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The Benton Gospels

Dumbarton Oaks Museum acquires rare Greek manuscript

Posted on Sep 20, 2017 03:58 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Benton Gospels

With support from the B. H. Breslauer Foundation, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum has acquired an early 10th-century Greek manuscript of historic and scholarly significance. Known as Minuscule 669 or the Benton Gospels, this Byzantine codex contains the partial text of the four Gospels of the New Testament. Brought to the United States in 1844 by Reverend George Benton, an Episcopal minister, it is likely the oldest Byzantine gospel book in the US.

It provides insight into Byzantine manuscript illumination and calligraphy, such as the use of an unusual script known as bouletée élancée. Only about thirty manuscripts written in bouletée élancée are known. Scholar Nadezhda Kavrus-Hoffmann has written a detailed codicological and paleographic study of the Benton Gospels, which is planned for publication in an upcoming volume of the Dumbarton Oaks Papers.

In addition to the Benton Gospels, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum holds five illuminated biblical and liturgical Byzantine manuscripts dating from the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. Access to the Benton Gospels at Dumbarton Oaks offers unparalleled opportunities to scholars conducting paleographic, iconographic, codicological, and biblical research, since the institution is uniquely suited to conduct and facilitate specialized inquiry and interpretation in those fields.

Dumbarton Oaks holds the premier collection of scholarly literature on the transmission of the Bible in Greek and seeks to expand the scope of sources available to scholars. Byzantium’s role in preserving and transmitting early versions of New Testament texts continues to be a prime subject of research and scholarly discussion. Dumbarton Oaks’ focused collecting seeks to advance rigorous and detailed study of topics in the aid of understanding the complexity of human thought and activity.

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The Bliss Collection and the “Exotic Cultural Other”

Posted on Mar 03, 2016 11:00 AM by Dumbarton Oaks Archives |
The Bliss Collection and the “Exotic Cultural Other”

The Bliss Collection and the “Exotic Cultural Other”

All T’oqapu Tunic, Inka, ca. 1450–1540, Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Pre-Columbian Collection (PC.B.518).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, “primitive” art, that is, non-European objects that lay outside the canon of what was then considered to be art, was becoming more visible, especially in the small antiquities shops in Paris. Like contemporary modern art of the time, such art—including Chinese, Egyptian, Islamic, Pre-Columbian, Byzantine, and African—was considered exotic, or as the art critic James Shapley put it when describing Byzantine art in 1931: “It is the unknown, beautiful, mysterious, distant, exotic, and even orphaned cultural other. Like an odalisque, its tenure on the affections depends on its capacity to remain perpetually different, inexhaustibly strange” (J. Shapley, “Byzantine Art in Chicago,” Parnassus 3, no. 8 [1931]: 29).

Those who liked this “exotic cultural other” undoubtedly did so because of its mastery of aesthetic forms, sensitivity to materials, freedom from naturalistic imitation, and boldness of abstraction.

Olmec diopside-jadeite sculpture, an early acquisition by Robert Woods Bliss Standing figure, Olmec, 900–300 BCE, diospite-jadeite. Pre-Columbian Collection, PC.B.014, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss became admirers and collectors of this so-called “primitive” art. They had arrived in Paris in 1912 when Robert Bliss was posted to the U.S. Embassy there, and it was in Paris that Bliss acquired his first “exotic cultural other,” an Olmec jadeite sculpture. Bliss later wrote:

Soon after reaching Paris in the spring of 1912, my friend Royall Tyler took me to a small shop in the Boulevard Raspail to see a group of pre-Columbian objects from Peru. I had just come from the Argentine Republic, where I had never seen anything like these objects, the temptations offered there having been in the form of colonial silver. Within a year, the antiquaire of the Boulevard Raspail, Joseph Brummer, showed me an Olmec jadeite figure. That day the collector’s microbe took root in—it must be confessed—very fertile soil. Thus, in 1912, were sown the seeds of an incurable malady!

