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History of the Byzantine Collection

The core of the Byzantine Collection was formed in just a few decades thanks to the pioneering interest and refined taste of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and to the connoisseurship of their advisers, especially Royall Tyler.

The core of the Byzantine Collection was formed in just a few decades thanks to the pioneering interest and refined taste of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and to the connoisseurship of their advisers, especially Royall Tyler. The Blisses began acquiring Byzantine art in the early 1920s and were able to lend important objects to the first major international special exhibition of Byzantine art in Paris in 1931. During this decade, they became interested in Early Byzantine jewelry and Early and Middle Byzantine liturgical objects. However, they also acquired Roman artworks, Islamic ceramics and textiles, and small-scale artworks from various prehistoric and ancient cultures.

After deciding in 1936 to give Dumbarton Oaks—its buildings, gardens, art, and books—to Harvard University sometime during their lifetimes, the Blisses begin aggressively to acquire Byzantine objects, some of which are the best pieces in the Byzantine Collection. Between 1936 and 1940, when they made their gift of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard, they acquired a remarkable 153 Byzantine objects.

With the construction in 1939–40 of the Byzantine Gallery—built to the Blisses' design by the Washington architect, Thomas T. Waterman, as the showcase for their Byzantine art—the Blisses moved beyond the private collectors' passion to the prescient establishment of a specialized collection that appealed equally to the amateur and research scholar. After 1940, the Blisses continued to build the Byzantine Collection with the same enthusiasm that had characterized their more diverse collecting choices in earlier years.

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