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The Ballard Collection
The St. Louis Art Museum

by George O'Bannon

This article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 11, #3

In 1905 while walking down Fourth Avenue in New York City, James Ballard passed an Oriental rug shop near the corner of 33rd Street. A small rug with bright red color caught his eye and he entered. The rug was priced at $500 but Mr. Ballard, possibly having been told one bargains with Oriental rug dealers, countered with a lower offer.

After some haggling, it was his for $375. The name of the shop is lost to history. The rug is thought to have been a Bergama. What compelled James Ballard to make this purchase we do not know, but from this small event he was to become the most important Oriental rug collector America has yet produced.
At the time of his first rug purchase Ballard was 55 years old. Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1851, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1974. He entered the world of business and by 1905 he was the owner of a highly successful wholesale drug manufacturing business called Richardson Medicines. One of his products still being sold today is Campho-Phenique, a patent medicine used on cold sores, insect bites, and blisters. He is not known to have been a collector of anything in particular prior to this rug purchase. But from that moment on, rugs became a passion which was to last until his death at the age of 79 in April, 1931.

Over the next 15 years he was to amass a collection of over 300 rugs. He bought from dealers around the country and at auctions. Records indicate purchases from V. and L. Benguiat, H. Jacoby, American Art Association, Holstein and Kennedy (Berlin), Beghian (Constantinople), and B. Altman. He traveled abroad to buy in Europe and the Middle East. By the end of his life, he had traveled to 42 countries for business and rug collecting.

We feel he is the most significant Oriental rug collector for several reasons. James Hewitt Myers, founder of The Textile Museum, bought more pieces and historically more significant ones, but Myers interests were much broader; he was a textile collector, not just a rug collector. Joseph McMullan and H. McCoy Jones, the two Oriental rug collectors who come to mind, certainly bought as many rugs and each endowed two museums with the majority of their collections. However, none of them made the effort to educate the public and broaden the appreciation and understanding of Oriental rugs to the same extent as Ballard.

Oriental rug collections in public art museums in the United States are few. The existence of two of the finest are due to Ballard's endowments to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The St. Louis Art Museum. We visited The St. Louis Art
Museum recently to see a selection of Ballard rugs then on exhibition and to research the history of this man and his collections. The reasons why people collect things have been plumbed by many authors. The Ballard archives at The St. Louis Museum of Art do not answer this question. They do indicate that he became an avid Oriental rug collector almost immediately after this initial purchase. A bit of his philosophy can be found in the first book he published on some of the Ghiordes prayer rugs in his collection in 1916. In the preface he states, "It would seem to me that every man and woman should have a "hobby" of some kind -- something sufficiently interesting to make it possible to forget, for a time, the every- day cares and worries and get the mind into a new environment. A complete change of thought is both restful and refreshing, and enables us to resume our labors with renewed zest."

At what speed and in which order the rugs were purchased is not fully documented. However, the records do show that as a result of a fire which destroyed significant art treasures in another private collection, he had a fireproof/burglar proof vault built in his home by 1912 which also had a permanent guard in attendance. Obviously his collection had become large enough by that time for him to wish to protect it. Apparently he was not a collector who traded in or up to obtain a better piece, for he is quoted in a newspaper article in 1925 as saying, "I have never sold a single rug that I have ever purchased and I never intend to. I have given many to museums, and I expect to give more, but real rugs are like real paintings and must be loved and cared for."

Medallion rug, Anatolia, Bergama, c. 1700, 7'x5'1", Gift of James F. Ballard. Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum

The second reason for Ballard's importance is exposed in this quote. He had a deliberate plan to give his rugs to museums -- not only to give them but to exhibit them as well. However, great collectors cannot be great in a vacuum. They become great because someone or a group of people admire what they have collected. In his day museum directors in the United States had not totally abandoned interest in the decorative and applied arts for painting and sculpture as seems increasingly to be the case today. They saw the museums' role as focusing on the broad spectrum of man's artistic expression. In those days strong directors of divisions on Islamic or decorative arts were supported in their efforts to create collections of Oriental rugs. The museums with rug collections -- the Metropolitan, Philadelphia, Chicago, Walters -- were started in the first quarter of this century. With rare exceptions, museum rug collections have lapsed into inactivity, been stored away, or more recently deaccessioned as painting and sculpture have become the primary art objects about which museum directors have been educated.

