size bronze cast of Zeus of Artemision - one of five in the world, donated by the Government of Greece to the University of Melbourne on the occasion of the 1956 Olympic Games.