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Royall Tyler to Robert Woods Bliss, August 12, 1952


12.VIII.52This letter is in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives, Blissiana files, Royall Tyler Correspondence.

Dear Robert,

I have seen the seals, Jack did not exaggerate. They are of enormous interest; many of them superb as works of art; and many more of the greatest historical interest.

The manGeorges Zacos (1911–1983), a Greek antiquities dealer and collector of Byzantine seals. In the 1950s, he sold antiquities in the Istanbul Grand Bazaar. In the 1960s, he moved his antiquities business to Basel, Switzerland. Dumbarton Oaks acquired from Zacos two large collections of Byzantine seals, in 1953–1955 (5,121 seals) and 1956–1957 (5,753 seals). An additional 650 seals from his collection were auctioned at Spink in London after his death, and his widow, Janine Zacos (d. 2003), donated in 1998 a large part of his collection to the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris (6,234 pieces). says that he sold TittlemouseTyler’s nickname for Thomas Whittemore. “all” the seals the latter collected,See Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art, eds. Eric McGreer, John Nesbitt, and Nicolas Oikonomides, 6 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1991–2009). and that he (the man) kept better ones than he sold. This may or may not be true. It would be essential, it seems to me, for Jack (who spent whole days on those here—far, far more time then I can now, alas) to go over Tittlemouse’s lot, and see whether it may not be necessary to get certain of the latter photographed, and then come here and collate. Or perhaps, better still, the man here could be induced to deposit his on approval at D.O. It would be necessary, also to see how much there may be in Howland S.’s.In a letter of August 26, 1952, John Thacher wrote to Robert Woods Bliss: “The [Howland] Shaw collection does not present the problems that Tom’s [Thomas Whittemore] does, because at least the seals have been identified and described, although this was not done by Laurent, but by a German whom Shaw employed in 1923–1924. Tom’s collection, according to Professor Friend, is a mess, as none of the seals has been identified, catalogued, photographed, or anything else, and many of them apparently are in appalling condition. I doubt whether Père Laurent or John Coolidge realize the magnitude of the task of putting so much material in order. I am naturally very much gratified that Royall did not think I had exaggerated about the collection which I saw, and that he was enthusiastic about it. I will write to my friend George [Georges Zacos] and tell him that we are still very much interested in principle, explain the problems of the other two collections, and stall for time. I fear that it may take a very long time to find out exactly what is in Tom’s collection, and that George may not be willing to wait indefinitely for a decision. The ideal thing would be to have all three collections here (George’s on loan) with an expert who would do nothing for a year or two but work on them and give us an accurate report, particularly on duplications.” Dumbarton Oaks Archives, Administrative files, John S. Thacher correspondence, 1949–1953. G. Howland Shaw (1893–1965) was an American diplomat, collector, and friend of the Blisses. He was first secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Turkey between 1921 and 1936, and served as assistant secretary of state in Washington, D.C., between 1941 and 1944. Père Laurent (Vitalien Laurent) (1896–1973) was a French priest, theological historian, and Byzantine sigillographer. John Coolidge (1913–1995) was an American architectural historian and associate professor of art history at Harvard University who, in 1948, became director of the Fogg Museum.

One interesting point: the seals here include very few dating from the period (ComneniComnenus or Komnenos, the name of the ruling family of the Byzantine Empire from 1081 to 1185. and Pal.Palaiologos, the name of the ruling family of the Byzantine Empire from 1259 to 1453.) for which Bertelè’sTommaso Bertelè (1892–1971), an Italian diplomat, scholar, and collector who specialized in Byzantine numismatics and history. bronze coin collection is so extraordinarily rich.

Anyway, this hoard here is something that must be gone into with thorough care.Robert Woods Bliss recounted Royall Tyler’s impression of the Zacos collection to John Thacher in a letter dated August 28, 1952: “R.T. also saw the collection of lead seals about which you gave us a description. He likewise considers it of prime importance. But again, what is in that collection must be compared carefully with what is already at D.O. from the Shaw Collection, so as not to acquire unnecessary duplicates unless there should be a matter of selection for condition. Undoubtedly, in Royall’s estimation, the Constantinople lot is of prime importance, but will require careful examination with a view to determining what is essential for our purposes.” Dumbarton Oaks Archives, Administrative files, John S. Thacher correspondence, 1949–1953.

I’ve seen Underwood. Since I was here last, only 2 months ago, he has made wonderful progress on those capital mosaics,Fragmentary mosaics found in a room at the south end of the west gallery of Hagia Sophia. The investigation in this area at Hagia Sophia was one of the first activities undertaken by Paul Underwood when he took over as field director of the Byzantine Institute on the death of its founder, Thomas Whittemore, in 1950. Ernest Hawkins (1905–1993) conserved the mosaics between 1950 and 1952. fragmentary but of enormous importance, in the chamber above the vestibule at St. Sophia, which are dated, I think undisputably, by the subject matter (the patriarchs of Constantinople who were heroes of the cult of images, and enemies of iconoclasm) in the middle of the IX century.The mosaics survive only in a few fragmentary areas. In the two southern bays of the “room over the vestibule” to which Tyler refers, there are representations in a lower zone of the twelve Apostles and four Patriarchs of Constantinople. The upper zone seems to have space for about twenty standing figures. The inclusion of St. Methodios in the cycle dates the execution of the mosaics after his death, in 847. See Robin Cormack and Ernest J. W. Hawkins, “The Mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul: The Rooms above the Southwest Vestibule and Ramp,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 31 (1977), 175–251.

It’s hot, but there’s a bit of a breeze, and I find it quite bearable. Plans still uncertain; but I shall certainly be back in Paris before the end of the month.

Much love to you both.


R. T.