Ballard was proud of his collection and people were invited to see it in the "gallery" in his home. But he wanted to share it with a larger audience, and he embarked on loaning it for exhibitions. From the various publications on his collection, it seems that thefirst public exhibition took place at Marshall Field and Co. in
Chicago in 1916. Prior to World War II portions of it were shown in Philadelphia and Cleveland (1919); Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco (1920-21); New York and Pittsburgh (1923); Indianapolis (1924); St. Louis (1929) and Chicago (1933). No other rug collection has been exhibited so extensively as the Ballard.

His first donation to a museum occurred in 1922. When the rugs finished the tour of Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco in 1921, Ballard invited Joseph Breck, assistant director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and curator of the Decorative Arts Department, to "select ad lib" from the collection for a donation to the Met. Mr. Breck selected 125 rugs (another four were added later for a total of 129) which doubled the holdings of the Museum to 259 rugs. The Metropolitan had received donations from other notable collectors such as Altman, Fletcher and Morgan, but in reading the newspaper articles of the time, the infusion of the Ballard rugs, their quality, age range, and countries of origin is what provided the basis for a comprehensive collection. These are the rugs which were exhibited from October-December 1923 in New York. The catalog, The James F. Ballard Collection of Oriental Rugs by Breck and Frances Morris, associate curator of Decorative Arts, included black and white photographs of every rug; at the time of the donation, they were valued at $500,000.

Rug, East Central Turkestan, Ersari-Beshir District, c. 1900, 9'6"x6'10", Given anonymously. Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum

These pieces included the finest that Ballard had purchased. As one might expect, the donation included many classical carpets -- Mamluk, Ottoman, Safavid, Moghul -- and the largest group were Turkish. However, Ballard was not fixated only on pieces that were in vogue but acquired weavings which have become "popular" only in recent years. Among the Persian rugs is a Gabbeh, and there are Star and Pinwheel Kazaks among the Caucasians. An Arabachi torba is one of the most beautiful Turkoman rugs in existence, and a transitional Yomud carpet is one of the most significant historically.

Throughout the 1920s he continued to buy rugs and rebuild the collection. His second gift of rugs was to The St. Louis Art Museum in 1929. This group of rugs included 74 pieces of which 47 were Turkish and were valued at $250,000. In 1935, 69 of these rugs were published in a catalog by Maurice Dimand, The Ballard Collection of Oriental Rugs in the City Art Museum of St. Louis. All are illustrated, 11 in color.

Two years after making this bequest, Ballard died, and the balance of the rugs in his estate passed on to his daughters,

Nellie Ballard White and Berenice C. Ballard. Nellie seems to have shared her father's interest and continued to buy occasionally and to lend her rugs for exhibitions. In 1972 she gave 49 rugs to The St. Louis Art Museum, bringing the total of the Ballard Collection there to 123. Of this total group, 33 are Ghiordes prayer rugs!

Not all of Ballard's rugs ended up in museums. Apparently Ballard's daughters inherited equal portions of the collection upon his death. Berenice Ballard did not leave her rugs to a museum and, after her death, the rugs were auctioned on October 27, 1950, at Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York. The sale included 74 rugs from all weaving regions; several are classical rugs -- Isfahan, Spanish and Ushak. Seventeen of these rugs had been published in the other major record of the Ballard Collection, Catalogue of Oriental Rugs in the Collection of James F. Ballard, prepared by J. Arthur MacLean and Dorothy Blair of The John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis, for the exhibition in 1924. This book contains pictures and descriptions of 106 rugs of which one is in color. Many of these rugs were part of the Ballard bequests of 1929 and 1972.

