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In Memoriam: Gifts to the Dumbarton Oaks Collection

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 13:53 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

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.

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.

Amethyst gem
Byzantine amethyst gem depicting Christ, gift of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in memory of Royall Tyler, 1953 (BZ.1953.7). Image © Genevra Kornbluth.

Maya 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).