Timeline: Tracing the Cultural Biography of the Mayer Bequest

The following timeline was made possible by library research, an examination of the World House Galleries records ca. 1953-1986 that are kept in the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., correspondence with the Khawam Brothers Antique Dealership and conversations with Batza Professor of Art & Art History Mary Ann Calo who has done extensive research of Herbert Mayer and the World House Galleries. Herbert Mayer was the Colgate Alumnus who donated the twenty Late Antique Egyptian Reliefs to the Picker Art Gallery. The donation of these reliefs was part of a series of large bequests to the University, dating from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, which included sculpture, painting and other art objects. The timeline traces significant events in the life of Herbert Mayer and all known references to the twenty Late Antique Egyptian reliefs that the Picker Art Gallery currently has in its collection.

Tracing the life history of Herbert Mayer underscores two roles he played throughout his lifetime: art admirer and businessman. An examination of the archives in Washington D.C. yielded some interesting information: much more Coptic art was in Mayer’s collection than anticipated, considering the emphasis “international modernism,” not ancient antiquities at Mayer’s World House Galleries. Although today we classify the reliefs in the Picker Collection be to “Late Antique,” references to the objects in Mayer’s records describe them as “Coptic,” which was a common, broad term for this type of artwork during the time that Mayer was collecting. The records showed that the collection included a Coptic Head, two small Coptic sculptures, Coptic textiles, and more reliefs than the twenty in Picker Gallery’s possession. There were at least three reliefs mentioned within the Archives that the Picker does not have: one of a lion, one of a Nereid, and one of a woman lying down. These three, however, were grouped together closely with two in our collection: 1966.1.882 and 1966.1.883.

Despite his lifelong fascination with art, Mayer was a businessman at heart and eventually wanted to sell much of his collection. In the archives, it is apparent that the Coptic art was for sale in auction, as there was letter of correspondence between Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc. and Mayer about selling a variety of art including many Coptic pieces. It is unknown why Mayer donated twenty of his reliefs to Colgate and why they were donated on two separate occasions. One could speculate that he was holding on to the rest of the reliefs to try to make a profit. Another possible explanation is he valued the art and wanted to hold onto it for sentimental reasons, which would be supported by the fact that, according to records in the D.C. Archives, he displayed the relief of the Nereid in his own home in Connecticut. It is possible that he cycled these reliefs through his home and had a special place for them, although the former explanation is more likely.

Piecing together an account of the reliefs themselves contributes to a concept that is gaining traction in modern scholarship: the idea of the “cultural biography of objects.” Cultural biographies can be determined not only by assessing the value of an object itself, but the ways in which this value affected interactions between people. Uncovering information about the original location and the environment surrounding the creation of these objects is certainly important, however, these twenty pieces of limestone have managed to take on a life of their own. Over the course of fifty years, they have traveled from Egypt to New York City to Hamilton, New York; have probably been displayed in the context of primitive art as inspiration for modernists and, today, are the focus of a research seminar at a prestigious university. In many ways these reliefs have shaped the lives of those who have uncovered, exhibited, admired and researched them.

1929: Herbert Mayer graduated Colgate University as an English major and, after graduation, traveled around Europe with English Professor Russell Speirs, spending four months in Paris, apparently spending most of that time in the Louvre.

1930s: Mayer studied Law at the University of Wisconsin.

1938-1952: Mayer launched television stations in Cleveland, Portland and Kansas City.

1953: Herbert Mayer opened the World House Galleries in order to expose the New York City art market to the best contemporary international art that was available. The first two seasons showcased art from Italy, Korea, France, and Japan. Exhibits featured art that Mayer bought to be sold within the gallery, as well as art on loan from private collections and museums in order to round out his exhibitions. One distinctive feature of the Galleries was the ambitious catalogues, which gave the exhibits an authoritative voice.

1959: Herbert Mayer made a buying trip to Europe and Egypt. His exact itinerary including his whereabouts and purchases made during this trip are unknown.

1960: Renovations were made to the World House Galleries to add a sculpture court, as Mayer held a particular interest in this medium of art.

1960: UNESCO began a rescue project in order to save the Egyptian temples that would have been destroyed as a result of the damming of the Nile River at Aswan. Herbert Mayer commissioned Australian photographer Patricia Withofs to document the temples before they were relocated. The project took five years, so this commission potentially places Mayer in Egypt between 1960 and 1965.