Unquestionably, it was Royall Tyler who was responsible for instilling in the Blisses a passion for the exotic art that was new to the marketplace in Paris. Already in 1909, he had written:

Art is much wider and more complicated than it was half a century ago. Modern foreign schools, the once despised periods of the art of the past, the arts of all the ages and all the nations, are biting and scratching in the space which was once reserved for the best-behaved Italians and Netherlanders, a few Frenchmen, Englishmen and Spaniards. The old rules can no longer be applied. No one is content to observe them.

—R. Tyler, “Essays on Masterpieces—I,” The Englishwoman 1, no. 1 (February 1909): 76–77.

Scythian feline pectoral (BZ.1923.7) Feline pectoral, Scythian, fifth century BCE, BZ.1923.7, Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

Tyler continued to make the rounds of the Parisian dealers with the Blisses, and in the following years, they would acquire Caucasian, Sassanian, Islamic, and Byzantine objects. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, however, the supply of art to the Parisian dealers began to dry up and the Blisses turned their attention from collecting to aiding France and eventually the United States in the war effort. They would only be able to return to collecting in the 1920s and then only on their occasional return visits to Paris or especially through the advice of Royall Tyler, who continued to frequent the Parisian dealers and make recommendations to the Blisses on artworks to be acquired. (For more on the relationship between the Blisses and Royall Tyler, see the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence.)

Today, the Bliss Collection is best known for its Byzantine and Pre-Columbian Collections, which are prominently displayed in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and which tangibly represent two of the research programs supported by the institution. However, the Blisses’ collecting interests were considerably broader. Their collection had significant holdings representing the art of the African, Chinese, Egyptian, Islamic, Persian, and Scythian cultures. The Blisses also collected paintings from the modern schools, including works by Degas, Daumier, Seurat, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. (Those artworks not belonging to the Byzantine or Pre-Columbian Collections are part of the House Collection.) Although widely disparate in culture and date, the art in the Bliss Collection, including the Byzantine and Pre-Columbian, is nevertheless united by its embodiment of the “exotic cultural other.”

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In Memoriam: Gifts to the Dumbarton Oaks Collection

Posted on Jan 04, 2016 11:00 AM by Dumbarton Oaks Archives |
In Memoriam: Gifts to the Dumbarton Oaks Collection

In Memoriam: Gifts to the Dumbarton Oaks Collection

Moche steatite incised box, gift of John Wise, New York, in memory of Robert Woods Bliss, 1963 (PC.B.536).

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection has received a number of remarkable objects that were given to the museum in someone’s memory. Since the giver typically wished to commemorate someone who had recently died, these gifts were doubly meaningful: they both enriched the collection and kept alive the memory of the deceased, associating the person with an object of beauty and importance. Frequently, the gifts that came to Dumbarton Oaks were offered in memory of a spouse or family member. Robert Woods Bliss was also honored in this way. After his death in 1962, many friends and dealers gave Pre-Columbian artworks in his memory for the Pre-Columbian Collection that was about to open to the public (see post). The dealer John Wise, for example, gave a unique incised Moche stone box (PC.B.536) in Bliss’s memory, and this object is the only known complete Moche stone box of its kind in existence.

Hayford Peirce, an amateur Byzantine scholar and collector, was a close friend of the Blisses and a collaborator with the Blisses’ friend Royall Tyler. Peirce died on March 4, 1946, and in his memory, in 1947 his widow, Polly Peirce, gave Dumbarton Oaks a Byzantine micro-mosaic icon, which the Blisses had been interested to acquire in 1931 but had not pursued due to its price. At the time of the gift, Polly Peirce also lent Dumbarton Oaks other objects from Peirce’s collection including his 5,000-piece Byzantine coin collection. In 1948, the Blisses would fund the acquisition of the coins, and in 1963 Mildred Bliss would fund the acquisition of the objects, a rock-crystal ring and a red porphyry head. On December 18, 1947, Robert Bliss wrote Royall Tyler:

We have seen the Peirce miniature mosaic, which is a wonder. I am about to write “Polly” to tell her how grateful and pleased we are to have at Dumbarton Oaks such an object as a memorial to Hayford. She has left at Dumbarton Oaks, as a loan, the rock-crystal ring and a red porphyry head both of which are very fine. In addition, she has deposited at Dumbarton Oaks, also on loan, that part of the collection of coins which was in America with the assurance that those coming from Europe will be added upon arrival. I have not seen the coins yet but Jack Thacher says they are very fine.

