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Final Touches: The Byzantine Collection and Joseph Brummer, 1940

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 13:30 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

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.

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.

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.