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Thursday, August 8, 2019

Connecting European Collectors to Indigenous Collections

In the early 20th century, archaeological and ethnographic items often travelled through a complicated web of dealers, collectors and museums after leaving their source communities. Some of these objects passed through multiple hands before ending up at museums such as the National Museum of the American Indian. NMAI’s recent collaborative project with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa—the digitization and transcription of the William Ockleford Oldman Research Materials through the Smithsonian Transcription Center (see an earlier blog about the start of the project here)—has helped us begin to untangle some of these webs of relationships and transactions.

Oldman, a British dealer of ethnographic art, archaeology, and weaponry, sold thousands of objects to museums and collectors throughout Europe and the United States. Over several decades, he maintained detailed records of items in his stock in collection ledgers as well as separate sale registers to document his clients and sales. Since January, hardworking volunteers have transcribed nearly 1,000 pages of Oldman records, including four registers dating from 1902 to 1914 and “Part 1” of his collection ledger, where he recorded items in his stock in numerical order. Because of this work, the ledgers are now text searchable and we are able to glean new information about objects in the NMAI collection acquired from Oldman. Through analysis of the Oldman documents, we have been able to identify connections between our objects and other European dealers and collectors, much of which was totally unknown. Previously, we believed that George Heye, the founder of our predecessor institution the Museum of the American Indian, began purchasing objects from Oldman in 1911; however, Oldman’s sale records indicate that relationships between Oldman, Heye, and Heye’s museum staff began as early as 1907.

In 1907, archaeologist Marshall Saville—Curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History—resigned his AMNH position and went to work for George Heye and the Heye Museum (as it was then called). Saville’s duties included identifying and securing objects for the museum and, in 1907, Saville purchased a set of items from Oldman for the Heye Museum: ethnographic objects from Ecuador, including ear ornaments, a necklace, and a club; archaeological axes from the Caribbean; and a steatite dish from Newfoundland. Until now, these items were listed simply as “purchases” and none had any known connection to either Saville or Oldman. However, because Oldman’s ledgers include notations about how he acquired objects, we can now connect these objects to Oldman and to their previous owners. For example, a notation in Oldman’s ledger for the steatite dish from Newfoundland indicates that Oldman acquired it in March 1906 from H. G. Beasley.

Harry Geoffery Beasley (1881–1939) was a British collector and curator who, along with his wife Irene, later founded the Cranmore Ethnographical Museum in Chislehurst, Kent, England, for their collection of objects from Oceania, the Americas, Africa and Asia.

1/2442 Steatite Dish from Newfoundland purchased from W. O. Oldman in 1907 and its catalog card.

In later years, the Museum of the American Indian had other connections to Harry Beasley and the Cranmore Ethnographical Museum, including exchanges of objects in the 1930s, but the possibility of an earlier connection was totally unknown. 

Based in London, Oldman maintained a shop and also produced a series of catalogues to advertise items he had for sale. Established buyers like George Heye received Oldman’s published catalogues and could ask that the item be shipped to them on approval or buy them outright. One such item that made its way from Oldman to the Heye Museum was an early 19th-century Delaware bag, which Heye purchased in 1909. This bag appears in Oldman’s Illustrated Catalogue of Ethnographical Specimens, catalogue No. 71. Along with an illustration, a brief description of the bag and its price, Oldman included his stock number: 17907. Using this stock number, we were able to trace the bag back through Oldman’s records to reveal that he purchased it in October 1908 from W. H. Fenton of Fenton and Sons, who were dealers in antiques and curiosities that operated in London from around 1880 until the 1930s.

2/1288 Lenape (Delaware) Shoulder Bag circa 1820, purchased from W. O. Oldman in 1909.

Excerpt from W. O. Oldman Illustrated Catalogue of Ethnographical Specimens, catalogue No. 71. NMAI Vine Deloria Jr. Library.

The third recorded purchase made by George Heye in June 1909 is the one that began the quest to find the Oldman records mentioned in the previous blog (linked above). Heye purchased a selection of items: pipe tomahawks, beaded bags, carving tools, a dance apron, painted skin, and cape from British Columbia, and two Haida canoe paddles. Oldman recorded that he had acquired the paddles just a month earlier from James Edward Little (1876–1953), a British antiques dealer and furniture restorer. Little was also a forger of Polynesian objects and sold his fakes alongside authentic items; he was arrested several times for stealing artifacts from museums and replacing them with his copies.

2/2107 Haida Canoe Paddles from British Columbia purchased from W. O. Oldman in 1909.

Since the beginning of our collaborative project with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, we have identified about 50 sets of objects purchased by George Heye and the Museum of the American Indian from Oldman between 1907 and 1937, totaling approximately 1500 ethnographic and archaeological objects from throughout the Americas.

As we delve deeper into Oldman’s records, we continue to learn about connections between individual European collectors, much of which is of potential significance to other museums whose collections include objects acquired from Oldman. Because the Smithsonian Collections Search Center now displays the results of the transcribed Oldman materials, the names of collectors, dealers, or institutions that did business with Oldman can be searched: pages in the ledgers that include specific names will be returned and the researcher can go directly to the relevant page.

Another way to search for a collector is by using Oldman’s coding system: he assigned each buyer a code based on the first letter of their last name along with a number. For example, George Heye’s code was H28, Marshall Saville was S29, and H.G. Beasley was B16. Once the code is known, these can be searched as well. Oldman’s stock numbers can also be searched to find where he recorded them both in his sale registers and in his collection ledger.

The final batch of Oldman records—one more sale register for pistols and three more collection ledgers—have been added to the transcription center. Look for these projects at the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Thanks to all of the volunteers that have worked on this project so far and to those that will join: your contributions are helping us re-discover the history of our collections!

Maria Galban, Collections Documentation Manager
National Museum of the American Indian

Hales, Robert and Kevin Conru, W.O. Oldman: the remarkable collector: William Ockleford Oldman's personal archive. Graphius, 2016

Oldman, W. O. Illustrated catalogue of ethnographical specimens, reprint of original catalogues, London, 1976.

Waterfield, Hermione and, Jonathan C. H. King, Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England 1760-1990, Paul Holberton Publishing, London, 2010



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