Miniature Mosaic Icon with Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia (BZ.1947.24) Miniature Mosaic Icon with Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia, gift of Polly Peirce in memory of her husband, Hayford Peirce, 1947 (BZ.1947.24)

Byzantine Chalice (BZ.1955.18) Byzantine Chalice, gift of Elisina and William R. Tyler in memory of Royall Tyler, 1955 (BZ.1955.18)

Royall Tyler himself died on February 3, 1953. His wife, Elisina Tyler, and the Tylers’ son, William Royall Tyler, who was Mildred Bliss’s godson and who would be the second director of Dumbarton Oaks, gave Dumbarton Oaks an early Byzantine silver chalice (BZ.1955.18) in his memory. Royall Tyler had acquired this chalice in 1913 as one of his first Byzantine purchases (see here for letters in the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence that mention the chalice). This gift was particularly poignant to the Blisses as the chalice was from the same hoard as their silver paten (BZ.1924.5) and liturgical fan (BZ.1936.23), and the Blisses and the Tylers often referred to these pieces as their “family.” When Royall Tyler first alerted the Blisses to the paten, in a letter of January 26, 1924, he noted:

It is perhaps the most moving thing—possibly excepting my chalice—I’ve ever seen for sale. . . .

If you do get it, live with it for a good long time anyway. It will teach you a great deal about the age when Santa Sophia and the great churches of Ravenna were built, when the most perfect Byzantine enamels were made and the throne of Maximian was carved. Eventually, give it to the Cabinet des Médailles, the only place in the world I know of that’s fit to receive it. You may imagine how excited I am. The thought of your having it intoxicates me, and it would be a happiness for life to think that the two pieces would one day be joined together and live happily ever after at the Cabinet des Médailles.

Byzantine amethyst gem depicting Christ (BZ.1953.7) Byzantine amethyst gem depicting Christ, gift of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in memory of Royall Tyler, 1953 (BZ.1953.7) Moche panel from Palenque Maya panel from Palenque, gift to Dumbarton Oaks from Mildred Bliss in memory of her husband, Robert Woods Bliss, 1963 (PC.B.528)

The Blisses themselves made a gift to Dumbarton Oaks in memory of Royall Tyler: a sixth–seventh century carved amethyst gem with a standing figure of Christ. Tyler had discovered the intaglio gem at the Parisian dealer Charles Ratton and had recommended it to then-Director John Thacher on April 16, 1952. The Blisses presented the gem to Dumbarton Oaks almost exactly a year later on April 14, 1953, which was also their forty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Between 1958 and his death on April 19, 1962, Robert Woods Bliss was engaged in the planning of the Philip Johnson–designed pavilion for his Pre-Columbian Collection (see post). Unfortunately, he would not live to see the building’s completion or the installation of the collection. Mildred Bliss took over that responsibility, opening the collection in December 1963. In memory of her husband, Mildred Bliss gave Dumbarton Oaks a large limestone Maya panel from Palenque (PC.B.528). Others, like John Wise and the Moche box, also remembered Robert Bliss with gifts to the Pre-Columbian Collection. Director John Thacher gave a Maya polychrome ceramic (PC.B.563). 

Maya polychrome ceramic Maya polychrome ceramic, gift of John S. Thacher in memory of Robert Woods Bliss, 1968 (PC.B.563) Cosmati Floor Panel (BZ.1949.2) Floor Panel, gift of Ernest Brummer and Mrs. Joseph Brummer in memory of Joseph Brummer, 1949 (BZ.1949.2)

Other gifts made in memoriam to the Dumbarton Oaks Collection include a “Cosmati” floor panel (BZ.1949.2), given in 1949 by Ernest Brummer and Mrs. Joseph Brummer in memory of the dealer Joseph Brummer, who had died on April 14, 1947. The Blisses and Dumbarton Oaks had acquired some 160 Byzantine objects from the Brummers.