Saddle Cover, Northwestern Iran, Kurdistan, second half 19th century. 106.7x86.4cm., Gift of James F. Ballard. Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum

Apparently the sale was well attended by many prominent collectors of the day. Charles Grant Ellis provided information on several of these lots which were bought and subsequently ended up in museums:

Lot 144 Bergama/Ushak, MacLean/Blair pl. 71, G. H. Myers to The Textile Museum
Lot 156 Bergama, MacLean/Blair pl. 50, J. McMullan to Metropolitan
Lot 159 Bergama, MacLean/Blair p. 51, J. McMullan to Metropolitan
Lot 170 Spanish, G. H. Myers to The Textile Museum
Lot 171 Kula prayer, MacLean/Blair pl. 30, Kerekin Beshir
Lot 173 Silk Persian, F.R. Martin fig. 156, Gift to Metropolitan 1967
Lot 180 Kula rug, MacLean/Blair pl. 34, Dupont to Winterthur Museum
Lot 181 Ferahan, Dupont to Winterthur Museum
Lot 186 Medallion Ushak, MacLean/Blair No. 63, Dupont to Winterthur Museum

Thus the Ballard Collection was not only widely exhibited but well documented in publications. Ballard himself funded the MacLean/Blair catalog, and his daughters had the Dimand catalog privately printed. The earliest and perhaps the rarest of

the Ballard publications was another Ballard published himself. Illustrated Catalogue and Descriptions of Ghiordes Rugs of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries was privately printed in an edition of 100 in 1916 and contains black and white illustrations of 36 Ghiordes rugs.

The most recent publication on the Ballard rugs is Turkish Rugs, The St. Louis Art Museum 1988 Summer Bulletin with an introduction by Daniel Walker, curator of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This bulletin was printed to coincide with the reopening of the west wing of the museum, which houses the Islamic galleries and the McDonnell Textile Gallery. Fourteen of the Turkish rugs published in the bulletin were shown in a series of two exhibitions extending from 1988 to August, 1990. The bulletin includes 25 rugs, 11 of which are classical -- Holbein, Lotto, Compartment, Ushak, Transylvanian -- and 14 18th and 19th century rugs from Ghiordes, Kula, Ladik, Konya, Mujur and Yoruk. Nine are published in color. It contains a complete bibliography of the Ballard Collection.

This is the first exhibition of the Ballard rugs in 20 years. The reason is that the oldest portion of the museum has been renovated and the west wing was reopened beginning in 1987. Until the mid 1960s some rugs from the collection were on exhibition at most times in the Islamic galleries, as they are today.

Western Chinese Rug, 5'6"x2'7", Gift of Nellie Ballard White. Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum

The main building of The St. Louis Art Museum was built in 1904 for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and World's Fair. It is located in Forest Park, the main park of the city. It is a grand Beaux Arts building typical of late Victorian taste. At the time the west wing was rebuilt, the museum received a gift from the McDonnell's of McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft for the creation of a textile gallery to house their collection of 17th and 18th century embroideries. The purpose of the McDonnell Textile Gallery is to provide an exhibition space for the display of textiles from all of the various departments on a rotating basis. It was within this gallery that the Ballard rugs were recently exhibited.

In visiting the museum, we were pleasantly surprised to find the most accommodating museum staff we have encountered in the U.S. Zoe Perkins, a textile conservator, agreed on short notice to meet with us and made the collection and library archival material available. We left with a sense that they wanted to let the public know what they had. In fact, we were told that interested researchers are welcomed to make appointments to study their rug collection.

One suspects that James Ballard would be pleased with what has happened with his rugs at The St. Louis Art Museum recently. A few of the rugs are back on exhibition in the Islamic Galleries again on a permanent basis, and more of them will undoubtedly be exhibited in the future in the McDonnell Textile Gallery. One hopes that in time all of them will be published in future issues of the Museum Bulletin.

Most of the material for this article came from the Ballard archives and the various Ballard Collection publications. The information on the sale of Berenice Ballard's rugs was provided by Charles Grant Ellis.

For information about the location of the museum and hours, call 314-721- 0067. Copies of Turkish Rugs, Bulletin, New Series, Volume XVIII, Number 4 may be obtained from The St. Louis Art Museum for $8.

Rumor has it that the next ACOR will be held in St. Louis with the Ballard Collection being the primary instituional attraction for the attendees. Thus I felt it timely to publish this article now, given the brief interim periods of time between these provincial events.

With thanks to Oriental Rug Review, Ron O'Callaghan for permission to reproduce this review here.