April 27, 1960: The Colgate Maroon reported on the opening of a new exhibition of primitive art including African woodcarvings from the Ivory Coast and Nigeria and, in lesser amounts, works of Oceanic, Peruvain, Coptic and Romanesque origin. The works were a part of the private collection of Herbert Mayer ’29 and were displayed in the context of the strong influence they had on the modern works by artists such as Brancusi, Picasso and Matisse.

February 17, 1961: Herbert Mayer purchased at least three objects from Joseph Khawam and Cie., an antique dealership based in Cairo, Egypt. Three reliefs, 1966.1.882, 1966.1.883 and 1966.1.884 are currently in the collection of the Picker Art Gallery. Mayer’s personal accession cards for these three reliefs, not the other seventeen that are also part of the Picker collection, are included in the Picker Gallery files.

According to Roger Khawam, who took over management of the dealership in 1952, the three reliefs were “Coptic” fragments purchased from merchants at El Bahnasa, formerly known as Oxyrhynchus. Most of the fragments that the Khawams purchased from the El Bahnasa dealers were sold separately to different clients and the last group was sold to the Geneva Museum in Switzerland. The Khawams were unable to provide any further information about any other objects sold to Mayer at the time or the provenance of our three specific reliefs. Thus, they were also unable to confirm that any of the other seventeen reliefs donated by Mayer were purchased at their dealership. 

Based upon close observations of all twenty reliefs together, it is very likely that all twenty were bought at the same time from the same place. Due to the striking similarities between 1966.1.882 and the group of 1982.52 and 1982.56, the three seem to be a set despite their twenty-four years gap between their accessions. More information about this theory can be found here.

Although the Khawam Brothers Dealership is the most likely place of purchase for all twenty reliefs, the Washington Archives indicate the purchase of a “Coptic Relief” from a dealer named “Klejman.” This is probably referring to J.J. Klejman the New Yorker who was a prominent art dealer and collector at the time. No records indicate which “Coptic Reliefs” were purchased from Klejman.

May-June, 1962: An exhibition featuring “Coptic” reliefs and tapestries occurred at Mayer’s World House Galleries in New York. Literature from the exhibition indicates that several limestone reliefs were exhibited, but they are only referred to by a description of their iconography. Four works, entitled “Lion rampant with foliage,” “Fantasy animal with fruit baskets,” “Imaginary animal with foliage” and ”Imaginary deer with foliage” correspond to the iconography present on many of our reliefs. One could speculate that one of these four reliefs was sold and the other three were donated to Colgate shortly thereafter.

Surrounding his Coptic Art display at the World House Galleries were exhibits of children’s art and exhibits of work by Paul Klee. Mayer’s interest in acquiring these Late Antique Egyptian Reliefs may have been because he thought they looked primitive and therefore fit in well with the modern work that he showcased at his gallery.

1966: Colgate University officially acquired a group of artwork as part of a donation from Herbert Mayer. Included in this donation are the three reliefs [1966.1.882, 1966.1.883 and 1966.1.884] for which original documentation of their purchase in Cairo exists.

February 19, 1971: Mayer initiated contact with Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc. to arrange an auction of works from his collection.

October 9, 1978: Colgate University commissions the Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works Department at the Cooperstown Graduate Programs to treat relief 1982.64 for salt damage and corroded surfaces.

1982: Colgate University officially acquires another donation of artwork from Herbert Mayer. Included in this donation are the seventeen undocumented reliefs that resemble, in size, material and iconography, the three reliefs that were acquired in 1966.

1984: According to archives of the World House Galleries, Mayer sold much of his collection through Parke-Bernet during this year, including several “Coptic” sculptures and textiles.

1991: Mayer dies, survived by his wife, Bet, five children, and several grandchildren.

May, 2011: Professor Elizabeth Marlowe uncovered the set of 20 reliefs among the Picker Art Gallery’s Collection.

January-May, 2012: Seventeen Colgate Students, enrolled in a 400-level Art & Art History seminar dedicated specifically to the set of twenty reliefs, undertook exhaustive research in order to gain a more complete understanding of the reliefs. Research topics included their Late Antique origins, comparanda, Mayer’s engagement with the works, methods for confirming their authenticity and proposals for how they may be displayed in the Picker Gallery.


Caroline Lee '13 is a Sociology Major and an Art History Minor. Carter Cooper '13 is an Art History and Political Science Major.