In 1951, Victoria Tytus Steward, who was Mildred Bliss’s goddaughter, gave the Byzantine Collection a silver dish (BZ.1951.31) in memory of her father, the archaeologist and collector Robb de Peyster Tytus (1876–1913). Director John Thacher gave the Byzantine Collection a gold and cloisonné enamel closure with representations of Christ and Mary (BZ.1965.4) in memory of his mother, Frances Lake Thacher, who had died in January 1962. And in 1969, the numismatist Alfred Bellinger, who had authored volumes on the Byzantine coin collection, gave the Byzantine Collection three Byzantine textile fragments (BZ.1969.61a–c) in memory of his sister, the textile specialist Louisa Bellinger, who died in November 1968. In the early years of Dumbarton Oaks, Louisa Bellinger had worked on the Byzantine Textile Census (see post).

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Final Touches: The Byzantine Collection and Joseph Brummer, 1940

Posted on Nov 30, 2015 11:00 AM by Dumbarton Oaks Archives |
Final Touches: The Byzantine Collection and Joseph Brummer, 1940

Although the Blisses already had begun planning for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in 1932, it was only in late 1936 that they decided to give the institute to Harvard University during their lifetimes. To this end, in September 1939, they engaged the architect Thomas T. Waterman (1900–1951) to design and build additions for a library and a museum. With the completion of these structures in late 1939, the Blisses then turned to the task of completing their Byzantine art collection, or as Mildred Bliss put it, completing “the collecting end of the Dumbarton Oaks plan.”

In 1940, the Blisses acquired a record 109 objects for the Byzantine Collection. Of these, forty-one came from the New York dealer, Joseph Brummer, from whom the Blisses previously had acquired thirty objects for the collection. The Brummer galleries in Paris and New York thus proved to be the most significant resource for the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection.

Joseph Brummer (1883-1947) Joseph Brummer (1883-1947)

Among the objects that the Blisses acquired from Joseph Brummer in 1940 are two steelyards and two lead-filled bronze weights in the form of Byzantine empresses. Each “empress” is adorned with a diadem, a set of pearl earrings, a necklace made of large stones, a cloak, and a tunic. These weights, of approximately three and six pounds respectively, were used with the steelyards, suspension balances involving hooks that allowed grocers and butchers to weigh their goods. Although it was once thought that these weights were portraits of actual Byzantine empresses, scholars now believe that they are generic representations intended to reinforce the legitimacy of the sale. That this authority is represented as an empress and not an emperor may be due to the continuation of the pre-Christian, Greco-Roman tradition of crafting weights to resemble pagan goddesses.

When Joseph Brummer offered the steelyard and weights to the Blisses in February 1940, Robert Bliss surprisingly wrote him on February 13:

As regards the bronze scales, should we purchase them, I hope that you will try to find a better pair of weights. Both Mrs. Bliss and I have seen better ones and hope that some day you may be able to replace these by ones more worthy of the Collection.

Brummer quickly wrote back on the 15th:

As for the bronze scales, I think it would be a mistake to exchange the weights for another pair, because these two were found with the scales and were made for them. The owner of these scales in the Byzantine period used these weights. Perhaps if I can find other weights you might add them to the collection to show how weights of better quality look, but do not replace them.

Byzantine Steelyard Weight, acquired from Joseph Brummer, March 26, 1940 (BZ.1940.18.3) Byzantine Steelyard Weight, acquired from Joseph Brummer on March 26, 1940. Byzantine Collection, BZ.1940.18.3, Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Byzantine Steelyard Weight, acquired from Joseph Brummer, March 26, 1940 (BZ.1940.18.4) Byzantine Steelyard Weight, acquired from Joseph Brummer on March 26, 1940. Byzantine Collection, BZ.1940.18.4, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

Mildred Bliss also turned to Joseph Brummer for furnishings for the new museum. On July 22, 1940, Berta Segall, who was preparing the new installation, wrote Brummer:

Mrs. Bliss would like to buy several pieces of ancient furniture for the new building and would appreciate it if you could help her to find them. In the first place, she wants an oak table the size of a small desk which would be used as a desk for the attendant in the entrance hall of the new building. The top should have room enough for a telephone, a buzzer, some writing material and a lamp. Mrs. Bliss thinks either of the very simplest Louis XV or a simple Louis XVI bureau de ministre or else a peasant table. A drawer would be convenient as space is rather restricted.

She is also interested in simple easy chairs, canná, bois naturel, Régence, or later.

None of these pieces should be museum pieces and Mrs. Bliss feels that anything you have would be too good for the purpose. She would appreciate it, therefore, if you would be good enough to give her addresses of cheap shops on what used to be Fourth Avenue. She would like to come to New York and do some shopping herself. She has not bought ancient furniture in this country yet and doesn’t know the sources. She would, therefore, be very glad to have you help.

Byzantine Collection Gallery, photographed on December 15, 1940 Byzantine Collection Gallery, photographed on December 15, 1940 Byzantine Collection Gallery, photographed on December 15, 1940 Byzantine Collection Gallery, photographed on December 15, 1940

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Collecting during the War Years

Posted on Nov 16, 2015 11:00 AM by Dumbarton Oaks Archives |
Collecting during the War Years

In September 1939, with the Second World War just begun, many across the globe began to suffer and face economic uncertainty. This resulted in a forced redefinition of priorities, as resources became scarce and as the demands on these resources increased. Even Dumbarton Oaks founder Robert Woods Bliss was not immune to such wartime financial challenges, and his ability to acquire artworks for the Dumbarton Oaks Collection was temporarily reduced. However, the troubled times of the war years and the resulting financial precariousness also brought about price reductions and afforded bargaining opportunities that previously had not existed. Bliss would take advantage of this in his negotiations with art dealers.

In a series of letters to the dealer Dikran Kelekian dated between September 26 and December 18, 1939, Bliss outlined the status quo as he saw it. He lamented that the war would “cause sorrow, suffering, and misery to a vast number of people,” including Kelekian, who had had to leave France for Lausanne, Switzerland, and, later, New York City. Bliss explained that he had “many calls now for assistance to war relief in various parts of Europe to which one cannot turn a deaf ear, any more than one can to the deserving appeals to help one’s own countrymen.” He concluded: “You must understand that we are not now in a position to act as we did before,” underscoring the economic tumult and travail which would characterize the next few years.

Kelekian had offered Bliss the pick of his antiquities stock, including objects Kelekian had held for thirty years without offering them for sale. In his letters, Bliss explained his hesitation in purchasing these objects and referred to the mounting costs of the construction of the research library and museum at Dumbarton Oaks, which the Blisses had begun in 1939. Bliss noted that the expenses for these buildings were “more than anticipated,” especially in light of the “increased costs of commodities which invariably follow the outbreak of war.” He added further, that “as everyone knows full well, taxes and diminishing dividends have greatly reduced everyone’s income.”

Egypto-Roman faience vase with a Dionysiac procession Egypto-Roman faience vase with a Dionysiac procession, first century BCE, BZ.1939.31, Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

Nevertheless, Bliss was willing to bargain. Apologizing for his frankness, Bliss wrote Kelekian that he was interested in two objects, but that he would buy them only if their prices were reduced significantly. The objects of interest were an Egypto-Roman faience vase with a Dionysiac procession and a Sasanian or Persian textile fragment with gazelles. Kelekian wrote back on November 6, 1939:


I received this morning your very kind letter of September 26th, addressed to me from California to Lausanne.

I wish to thank you sincerely for your sympathy and to assure you once again of my devotion to you and of my earnest desire to be of service to you.

The change of circumstances which you explain, I quite understand. In view of the situation I expect to make great sacrifices to be able to do business.

With regard to the Egyptian pottery vase which you mention, I need not point out that it is a unique piece and a most important document in the history of ceramic art. It is the link that connects the two great arts of Egypt and Persia. I purchased it over thirty years ago and was so very fond of it that until the time I showed it to you about two years ago, I had kept it in the bank and had not even shown it to my son. Every book on potteries hereafter will have to mention it. It is perhaps my extreme love for this piece that made me ask a price which you considered prohibitive, although for an outstanding, unique piece I believe there is no price.

I asked $25,000.— and you thought $10,000 would be a fair price to which I did not agree. In view of the present circumstances I am now willing to accept $10,000.— for this piece.

As to the Sasanian textile with two gazelles, for which I asked $2000.— and which also I bought thirty years ago, I shall sell it to you for $1000.—

I trust these drastic reductions will be satisfactory to you. I want very much to see these two unusual pieces added to the Dumbarton Oaks Collection.

Sasanian or Persian textile fragment with gazelles Textile with antelope in a roundel, late seventh to first half of eighth century, BZ.1939.32, Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

Early Byzantine textile fragments with ibexes Two textile fragments with ibexes in roundels, fifth to early sixth century, BZ.1939.33.1–2, Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

Bliss acquired these two pieces in December, along with two early Byzantine textile fragments with ibexes. The purchase price, however, involved a further reduction: Bliss paid $7,750 for the lot, having told Kelekian that he was no longer in a position to pay even $10,000 for the vase. Although greatly disappointed in the offer, Kelekian agreed. As for other pieces offered by Kelekian, Bliss had to dismiss them as having “no appeal to or place in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection,” a statement perhaps motivated as much by limited financial resources as by personal taste.

Documents show, however, that the Blisses had wanted to acquire the faience vase since they first heard about it in 1938, and the backstory of the Blisses’ interest in the piece is found in the Bliss-Tyler correspondence archived at Harvard University and available on the Dumbarton Oaks website. On June 28, 1938, their friend, Royall Tyler, wrote to Mildred Bliss that

[Kelekian] has a holy wonder of an Egypt-Byz. pottery vase (a big jug, really), with bonshommes and vines in relief, with a buff-creamy glaze with touches of green (for the leaves) and dark sang-de-boeuf or aubergine (for the grapes). Not quite intact—lip damaged and handle gone, but body perfectly preserved, and, I regret to say, a wonder of wonders. The old rascal asks $25,000 for it.

Mildred Bliss replied on July 29:

Something has got to be done be­cause I have a feeling that the pottery will have to come to Dumbarton Oaks and certainly nothing approaching the price he mentioned to you can be paid. Do think about this and have some inspiration as to the sort of technique we might use.

The “technique” presented itself the following year with the outbreak of war and the economic constraints that ensued. Bargaining in those troubled times resulted in a seventy-five percent reduction in the purchase price.

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Acquiring the Miniature Mosaic Icon of the Forty Martyrs

Posted on Sep 17, 2015 11:00 AM by Dumbarton Oaks Archives |
Acquiring the Miniature Mosaic Icon of the Forty Martyrs

On display in the Byzantine Collection at Dumbarton Oaks is an exceptional Byzantine micro-mosaic icon of the forty martyrs of Sebasteia that dates to around 1300 CE. The icon depicts forty Roman soldiers, who, having converted to Christianity, refused to worship Emperor Licinius (308–324) or any of the pagan gods. As punishment, they were placed on a frozen lake at Sebasteia in Asia Minor and given the option to face certain death or recant and have the refuge of a warm bath building, which they could see from the lake. This building may have been depicted on the mosaic, as it is in many other representations, but damage in the upper right corner makes its presence uncertain. Measuring just 22 centimeters by 16 centimeters (approximately 8½ inches by 6½ inches), this icon displays an amazing level of miniature detail work and demonstrates a remarkable skill on the part of its creator. The icon is made from literally thousands of minuscule cubes of stone and glass that have been embedded in wax to create the composition.

Perhaps just as noteworthy as this artwork’s construction is the story of how it became part of the Byzantine collection at Dumbarton Oaks. In 1931, the Blisses’ friend and adviser, Royall Tyler, wrote to Mildred Bliss about the work, noting that it was “very beautiful,” “marvelous technically,” and “infinitely varied and rich.” He reported that there were several “interested parties” looking at it, including representatives from the Louvre Museum, the Greek collector Antonis Benakis, as well as Hayford Peirce, a fellow Byzantine enthusiast and rival collector who was on friendly terms with Royall Tyler and the Blisses. Tyler noted that Peirce was willing to pay £1200 at most to secure the mosaic icon—an offer that Tyler considered unreasonably low, as he speculated the icon could be worth over £3000 ($250,000 in 2014 dollars). He wrote to Mildred Bliss on May 7, 1931:

In view of the quality of the thing, I think £2500 would not be an excessive price—though perhaps it might be got cheaper, I don’t think poor Hayford stands much of a chance of getting it for £1200 which is the most he is prepared to give. Please let me know how much you would give—if you want to try. . . .

These miniature mosaics are of exceeding rarity—much rarer than enamels, and the technique is of enormous difficulty. If you really wanted to make sure of it you’d have to be prepared to go higher than £2500—for it really seems that [the dealer] Indjoudjian got £3000 for his which was much more damaged than this one.

The Blisses hesitated, and Peirce was able to secure the icon at a substantially reduced price, as Tyler reported to Mildred Bliss in a letter of August 12, 1931: “Yes, there is news of the 40 martyrs. Hayford has it. Just before I left Paris the jobber who had it in hand betrayed anxiety to sell it at once—he was returning to Greece—and after a few days of furious comedy Hayford got it for £880. I think it’s a good buy.” £880 in 1931 was approximately the equivalent of $73,000 in 2014 dollars.

Peirce would retain ownership of the artwork for the duration of his life. In October 1947, sixteen years after the Blisses had first considered acquiring the micro-mosaic, Peirce’s widow Polly donated the mosaic to the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in her husband’s memory.

The mosaic icon was on display in the September round of the special exhibition, 75 Years/75 Objects.

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Stephen Zwirn Retires

Posted on Jul 06, 2012 09:53 AM by lisaw |
Stephen Zwirn Retires

Stephen Zwirn, Assistant Curator in the Byzantine Collection, retired from Dumbarton Oaks this June. In twenty-six years of curatorial work, Stephen has played an integral role in the development of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

On the occasion of his retirement, Stephen recently gave an interview for the Dumbarton Oaks Oral History Project. First introduced to Dumbarton Oaks in the late 1970s as a student from New York University, Stephen’s long and fruitful curatorial tenure has spanned a third of the institution’s history, over a quarter of a century, through four directorships and through two major renovation projects.

The first of these major renovation projects occurred between 1987 and 1989 when the Director, Robert Thompson, launched a construction project that would literally change the shape of the museum. Working with then Curator of the Byzantine Collection, Susan Boyd, Stephen redesigned the galleries and reinstalled the collection, taking advantage of this opportunity to reinterpret the collection and to reimagine its narrative implications. Twenty years later, under the directorship of Edward Keenan, another major construction project gave Stephen a second opportunity to completely reinstall the collection under the guidance of the current Director of the Museum, Gudrun Bühl. Few curators have the opportunity to affect such profound and long-lasting change on the presentation of a museum’s permanent collection, but Stephen has done it no less than twice at Dumbarton Oaks.

Stephen’s plans for his retirement include a wealth of scholarly projects, and Dumbarton Oaks looks forward to his continued contributions to Byzantine Studies.

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Conservation of "Three Erotes Fishing" Floor Mosaic

Posted on Jul 06, 2012 09:53 AM by lisaw |
Conservation of "Three Erotes Fishing" Floor Mosaic

Francisco López

Baltimore-based conservator Diane Fullick recently cleaned the "Three Erotes Fishing" floor mosaic in the Byzantine Courtyard of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

“Three Erotes Fishing” is one of a group of Roman mosaics excavated by the Antioch Expedition at Daphne-Harbie. As members of the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch and its Vicinity, Robert and Mildred Bliss acquired several finds from the fieldwork in the late 1930s. As a floor mosaic, "Three Erotes Fishing" requires conservation work more often than its wall-born brethren. Diane Fullick’s conservation process involved the use of a steam cleaner and sponges to remove the old protective coating, the mechanical removal of tenacious residue from between tesserae using dental picks and scalpel and, finally, the application by brush of a new protective coating.

The “Three Erotes Fishing” floor mosaic and other highlights from the Dumbarton Oaks Collections can be explored on our website through the online catalog.

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